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Samford grad aims to break Appalachian Trail mark

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — You could say Jennifer Pharr Davis has gone farther than any other Samford University graduate. Consider her solo, four-month, 2,175-mile backpacking hike of the Appalachian Trail at age 21, just after graduation.

Or her 2,663-mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail the following year.

Or her repeat trek on the Appalachian Trail in 2008, this time running an average of 38 miles a day to set the women's record of 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes.

"I'm hoping to go back next year and break the guy's record of 47 days," Davis said. "That's 45 miles a day."

Davis said her first Appalachian Trail hike was the hardest thing she has ever done. And one of the best.

"For the first time in my life," she said, "I knew who I was — and I liked that girl!"

Going long started early for Davis. As a child in summer camp, she ran 300 miles in five weeks.

Three years of boarding school "totally stressed me out," so each morning at 6 a.m. she would run. "I used that time on the track to pray, meditate and gather my thoughts."

Though her North Carolina family had all gone to UNC-Chapel Hill, Davis stumbled upon Samford while visiting a friend.

"As soon as we drove up on the campus, it felt right," she said. "I met students and faculty. The faculty seemed really devoted and interested in students."

Davis loved Samford, even though her "outdoorsy and not uber-conservative" nature didn't fit the school stereotype. "I cannot imagine a better college experience."

She used college as a time to try new things and test her limits, beyond playing on the tennis team. She planned to run a half-marathon during her freshman year, but mistakenly signed up for the full Huntsville Rocket City Marathon and ran that instead.

She graduated to triathlons and an Ironman in Panama City the next two years.

"The whole tennis team and coach came down and supported me," she said.

Yet she also had this bug in her head: the Appalachian Trail.

"I thought, 'That's a pretty good way to put off finding a job for six months,'" Davis said. "Early on, I went to my adviser and said I might need to graduate early, because through-hiking starts in mid-March."

In the middle of what would have been her final semester, Davis set off. She was alone, and to that point in life had spent only several nights in the woods.

The 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail snakes along ridges and mountain tops from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Each year as many as 2,500 people set out to through-hike the trail, but only 20 percent to 25 percent make it.

You can hike three ways — one-way south or north, or a flip-flop where you start at a midpoint, hike to one end, return to the midpoint and hike to the other end.

Davis flip-flopped, starting 51 miles north of Springer Mountain. She first hiked south, to meet as many northbound hikers as possible to learn from them.

Through-hikers form a community along the trail as they meet and re-meet, or read about each other in shelter journals. They get trail names, often linked to a trait or mishap.

Davis had written her senior thesis on "The Odyssey," and she kept comparing the hike to the journey in that epic poem. Hikers dubbed her Odysseus, but Davis said, "There are already too many boys out here."

She became Odyssa, the feminine form of the name. Davis tells of her next four months on the trail in her newly published book, "Becoming Odyssa" (Beaufort Books, 2010).

She describes the unvarnished life on the trail, and her struggles along the way.

"On the trail I had to talk with strangers," she said. "I had to accept help from strangers," including hitchhiking to nearby towns for food or supplies. She ran into many people who were kind, generous and funny, and some who were self-centered, greedy, angry, weird or obsessed.

She met a rattlesnake in Pennsylvania; survived attacks of mosquitoes, lightning and marble-sized hail in western Massachusetts; slouched through fog, rain and snow in North Carolina; and walked with a moose in Maine.

She collapsed on a rocky mountain in Pennsylvania, her feet eaten up with pus and inflammation.

She had great days hiking through green tunnels of trees, or seeing incomparable sunsets and sunrises. She usually hiked alone, but felt close to her family and felt the constant presence of God.

On the trail, "I was dirty and smelled bad; I was gaunt and bug-bitten," Davis said. "But I felt really beautiful, because I had this body that can hike."

At Roanoke, Va., Davis took a break to visit a friend of her mother's who preached at a mostly African-American Pentecostal church.

There she talked with the children's Sunday school.

She writes in her book:

"Adults usually asked questions rooted in fear: Was I scared? Did I carry a gun? What did I do about snakes and bears? What if I couldn't make it? What did my parents think?

The children, on the other hand, asked questions rooted in curiosity: What was my favorite part of hiking? What did I like about sleeping outside? What were my favorite animals? Would I ever want to do it again?"

Improbably, Davis discovered a suicide victim at an open-air pavilion atop Sunrise Mountain in New Jersey. After phoning the police and answering questions for an hour, she continued her trek, shaken and crying.

That was the hardest day of her life. The mother of Nightwalker, one of the through-hikers Davis had met, came and picked her up, taking Davis to the woman's home in Connecticut to get food and kindness.

Davis and the mother then met Nightwalker and his friend Mooch, who were still hiking in New Jersey, and Davis walked a day with them to share healing laughter and friendship.

By the time Davis reached Vermont, with more than 500 miles to go, she listed all she had been through:

"I had been struck by lightning, caught in a snowstorm, stalked by Moot (another hiker), offended by an exhibitionist, scared by a religious fanatic, and deeply shaken by a suicide. It seemed to me that I deserved sunshine and wildflowers all the way to the end."

All of her life, Davis had been a busy, driven person. In Vermont she learned to be still. She would sit for an hour, watch branches blow in the wind, water flow in a stream, a spider building a web.

She learned to talk with people she met.

New Hampshire and Maine were the last and hardest parts of the trail. Odyssa waited for Nightwalker and Mooch to catch up, and the trio finished together.

A year later, Davis writes, she began to long for discomfort and struggle again:

"I wanted to feel wet, tired, sore, hungry, and thirsty. . . . When I fell asleep at night, I would dream of adventure, and when I woke up in the morning, I would thirst for real fellowship. I would get up, take a shower, put on clean clothes and makeup, but looking in the mirror, I never felt as beautiful as I did when I was a sunburned, bug-bitten hiker in Maine.

"I wanted to go back into the woods."

She did.

She has now hiked more than 9,000 miles, 1,100 of them with her husband, Brew Davis, a sixth-grade teacher. They live in Asheville, N.C., where she writes for magazines, writes guidebooks and urges people to get out on the trail.

The couple married 12 days before she started her record run. Brew Davis would drive a small SUV and meet his wife with food and drink where the trail crossed a road. He'd set up camp and prepare meals.

Jen Davis said her husband jokes, "I used to pray for an outdoorsy wife. Then I got you. I didn't mean that outdoorsy."

Next summer Brew will again support his wife as she tries to break her Appalachian trail record, and the men's record as well, which is 10 days faster.

"I think that can be shaved down," Davis said. "So watch out, boys. Here I come."