Enduring as an I-Beam

Exploring the home life of intercontinental trailblazers

DIFFERENT SPEED
Legendary Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis, right, relaxes at home with her musician husband Brew Davis and their kids Charley and Gus.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Jennifer Pharr Davis doesn’t say that “she” broke the Appalachian Trail’s thru-hike speed record in 2011. She says “we” and calls it “our record,” sharing the glory with her husband, Brew Davis.

“Brew was a huge part of it, and I can’t give him enough credit for supporting me throughout and being the crew chief for all the friends and family who helped me,” says Jennifer. She finished the 2,185-mile trek in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, averaging an astonishing 47 miles per day.

The couple, who married in 2008, have called Asheville home since then, but the city is mostly a base for their adventures. “We can’t really have a garden because we travel so much in the summer,” notes Brew, though they do keep apple and fig trees and blueberry bushes on their property.

Jennifer was named National Geographic’s “Adventurer of the Year” in 2012 and is an ultra-accomplished hiker (she’s logged more than 14,000 miles on six continents), motivational speaker, and author (Becoming Odyssa, a book based on her trail name; The Pursuit of Endurance; and others).

ENTREPRENEURSHIP FIRST
Jennifer holds world records for hiking. but seems proudest of the way her family business has encouraged novice hikers to expand their adventurous side. The mountaineering couple displays worn trail shoes and scenes of other conquered peaks.
Photos by Clark Hodgin

Brew, who was raised in Nashville prior to college in North Carolina, has released two enthusiastically reviewed Americana albums (2018’s self-titled debut and this year’s Another Scarecrow Learning How to Fly) and tours regionally. He also co-runs the swiftly growing family business, Blue Ridge Hiking Company. The operation now has a dozen guides, full- and part-time managers, a shop in Asheville, a bunkhouse on the Appalachian Trail in Hot Springs, and increased access to trails (they just added Smoky Mountains National Park to their itinerary).

When they’re home with their two kids, Charley and Gus, Jennifer and Brew spend time in their renovated open living space. They love the large bay window in the living room because of the light it lets in — the view is Beaucatcher Mountain, just east of downtown — and the woodstove that keeps winter evenings toasty.

When the couple purchased their home in 2008, the inspector deemed it an “avant-garde Fort Knox” because of how well built it was — particularly that it had an I-beam running between the main floor and the basement.

“The sky from our back deck is enormous, and makes for some amazing cloud watching,” says Brew. “Our kids pretty much live in the yard.”

What made you fall in love with hiking on this level? 

Jennifer: I grew up at Falling Creek Camp in Tuxedo, North Carolina. My dad owned and ran it, and we lived there until I was in elementary school … [but] I didn’t do any hiking to speak of or even spend a night in the woods by myself until I started my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2005. It’s kind of crazy, but I just jumped right in. I was into competitive sports growing up, and the physical aspect of hiking really appealed to me. It didn’t hurt that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do after college, and I figured spending four to six months in the woods would give me time to figure my life out.

Brew: I wasn’t nearly as hardcore as Jen when we met. And she’d say I’m still not, and she’d probably be right. But I’ve made a lot of progress and have gone from being a fair-weather hiker to a legit “thru-hiker” and maybe even, you could say, an expert. I was like Jen and was more into competitive sports in high school. After college I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, for a couple years, and it’s hard to live at the foot of the Alps and not get into hiking. … Our second summer together, Jen and I thru-hiked the Colorado Trail, which was a really good experience and taught me a lot. … I just have one photo on my desk, and it’s of me after I finished the Mohican 100-mile trail race in Ohio. I’m barely standing, with a hiking pole in one hand and a stout [beer] in the other. But I’m standing — and it reminds me that I can do hard things.

How has Blue Ridge Hiking Company changed since 2008? 

Jennifer: Competition has ramped up, for sure. We’ve guided more and more people every year, and probably the thing I’m most proud of is how diverse our customers are. … I’m very proud that we get a lot of women on the trail, and many of them are first-time hikers and backpackers. We’ve had clients with all sorts of physical differences — folks who are blind or deaf or who have MS. I’m also proud that we get a lot of people of color outside. For a long time, hiking was a pastime mostly for white men. I’m really glad that Blue Ridge Hiking Company can play a small part in redefining what it means to be a hiker.

What was the record attempt like? 

Jennifer: I’ve learned so much from all my trail experiences, and none more than the AT record. I learned that my body could do so much more than I thought was possible. I mean, 47 miles a day, that’s crazy. I look back on that and can’t believe it.

What was that experience like as part of her support team?

Brew: It was tough. I had torn my ACL the previous winter playing basketball so I couldn’t [join] Jen like we’d planned, which meant I was a lot more focused on the logistics. I did laundry, prepped Jen’s snacks, water, and other energy drinks, got her meals here and there, and kept a blog that got turned into a short little book called 46 Days.

How has COVID changed your music life?

Brew: I’ve spent a ton of time with our kids the past few months, and that’s given me a lot of inspiration and good material for writing kids’ songs, so I’ve just kind of gone where that action is. And probably because of that, I think the next thing I do will be a children’s album. My working title for it is Lemonade, since I’m trying to turn the COVID lemon into something good.

Jennifer Pharr Davis and Brew Davis, Asheville. For more information, see jenniferpharrdavis.com, brewdavis.com, and blueridgehikingco.com.