Before she hiked Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu and the Pacific Crest Trail, before she was the speed record holder on the Appalachian Trail (AT), Jennifer Pharr Davis was a young, just-out-of-college 21 year old with normal fears about her future and questions about who she really was. Then she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail for the first time. In Becoming Odyssa
— Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, Davis recounts that first 2,175-mile trip on the iconic AT, from Springer Mountain in Georgia, all the way to Mt. Katahdin in the far reaches of Maine.
As David Horton, endurance runner and former AT speed record holder said in the preface, “Reading this book will motivate you to seek challenges in your life.” Davis certainly did. She didn’t shy away from the demanding day-after-day physical, mental, and emotional toll that thru-hiking can take on an individual. Unlike those who don’t make it, Davis was prepared. Though her family had their doubts, she knew this is what she wanted to do, she had a plan, and she was doggedly determined.
It wasn’t always easy, especially in the first few weeks when most of those who drop out realize they’re in for more than they bargained. Davis said, “By week two, my once-burning flame of wanderlust began to die down to a flicker. And when adventure begins to lose its appeal, it starts to feel more like adversity.’ She learned to use adversity to make her strong, and help her persevere.
For the first time in my life, I was experiencing real hunger and thirst, freezing nights, and prolonged physical weakness. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing real pain. And even though it hurt, it made me feel more alive than I did in the controlled comfort of society,
She turned that adversity into an internal call-to-action to keep herself going; “I decided that if refugees and orphans could have a good attitude, then so could I.”
It is this positive attitude and ongoing personal development that resonates throughout Becoming Odyssa. Jen learns to love the trail and uses her poetic wordsmithing to describe her awesome environment:
The scenic vistas of North Carolina and Tennessee make you feel like you’re looking at a work of art, but crossing through the rural countryside of southwest Virginia and caressing the tall grass with your fingertips, you feel like you’re part of the painting.
Becoming Odyssa is an excellent description of what it’s like to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The book takes you from one end to the other with anecdotes about the landmarks and geography encountered along the way. It is, in essence, a 2,175-mile trail report. But Becoming Odyssa is so much more than that. It is a story of self-discovery, of a young woman coming of age, and wrestling with the life decisions that all of us must face to mature.
Davis learned of the importance of others in our lives, as she put it, “The trail taught me that everyone has a story.” She learned to listen to those stories, and “It struck me that every person I had ever met and would ever meet knew something I didn’t and could do something I couldn’t. It was a simple truth, but I finally realized that the more people I invested in, the smarter and better equipped I would be.” That is every bit as true in real life as it was on the trail.
Davis also learned of persistence, of not being a quitter. She encountered any number of trying circumstances, including an unimaginable suicide, yet developed the coping skills that are necessary to get us through troubling times. “At home, I usually reserved smiles and laughs for other people, but on the trail I was learning to smile and laugh just for me, even if no one else was around.” She was indeed happy, commenting several times in the book upon reaching milestones, that that was her primary reaction. Happiness makes life so much less of a burden.
I discovered that myself during some of the most troubling times I’ve faced in my life. I’ve learned not to take myself so seriously, to make each day a new start, and to not carry the extra weight of regrets. It’s like a thru-hiker lessening the load in their backpack to ease the hardship. Davis discovered at a much younger age than I the true value of happiness.
Davis also learned the value of self-efficacy and the way we treat others:
One of my favorite things about the trail is that you don’t see your face. I mean, I guess you can see it in the reflection of the water, but there are no mirrors, no vanities, and no places to check yourself out. I used to think that people perceived me based on how I looked, but now that I don’t see my face, I feel like people perceive me by how I treat them
—that is, by what I say to them and how well I listen. Now I feel beautiful when I make other people smile.
It rings so true that before you can love anyone else, you must learn to love yourself. So many in society these days are overwhelmed with their appearance, and what others think of them. It is like an anchor to personal development. Becoming comfortable in one’s own skin is one of life’s best lessons to learn. Davis is extremely fortunate to have reached that conclusion as such a young adult. “I might not have been considered pretty by society’s standards, but what society thought mattered less and less to me.”
Hiking the trail had proved too difficult to let me look ahead and make future decisions; it had demanded my entire focus. The only thing I felt more certain of at the end of this journey was myself. I was no longer defined by my resum
éor my activities, and I didn’t give answers based on what I thought other people wanted to hear. For the first time in my life, I knew who I was
—and I was okay with who I was.
Becoming Odyssa is a story of success. Not just because Jen completed the Appalachian Trail on her first try, but because she was able to find many of life’s answers that she was seeking.
It was funny to think back to Springer Mountain, where I had chosen “Odyssa” on a whim, as a way to avoid unflattering names that drew attention to my long legs and lack of curves. But now Odyssa felt completely appropriate. I had experienced enough obstacles, magical encounters, and diversions to feel like an epic Homeric character. And like the legendary Odysseus, I was on a journey home. But maybe home wasn’t a physical place at all, but rather a state of truly knowing myself and feeling at peace with who I was…For me, the distance between Jen and Odyssa marked the journey between naivet
éand experience. I knew that when I reached Katahdin, Odyssa would be a person far removed from the girl who started the trail. I just hoped I could take Odyssa back home with me, and that Jen would get along with her.
By the time Davis reached her goal at Mt. Katahdin in Maine, she had in fact become Odyssa, the trail name she had given herself all the way back on Springer Mountain at the other end. She said, “We hadn’t conquered the mountain or the trail. We had conquered our doubts, fears, and weaknesses.” I believe if you take the time to read Becoming Odyssa, that Davis will conquer your heart as well.
Jennifer Pharr Davis grew up in the North Carolina mountains, where she developed a love for hiking at a young age. When she was 21 in 2005, she hiked the entire Appalachian Trail as a solo female and fell in love with long-distance backpacking. Since then, Jen has hiked more than 11,000 miles of trails in North America, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Vermont’s Long Trail, and the Colorado Trail, and completed three thru-hikes of the AT. She has hiked and traveled on six continents; including Mount Kilimanjaro, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and the 600-mile Bibbulmun Track in Australia.
Davis holds endurance records on three long-distance trails. In 2008, she became the fastest woman to hike the AT, averaging 38 miles a day and completing the trail in 57 days. In 2011, she became the overall Appalachian Trail record holder, completing the trail in 46 days. In 2011 she won Ultrarunning Magazine’s award for Female Top Performance of the Year, and she was also named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012.
Jen lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and young daughter, and is the owner and founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Co.