Natural Connections

Q&A with Jennifer Pharr Davis

by Rachel Davis

Jennifer Pharr Davis is a long distance hiker and the 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. In 2011, she set the unofficial record for the fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail at 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes. She held the record for four years until her record was surpassed, and she currently holds the women’s record. She is the author of Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph and Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail (Beaufort Books, 2013, 2010) and is an ambassador for the American Hiking Society. Rachel Davis spoke with Jennifer about her hikes, her life, and her faith.

Rachel Davis: What notable trails have you completed?

Jennifer Pharr Davis: I’ve done over 13,000 miles of long distance trails and hiked in all 50 states. The most notable or recognizable are the Appalachian Trail, which I’ve hiked three times, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail, the Long Trail in Vermont, and international treks such as Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu. When I was pregnant with my daughter, we did a 500-mile trail through the Spanish Pyrenees that went between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. For a week this summer, we guided a group of teenagers on the Camino de Santiago. All trails are a pilgrimage in essence, but this one with so much historical and spiritual significance has a special feel to it.

How did you become so passionate about hiking and being outdoors?

I didn’t grow up as a hiker or backpacker. But when I graduated from college I wanted to try to complete the Appalachian Trail. Up until that point, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but it was also life changing in countless positive ways: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I finished that trail and I wasn’t the same. It gave me a love of the outdoors and love for hiking, and when I saw the powerful effects it could have, I wanted to help introduce other people to the outdoors.

How has this intersected with your spiritual journey?

Walking has always been something that strengthened my faith. It provides time and space for God and to feel his presence. In our society, we’re so busy and multitasking constantly, and it’s all very overwhelming. The trail is very simple and monastic.

I also believe there is a biblical precedent for being alone in the wilderness with God. There are many stories: Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus. They all had times of preparation in the wilderness. As someone who tries to motivate people to get outdoors, my mission is to just get people out in the woods. We have an expression on the trail, “The trail gives you what you need.” Whether it’s a spiritual experience, a mental respite, or a challenge they might need in their life, the trail gives people what they need.

You said many people in Scripture had a season of preparation in the wilderness. What do you feel your time in your first hike has prepared you to do?

The trail helped me become an adult and become my own person. For example, I took a long intensive hike by myself right after I got engaged to think about marriage and, at least a bit, mourn the loss of my singleness. I value that so much because when most people get engaged they start talking about wedding details immediately. For me to go and pray and think about the covenant of marriage was so powerful.

Then my record hike was preparation for parenthood. I wanted to set the record, because I knew that I was headed towards a season of going very slow and being unselfish with my body, realizing that my time and energy were not my own. That progression and shift became so much easier because I had this opportunity to feel light and fast and free and use my body and my talents fully on the trail before giving them over to another person in a different season and phase of life.

Hiking is seen by some as a solitary endeavor. How does community come into play? In particular, how can faith communities engage with hiking and the outdoors?

That’s one of the things I love about hiking. There are times in my life when I need introspection, solitude and independence, and it’s easy to find that on the trail. On the other hand, the strongest bonds I’ve formed are through hiking. It’s especially important in relationships and in community to get to know people for who they really are.

When you’re in the woods, there’s not false pretense. There’s no makeup; you’re not known for your job or social status. Social media is irrelevant. You start to have deep conversations and deep connections very quickly, especially because the are no distractions. There’s not a list of tasks to do, no work and or homework, no TVs in the background. You get to know people really well really quickly.

A lot of a churches offer hiking as a recreation and outreach opportunity for their congregation. It’s beneficial on so many levels. You’re helping people physically, helping them build community, giving them the opportunity to connect spiritually. So it’s holistic as an offering. Even more specifically, there are several churches very near to the Appalachian Trail that have a ministry to hikers. It’s actually easy to minister to hikers because their needs are basic. They want food, a shower, or a ride into town to get amenities. The churches along the trail are good about reaching out with open arms and meeting hikers’ basic needs to help people along their journey. For those churches, it’s a literal outreach to hikers, but every church can think about sojourners who are passing by their door and how the congregation could reach out.

How did you train for the record-breaking hike?

When I was training for the record, I tried to get in the best physical shape possible and I was disciplined with my training. I committed to running or hiking over 100 miles a week in preparation of the record attempts. The preparation was one the best and most enjoyable parts of the whole experience. There are a lot of spiritual disciplines, but hiking or running 100 miles a week isn’t usually in the lists that you see! Yet in my physical training, being out and alone in the woods with God and feeling scared and nervous that that I would fail to set the record because it was such an overwhelming and arduous goal. also led me to a deeper trust and faith in God, and I felt called to it. I got very comfortable saying, “It doesn’t matter what the outcome is going to be; I just feel very led to try this.” The physical training helped me spiritually to define my motivation and work past the barriers that I would face once I got on the trail.

How has spending so much time outdoors changed you?

Spending more time outdoors has brought me closer to God. It’s made me a better wife and mother and allowed me to tune down or turn off external voices. I’ve cultivated a prayerful attitude and allowed myself to listen to my internal voice and discover what my personal talents are.

I believe that the societal trend away from religion and faith is directly related with the societal trend away from the outdoors and nature. I think it’s really important for people of faith to be able to experience creation. Biblically, in nature is where humans felt closest to God. It’s part of the responsibility of Christians to be good stewards of creation and our environment. We don’t realize what resources we’ve been given until we actually experience them.

What would you say to someone who has not hiked before to encourage them to try it?

Don’t feel intimidated! Hiking is one of the best activities to get involved with because you can completely personalize it. You can decide how fast you go, how long or short you hike, you can go with a family or do it when you’re older. It really meets people at every stage of life. One of the best ways to get started is to talk to someone who is a hiker or research a local hiking group or outdoor club. Pick the brain of someone in your area about what you should take, what you should pack with you, and just go! Start short and work your way up from there.

You have a young daughter who’s hiked in every state in the United States! How will you teach her to connect her faith and your family’s love of the outdoors?

I don’t have to try very hard. It’s a natural connection. She’s three years old and one of the things I love about taking her outdoors is she already talks about the beauty. She talks about a beautiful flower or the mountains, and she loves seeing the animals. She’s been out when it’s hot or cold or stormy. Raising her in the Christian faith having those experiences means she’s going to connect that with God. Spending time out there gives her the opportunity to ask questions and allows us to naturally bring God into the conversation.


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