Hikers have trail markers to keep them in line and reassure them that they are staying on the right track, but life doesn't provide the same luxury.
Jennifer Phar Davis, a renowned hiker, author, speaker, and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, didn't grow up hiking. But at 21, the college graduate decided to take on the Appalachian Trail, or AT, a 2,189 mile, east coast-based hike from Georgia to Maine in an effort to see nature up close. Instead, the five-month-long hike helped her find her ultimate path, off the trail.
During her keynote, Davis told a packed house at The Channel Company's Women of the Channel event about the value of a good team and clear communication, the importance of setting your own "mile markers," and to never quit on a bad day.
Davis said her first AT trek was the hardest thing she had ever done, taking nearly half a year to complete. Davis walked through uncooperative weather, including constant fog, sideways rain, and even unexpected blizzard conditions that resulted in Davis' left eye freezing shut which caused her to lose sight of the trail markers on one particularly bad day. She grew accustomed to wearing wet and cold clothes, and "licking frozen Cliff bars" for sustenance.
In addition to challenging weather, Davis also ran into an awkward social encounter that resulted in her having an impromptu – and unwanted – hiking partner for nearly a week. Davis recalled hiding under a rhododendron bush to finally shake off her fellow hiker when she realized that had she just been honest he would have given her space.
"I spent so much time hiding from how I really felt, and from having hard conversations," she said. "I made a vow then and there to myself that I would be honest, upfront, and authentic with people I met on the trail and off."
After reaching the end of the trail in Maine, Davis noticed a shift in her values and in what kind of person she wanted to be. Instead of being judgmental and timid, five months without a mirror or social media shaped Davis to prioritize experiences and adventure over things, and she got to know people for who they were.
"I really experience peace for the first time in my life," she recalled. "It's hard to feel that way unless you prioritize it – our society doesn't give you that freely."
Seven years later, Davis was a hiking business owner, a company she started without a business degree simply because she wanted to get people outside. Following her marriage and the birth of her two children, Davis again decided to take on the AT in pursuit of the endurance record – a record that had to date only been set by elite, trail-running men. This time, however, Davis had the support of her "team," her husband, who would meet her at the end of each day and supply her with new clothes and food.
Hikers with a team behind them finish about a full week and a half earlier than single hikers doing the AT trail on their own, she said.
Davis said that out of all the places she's been hiking, including Africa, Europe, South America, and the Pacific Northwest, the AT still means the most to her. After falling in love and becoming a mom – all positive things in her life that she attributes to first hiking experience – it made sense to go back to where it all started.
This time, Davis took on the AT from the top, beginning in Maine and ending in Georgia. She figured she would get the 'hard, technical climbing" out of the way first. But just like the first time, the AT pushed the limits of Davis' resiliency and endurance.
By New Hampshire, the second state from the top of the 14 states that the AT runs through, Davis had full-blown shin splints that forced her to descend mountains by walking backward, but quickly enough to keep a record-setting pace.
"Once I got to the top of a mountain I would turn around scramble downhill backward," she explained. "It was inefficient, but it was the only way I could go forward … It was the only way I could continue."
Once again, Davis battled torrential downpours and "sideways sleet." During one storm in June in New Hampshire, a soaking wet Davis realized she was moderately hypothermic when she began to lose dexterity in her hands, and her words began to slur when she sang out loud. She made it to meet up with her husband, who had hiked three and a half miles into the wood to meet her with a tent, food, and new clothes. Davis refueled by eating more than 3,000 calories at once and warmed up under two sleeping bags for about a half-hour when she changed clothes, "borrowing" her husband's dry pants, and continued.
Nine years after her first AT undertaking, Davis learned that it's more important to ask for help than feel independent.
"A strong team always performs better than an individual, and this was a team effort," she said.
Vermont didn't bring any better luck. Davis got severely sick, and upon meeting up with husband at the end of one mountain, she told him through tears that she wanted to quit.
"He told me, 'I can't let you quit right now because you feel too bad to make a good decision,' and then drove off," Davis said, laughing at the memory.
At this point, Davis was a full day and a half behind the pace she had wanted to keep, and believed there was no way she could set a record now. The medicine her husband gave her took until the end of the day to work, but Davis still carried on.
"That summer was not about being the best," she said. "It was about knowing my best and not having any regrets."
From there on, numbers went away. Davis gave the AT her best effort, and after 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, she walked hand-in-hand with her husband to end of the final mountain in Georgia.
And Davis' best just happened to be good enough for the record.
Davis, the first woman to set a hiking speed record for the AT, has had her record broken since, but records are made to be broken, she said.
"You have to change and be flexible," she said. "Sometimes, the things you're doing are just not sustainable," she said.
Davis said that the AT taught and reinforced to her the importance of picking her own path, how to communicate clearly, and to take a risk even when you think failure is the likely outcome.
Sometimes, moving forward means taking backward steps, she reminded the audience.
"The things that transform us, and the things we hold on to are the challenges that you take on that are difficult," Davis said. "What you are doing is better than fun."