Record-Breaking Adventurer Jennifer Pharr Davis and Her Husband, Brew, Talk New Books, a Presidential Appointment, and the Business of Hiking
In April of 2020, like much of the world, Jennifer Pharr Davis and Brew Davis were, as they said, “in the muck.” The outdoor adventurers, who own Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville, N.C., as well as Jennifer Pharr Davis LLC—an organization focused on getting others outdoors through speaking and writing—both struggled with depression throughout the early months of the pandemic.
But like many of the clients they guide through the wilderness, and many of the audiences that Jen, who was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2011 after setting the FKT on the Appalachian Trail, talks with nationwide as a speaker and writer, they found solace in nature. And each other.
Fast forward a year later and they’d just returned from a month-long western road trip with their children, Charley, age 8 and Gus, age 4. Jen and Brew, who’s also a singer-songwriter, were fully vaccinated, and as of mid-April, their kids had returned to in-person school. “That has made the biggest quality of life difference,” Jen says. “It’s crazy that we got used to [life at home together all the time].”
With a new book out as part of a kids’ outdoor series, new speaker talks scheduled, numerous guided hikes planned for spring and summer, and a new position for Jen on the President’s Council for Sport, Fitness & Nutrition, we caught up with the couple about how the last year had changed their family, their business, and their careers—and what they learned from those experiences.
BRO: It sounds like you are back to a busy working schedule. How does that feel?
JEN: Both of our businesses started under the same umbrella in 2008. With Blue Ridge Hiking Company, we have a wonderful manager who oversees the day to day; Jennifer Pharr Davis is a separate LLC, where Brew was my manager/agent. Before the pandemic, we were so busy, and it was great, almost too great. Both businesses were doing really well. We were really fortunate that we have the hiking company, because it was viable and open last year, whereas our main livelihood of speaking and writing had totally dried up. Just to have work was really important to us. I struggled with mild to moderate depression throughout [the pandemic]; relationally, our family stayed intact really well, but it was a challenge. I’m glad to be coming out of it.
BREW: Back in the spring, I was depressed, more than any other time during COVID. I would go on trail runs and the trails around here were all open. I’d pass people, and I would briefly forget to social distance, and there’s no other place where that happens. I’d think, ‘the only place I feel normal is on a trail run.’ Nature was self-regulating. That was really powerful.
BRO: When did your businesses really start to be impacted by COVID?
JEN: In 2019, Blue Ridge Hiking Company had expanded into the retail shop and we had opened a bunkhouse on the Appalachian Trail, so we were where we wanted to be, financially. Our guiding season picks up mid/end of March, right when COVID started. The little reserves we had in our bank account all got drained: people were cancelling hikes right and left, we couldn’t operate for two-and-a-half months, the store was closed. Like a lot of small business owners, we hustled to apply for grants and government funding and PPP. We had a book club planned for the year, and authors had already agreed to give talks. A lot was supposed to be in person, but with COVID, we turned it to an online book club. We sold over 400 books online—for an outdoors store, that was unique. We really started focusing on people who wanted that outdoor fix who were very good to support our business in that way. That gave us a faint pulse and got us through spring.
Even though the speaking and the writing sort of dried up, and we had limited capacity since our children were with us 24-7, the messaging was more important, publicly and personally. I really felt vindicated in the fact that for the past 13 years, we’ve been saying, ‘go outside, it helps your mental health, it helps physically, it’s free, accessible, connect out there.’ And then last year, that’s all we had. That connection to the outdoors and being able to be in an environment that was biologically living was huge.
And then, it went bananas. We did as much work in two seasons last year that we typically do in three seasons. I think this spring will be our best season as a guiding company that we’ve had in 13 years.
BRO: In April, the eight-book Outdoor School series was released, an interactive, skill-building guide for kids to explore and learn about the outdoors. You co-authored Hiking and Camping, a book in the series. How did that opportunity come about?
JEN: I was approached by the publisher and I didn’t feel like I had the capacity for the whole book, yet I loved the vision so much. I asked if I could take on a co-author and I reached out to one of my best friends, Hailey Blevins, who’s backpacked over 10,000 miles and was a 14-year educator. I knew she’d have a good sense of voice and tone for that age group. We spent about a year in the writing and editing process. I wish the book had come out before COVID, but I still think it’s extremely timely now. We’re really excited to see how well it’s turned out.
BRO: You were recently appointed to the President’s Council for Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. What does that role entail?
JEN: Last fall, I got an email from the White House asking if I was interested in a job with the national parks system. I sent this to Brew, and I’m like, ‘this is spam, right?’ He said, ‘all they’re asking for is a phone call, so I think you should say yes.’ They gave me a call and said they wanted to interview me for a position within the Department of Interior concerning the national parks. We had a phone interview, which led to an in-person interview. We went up [to D.C.] and had a really positive interview. But it was all predicated on the election results; when the election didn’t go how that administration had hoped, I didn’t think I’d hear back.
After a month, they reached out and said, ‘we were impressed with your accomplishments and passion for connecting people to outdoors, we’d love to put you on the President’s Council for Sport, Fitness and Nutrition.’ I said, ‘sure, I’d love to do that.’
Since we are still going through the pandemic, the normal events the Council might have aren’t happening in person. Everything is in limbo. Generally, [the Council] looks heavily at youth engagement and youth sports. It’s a very traditional sports council; they don’t typically have a lot of outdoor recreation voices on it, so to bring that possibility as a viable sport or activity for youth participation, I’d love to be that voice. And to normalize it with our traditional sports culture.
BRO: So you have a new book out, you’re on the Council, and your businesses are picking back up. Any more specific personal hiking goals?
JEN: At this point, I set the trail record 10 years ago. I hike, I guide—most of my hiking right now is not about me. When I hike with my kids, we don’t force them to do miles they don’t want to do. We might spend an hour-plus going less than a mile. Charley engages really well through artistry and creative play and imagination—it’s less hiking, more wandering and engaging with our environment, and it’s great.
My goal was never to be a record-breaking hiker or someone who comes out every other year and tries for an FKT. It’s a piece of the pie I got to experience, and I don’t really want to do it again. My goal is to have a lifelong relationship with the trail, and to migrate toward a very holistic, seasonal approach to the outdoors. I backpacked pregnant, I hiked while nursing, I guided with an infant strapped to me. There’s been so many iterations of my experience on the Trail.
BRO: What has the last year taught you about yourselves?
JEN: We always would’ve said we value our work, but we realized how important it was to us. And how important our relationship is. We’d look at each other from time to time, saying, ‘everything is so hard—thank goodness you’re so easy’—most of the time. We have hiked trails together and traveled the country in a Prius and had those intense bonding experiences that require a ton of communication, co-parenting, and pivoting our businesses.
BREW: I feel like I learned where my boundaries are. Before COVID, I was trying to do too much. I love music, but it’s such a tough industry and trying to do it while focusing on Jen, too – it made me appreciate the arts side of it and not the commercial, and there’s a lot of beauty and truth in that. I’ve written more in the last year than I did before. There are different axes as far as what success means. Does success mean you’re commercially successful, or you’re making music you’re really proud of? Some people have really thrived this last year, some have really struggled, so figuring out what I can and cannot do. Realizing the boundaries was really a blessing.