In the past four years, Jennifer Pharr Davis has logged more miles on trails than most people will in a lifetime. Since her first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2005, she has hiked over 6,000 miles on six continents, including a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and a summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Being on trails is where she feels most happy and comfortable—although a tragedy earlier this year nearly changed that.
On New Year’s Day, 24-year-old Meredith Emerson was hiking on Georgia’s Blood Mountain when she was abducted by Gary Michael Hilton. Emerson struggled and courageously fought Hilton for three days before he brutally murdered her. Hilton has since confessed to the crime and is serving a 30-year prison sentence. He is also the only suspect in the murders of John and Irene Bryant, whose bodies were found in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests of North Carolina.
The two women didn’t know each other, but when Davis learned about Emerson’s death, it felt like a personal attack. It angered her that suddenly the Appalachian woods—statistically safer than any city street—would be feared. So she decided to take back the wild the way she knows best—with a hike.
This summer Davis set a supported speed record on the Appalachian Trail, completing the 2,175-mile trail in 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes. She also became the fifth fastest person to ever finish the trail. Hiking an average of 38 miles a day for nearly two full months, Davis dedicated the endeavor to Emerson’s memory. The adventure was fully supported by her husband, Brew Davis, who met her every night along the trail with food, supplies, and shelter. The couple began their A.T. adventure only a week after getting married. It certainly was not a traditional honeymoon, but it turned out to be a multi-dimensional journey of endurance, trust, and redemption.
You dedicated the hike to someone you never met. Why?
JPD: When the Gary Michael Hilton murders came into the news, they deeply affected me. Meredith Emerson was the capstone. I wanted to do something for her, so this hike became a memorial. I wasn’t set on doing it publicly at first, but I got in touch with her father and asked him what he wanted. He wanted me to make it as public as possible.
Were you trying to recapture a feeling of peace in the wild after what had happened to Meredith?
The woods are a place where I feel safe and at home, but after Hilton’s murders, I felt like the woods had been tainted. I hated that one person could have such a negative effect on a place that’s so pure. I wanted to prove that it was safe, and that there were more people out there that will help you than hurt you. Evil feels out of place in the woods. This summer reminded me of that, and I wanted to pass the message on to others.
How did the end result differ from what you initially expected?
At the beginning of the hike, I was trying to honor Meredith. About halfway through the hike, someone sent me an article about the murder trial proceedings. During the trial it came out that she had fought Gary Michael Hilton for three days to preserve her life and lead him to justice. She was giving him the wrong pin number for her ATM card and physically fighting back when she had the opportunity. The authorities said her instincts and courage ended up leading them to Hilton. It made me realize that she was the reason he was caught, and if it wasn’t for her, he could still be out there victimizing people on the trail—me, my husband, or a friend. So by the end of the hike, it ended up being more of a thank you to Meredith. I wanted to highlight her as a hero.
Did you do anything specifically to pay tribute to her on the hike?
On my last morning, I hiked up Blood Mountain where Meredith was abducted. My husband, two dear friends, and I sat up at the top and thanked Meredith. We also expressed our hopes and visions for the trail to be a safe place that people could enjoy in the future. That was the most gratifying feeling of the hike. It finally gave me closure.
Why did you pursue a supported speed record?
I like the freedom of going fast. It makes it as simple as possible when you take away the heavy pack and the long town stops. You can just glide down the trail. Hiking is in my system, and I absolutely love it. I want to try it in many different ways.
Did you train?
I trained a lot. I’ve been hiking long distance trails for the past four years. The experience was invaluable for knowing how to push through pain and waking up every morning to do the same thing. Having that mentality was a huge help. But I did a lot of running this year to help with endurance. This past winter I also went to Australia and hiked the Bibbulmun Track, a 600-mile trail that was built based on the Appalachian Trail.
How did you hold up physically?
My body responded far better than I could have imagined. It didn’t start off well when I sprained my ankle on the second day. It swelled up to the size of a grapefruit and stayed that way for 10 days. That was the only real injury I faced the whole time I was out there. I also nearly stepped on a rattlesnake on the second-to-last day, but that was because I was too busy talking with my friend and mentor, David Horton.
Did you ever doubt your ability to maintain this kind of pace?
I was determined to keep moving forward, even if I slowed to a crawl. A woman had never attempted this type of speed record before, so it was hard to tell how long it would take. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to average just under 38 miles a day to finish in 57 days.
What was the daily balance between running and speed hiking?
The running picked up gradually through the end of the hike. Maine and New Hampshire were very humbling, so I wasn’t able to do much running, but the trail gets gradually better going south. At the end I was doing a lot more running, but it never exceeded 25 percent of my daily mileage.
Some people argue that a speed record goes against the principle of hiking a long trail. What do you think?
I support all types of hiking. It’s hard for people to judge speed hikes if they haven’t done one. I think it’s false logic that you don’t see as much if you’re going quickly. I was never averaging more than three miles an hour. I was definitely taking it all in. The difference is that I was getting up really early and finishing really late. I wasn’t going into towns or doing errands or setting up a tent. I was just hiking. That was perfect for me, because my favorite part of doing a long distance hike is just moving through the woods. I got to focus on that, and I saw more wildlife and flowers than I did on my first thru-hike three years ago.
Is this your last speed record?
I think this was the capstone for me as far as speed records go. It served a bigger purpose. The speed record was part of a larger goal to have a lifelong relationship with the woods.
This hike was supported by your newlywed husband. How did that dynamic play into the adventure?
I always thought I would do this alone, but it quickly became evident that Brew and I did not want to be apart for three months. It threw a wrench in the gears for me, because I had never done a supported hike. I was used to having all of my gear with me. My husband was my lifeline. If I couldn’t meet him, I wouldn’t have my food or proper clothing. A lot of people discouraged us from doing this when we first got married, and truthfully it was really hard. A few times, roads were washed out and he had to sprint up the trail to find me. It pushed us to our limits. Looking back, though, we both agree that it was the best way to start our marriage. We learned how to communicate and trust each other. We were forced to be a team.
What was your most memorable moment on the trail?
In Pennsylvania I was putting in some big miles in the rocky sections, and I was getting really worn down. Brew was giving me 100 percent, but one day I looked at him and said ‘I need more.’
He looked at me and said, ‘I am giving you everything I have, but if you need more I’ll give you more.’ That was an affirming statement that solidified our union on the trail.
Was this your most fulfilling hiking accomplishment?
It definitely was, but not because of the speed. Meredith was close to my heart, and I really wanted to lift up her spirit. That was the constant theme of this adventure. It was also fulfilling being able to share this with my husband. I established a really solid foundation for my marriage. That was something I had been looking for since I started hiking—being able to prolong this passion with someone I love. •