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Renowned hiker passes through Ocracoke to complete the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

Jennifer Pharr Davis and her family, daughter Charley, son Gus, and husband Brew Davis, visit Ocracoke Coffee. Photo credit: P. Vankevich

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By Peter Vankevich

For many, if not most hikers, walking the 1,175 miles of the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) would be a daunting challenge, but not for Jennifer Pharr Davis, who is no stranger to long trails. She has the distinction of once having been the fastest known person to ever complete the Appalachian Trail (AT).

Pharr Davis of Asheville sojourned with her family in Ocracoke in November during her hike of the MST, which passes through Ocracoke and ends in Dare County at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the tallest sand dune on the East Coast.

A writer, lecturer and advocate for nature trails, she has completed the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail three times, a feat for which one completion is a lifetime goal for many hikers.

In 2011, Pharr Davis gained international fame by completing the trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes for which she received the “Female Performance of the Year” award by Ultrarunning Magazine.

An amazing average of 47 miles per day, this was the fastest known time ever on the trail that spans from Georgia to Maine. For most hikers, this takes four to six months. Though her record time has since been surpassed, Pharr Davis remains the fastest woman finisher.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pharr Davis

In 2012, she was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

She has since slowed down a bit owing to her getting married and starting a family.

Slowing down for Pharr Davis means a less lengthy “walk in the woods” along the MST, which she began Aug. 15 at the western trail head, Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Her support crew was her husband, Brew Davis, and their two young children, Charley and Gus. Davis, also an endurance athlete and a bluegrass performer who recently released his first CD.

Although she has hiked and led hikes extensively in the western sections of the MST, Pharr Davis wasn’t planning on hiking the entire trail, but she did so to draw attention to the MST’s 40th anniversary this year.

Dedicated in 1977 to “encourage a love of the outdoors and help people experience this amazing trail that’s right outside our back doors,” the MST was made an official land-based unit of the state park system by the N.C. General Assembly on Aug. 2, 2000.

The MST is the highest long-distance trail in the eastern United States where it crosses Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet. It passes through four national parks and two national wildlife refuges, connects to 10 state parks, goes through three national forests, provides a view of lighthouses and includes two ferry rides connecting Ocracoke –Cedar Island and Hatteras.

Out of the mountains, it passes small Piedmont farms and coastal swamps, colonial and textile towns and crosses 37 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

Still a work-in-progress with almost 700 miles of footpaths complete, temporary routes on back roads and bicycle paths fill the gaps.

Along the MST. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pharr Davis

“The beauty of doing the entire MST is to see firsthand the many distinctive cultures of the state,” Pharr Davis said.

Highlights of her journey included passing through Sampson and Bladen counties and meeting a farmer whose farmland was obtained from a land grant in the

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pharr Davis

1700s. He gave them a tour of the farm that cultivated sweet potatoes.

She also got great pleasure when Charley and Gus got to watch a turtle rescue at Topsail, which inspired the young children on their own initiative to clean the beach to save the turtles.

While she hiked, Gus turned 1 and daughter, Charley, turned 5. At this stage of her life, setting record times is no longer a priority.

“I wasn’t racing down the trail trying to set a record, but there were days that I was rushing to get to a road crossing where I could nurse Gus,” she wrote in a dispatch. “Other times, it took over an hour to go a mile because I was sharing the path and looking for ‘treasures’ with Charley.”

Her love affair with long-distance hiking began in her early 20s.

“Growing up (in Hendersonville), I never did a lot of hiking or backpacking,” she said. “But after graduating from Samford University (Alabama) in 2004, I wanted to take on a major challenge.”

A challenge she considered was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

After orientation with Warren Doyle, director of Appalachian Trail Institute, she set out in the spring of 2005, starting in Georgia and finishing at the Mount Katahdin Summit in Maine in about five months.

Those months became a life-changing event and wilderness hiking became her passion.

The next year, she hiked to the summit of Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Pharr Davis has now hiked more than 12,000 miles in all 50 states and on six different continents–the Bibbulmun Track in Australia and numerous trails in Europe and South America.

Adopting a trail name is part of AT culture, and hikers write notes in journals in the huts along the trail. Her Samford degree was in Greco-Roman classics which inspired her to adopt the moniker “Odyssa,” which became the title of her 2011 book, “Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail” (Beaufort Books).

Profiled in many media outlets, including the New York Times and NPR, in 2008 she founded Blue Ridge Hiking Co., with the belief that “the trail is there for everyone at every phase of life” and with the goal of getting people—especially women and children–outdoors on their own terms.

The company leads half-day, full-day and overnight trips in the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding Asheville.

Upon her completion, she offered this observation:  

“The main purpose of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is not to walk across the state of North Carolina; that’s a fringe benefit. The path’s largest impact will be felt by individuals and families across the state who transform their bodies, think through their thoughts and grapple honestly with their emotions on a section near their home. Long-distance hiking is a luxury, but being able to recreate outdoors and enjoy natural areas is a necessity. It is what we were made to do. Regardless of whether you are walking across the state or hiking in your backyard, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail allows us to be who we are and discover who we can become.”

To see an interactive map of the Mountains to Sea Trail, click here  

The Pharr Davis family.