NEAL CONAN, host: Every year, millions of people hike on the Appalachian Trail, only the hardiest set out on what's known as a thru-hike. That's the whole way, more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia. Some takes six months to do it. One walked the distance in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. That's the new unofficial record established this summer by Jennifer Pharr Davis. And Jennifer Pharr Davis joins us now from the studios of member station WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina. Welcome and congratulations.
JENNIFER PHARR DAVIS: Thanks so much. I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And unofficial record?
DAVIS: Unofficial, that's right. There's no, quote, unquote, "official organization" that recognizes these trail records. But there is a very, very large body of hikers and also trail runners who keep tabs on who's going out and trying to set these records and who's accomplishing their goals each year.
CONAN: Obviously, nobody can monitor the whole walk. It's a long way to go, and there's no cameras.
DAVIS: That's right. It's a long way. And it shouldn't be anyone's job to monitor the walk. This is still based on the honor system, and it is an amateur sport. So one of the things I love about it is that no one's behind your back, making sure that you walked every step. It has to be very important to you that you pass every single white blaze on the Appalachian Trail.
CONAN: Now, back in 2008, you set the women's unofficial record. Why did you want to do it again?
DAVIS: Well, you know, it actually all goes back to 2005 when I first did a traditional thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail as a 21-year-old. And I was out there on my own, and it was this amazing coming-of-age journey for me. And I really fell in love with the trail and with long-distance backpacking. So from there, I did lots of other trails, several thousand more miles. And eventually, I wanted to come back to the AT, but wanted to hike it a little differently.
And around that time in my life, I also got married. And that threw a wrench into everything because until then, I had had lots of freedom and lots of time to go and hike. But now, I didn't want to be away from my husband, so we agreed together that I would try to set the women's record on the trail and that he would help me. And we went after it and had a really great experience. But when we finished, I realized I hadn't given 100 percent. And that ate at me and ate at me.
And we learned so much from that first record attempt in 2008 that we both felt like going back we could do it better and we could do it more efficiently. And I really wanted to finish the trail knowing that I had given it my all. And so, that's why we went back this summer.
CONAN: And when you say he helped you, well, the traditional backpacking trip, you're carrying a big pack with lots of food and equipment. When you're trying to set a record, you're being met at various waypoints along the way with supplies carried by your husband.
DAVIS: I'm telling you, coming from a thru-hiker background, having a supported hike feels so luxurious because I get to see my husband at roadsides, and I get to grab more snacks, grab water, grab a raincoat, whatever I might need from the car and even a clean pair of socks.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIS: That, to me, was always the highlight of the day. I was like, oh, I get to change socks now. So, yes, it is very different. But while, you know, you have the luxuries of meeting a support crew at a roadside, the daily physical task was far more intensive than a traditional thru-hike. And a traditional thru-hike is very, very difficult. Don't get me wrong. But for a record attempt, you are getting up with the sun if not before and hiking all day at your limit until the sun goes down. And for me, this summer, the average, the average for 46 and a half days was 46.93 miles a day, which is mind-boggling especially considering the rugged terrain on the Appalachian Trail.
CONAN: And I've read that, in fact, walking the entire distance to the Appalachian Trail is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.
DAVIS: Oh, it feels like it. They have something on the trail that are called puds, P-U-D-S. And they call them pointless up and down. So you're not really seeing a view, you're just going up, down, up, down, up, down. And you're, like, why? But that's just the Appalachian Trail. And it's really not the most efficient route from Maine to Georgia, but, you know, that's where you learned all the lessons in between.
CONAN: We're talking with Jennifer Pharr Davis, who, this summer, established a new unofficial record for walking the entire length of the AT. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And you did it north to south. How come? I gather most people do it the other way.
DAVIS: Well, I actually went south to north on my first thru-hike. But the second and third time that I did it, I thought it was important for me to start up north. The main reason is because Maine and New Hampshire are the two most difficult states on the trail when it comes to terrain. So I wanted to successfully complete those two states first, know that I have that section of the trail behind me. And then the other reason was psychological. I mean, I'm a southern girl. I'm from the South. My house is three hours away from the terminus in Georgia. And I wanted to feel like I was hiking home.
CONAN: And I gather that northern part of the trip was the most difficult for you too.
DAVIS: Oh, my gosh. It's more pain than I have ever experienced in my life. And I knew going in that the first 12 days would be excruciating. And, you know, it was everything I thought and more. I had shin splints. I had an illness. I had hypothermia. I went through bad weather, cold snaps. It really - everything the trail could threw at me, it managed to find a way to fit it into that first 12 days. But making it through that, I had been through so much. I was committed to finishing, whether or not I set the record. I said, at this point, I've survived through too much, been through too much, put in too much to this trail to even think about quitting.
CONAN: Did you think about quitting though?
DAVIS: Well, towards the end of that stretch, I had one morning when I looked at my husband with puppy dog eyes and I said, this is not going well. And he, really, the entire way was the source of encouragement for me. And I say, I could have never done it without him, but not just logistically. I needed him there to believe in me. And in that moment, he believed in me more than I believed in myself. And he says, you have to keep going. If you really want to quit, we can talk about it later. But we can't talk about it while you have shin splints and you're sick and it's raining. We're going to talk about it tomorrow when the sun is out. And when the sun came out, I no longer wanted to quit. I just wanted to keep going. And we never looked back again.
CONAN: Many people say the trail is especially magical for the - well, you're there in the woods with nature. Do you have the same experience that you did that first time on the traditional thru-hike when you're trying to set a record?
DAVIS: Well, record attempts are certainly different than a traditional thru-hike, but I don't think an appreciation of nature is at all sacrificed. In fact, I feel more immersed in nature on a record attempt than on a thru-hike because I'm not getting off the trail to run errands. I'm not going into the towns. I'm not stopping at 5 o'clock to cook and set up camp and talk to other hikers. I am on the trail, moving through the woods all day, every day. And the fact that it's a speed record is misleading because it makes you think that I'm sprinting down the trail. Well, let me tell you, when you're doing 2,200 miles, you are not doing any sprints on the trail.
In fact, my average was just three miles per hour, which really is not that different than a typical hiking speed. The difference is I'm starting earlier and hiking later. And because of my schedule on the trail, I'm actually seeing more wildlife than most thru-hikers. In fact, this summer, I was only out there 46 days, and I saw 36 bears. That's a ton. On my first thru-hike, I didn't see any. And, you know, we even had a thru-hiker who came and helped us at one point, who had finished the trail this year as the traditional thru-hike. And after one week of helping us on the trail, he said, you know, I saw more sunrises, more sunsets, more snakes and more bears with you in this one week than I did on my entire thru-hike.
CONAN: Another attraction for a lot of people is the other hikers they meet. Obviously, if you're on that kind of schedule, you're not stopping to chat.
DAVIS: Oh, there was a lot of chatting, actually. I mean, I think the first half of the trail, we didn't have a lot of on-trail help. It was limited to when I could see my husband or support crew at the roads. And at that point, I would want to talk. I would want encouragement. I would want to know what was going on in the world. But the second half of the hike, the closer I got to home near Asheville, North Carolina, where we live, we had friends and family and some elite trail runners who are my heroes that came out to the trail to help us. And the main way they helped us was just by spending time on the trail with me.
And I would say, what's going on? What's the news of the world? What's the news of your social life? What are, you know, talk to me. And we had these great conversations. And I think I even appreciated it more because I needed it more. I was so tired. And for these people to come out and just infuse energy into my hike, it was really helpful. And I really appreciate the relationships I was able to form on the trail this summer.
CONAN: And I assume the first thing you did after you finished was take a nap.
DAVIS: Yes, you got it. Well, I think a shower and then a nap. But I am so, so tired. And it's funny it just comes in waves because now, you know, we've gotten back home and life has pretty much gone back to normal. And then all of a sudden, I'd be, like, oh my goodness, I need to sit down. And I remember I'm, like, oh yeah, I hiked 2,200 miles this summer. So I think it'll take several more weeks before I'm totally back to normal. But we certainly had an amazing trip this summer.
CONAN: Jennifer Pharr Davis, thanks very much for your time. Congratulations again.
DAVIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Jennifer Pharr Davis set the unofficial record for fastest thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail earlier this summer. She joined us from member station WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find a link to her blog, where her journey's chronicled, go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Her book "Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail" is available now.
Tomorrow, we'll talk with Lauren Dolgen, the creator of "16 and Pregnant," about teen moms and TV. And we'll call it freaky Tuesday. We'll continue our summer movie festival with best body-switch movies. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
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