A Footpath Toward a Stronger Faith

A hiker shares the devotional lessons she's learned on the Appalachian Trail.

Posted in , Aug 10, 2012

Jennifer Pharr Davis joyously raises her arms while hiking the Appalachian Trail

“Why the Appalachian Trail?” friends asked somewhat incredulously. Great question. I’d spent all of three nights in the woods my entire life. The one summer camp I went to had air-conditioned cabins and hot water.

Yet here I was, telling everyone I was going to thru-hike the trail from Georgia to Maine after graduation. Partly to test myself, sure. Isn’t that what you do when you’re young? Partly to put off getting a job. But the real reason went much deeper than that.

Ever since I’d heard about the trail, I had the strangest, strongest sense that I was supposed to hike all 2,180 miles of it. I felt called to do it.

Fresh from college I set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia, on my unlikely quest. I have since thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail twice more, most recently in record time—46 and a half days (an average of almost 47 miles a day).

But speed has never been my true goal. What I’m really after are the spiritual lessons that come from the trail, a kind of freedom of the soul, lessons that serve us wherever our life’s journey takes us.

1. Choose your own identity.

Trail names are a hallowed tradition. Hikers pick nicknames to go by, like Dude or Mooch.

“You should be Stretch or Amazon,” people told me because I’m six feet tall and have the long stride to match. But after 21 years of others defining who I was, I was ready for a change. Who did I think I was?

The first time I was about to sign a register near the southern end of the A.T., I paused and thought of all the reading I’d done as a classics major. Homer’s Odyssey had captivated me.

Look at all the wisdom the hero, Odysseus, gained from the challenges he overcame. Could I be like him? That March day I picked up a pen and wrote my new name: Odyssa. Because I was on a life-changing journey.

2. Accept the generosity of others.

One evening in the woods I smelled something tantalizing. I followed my nose to a clearing where an RV was parked. There was a circle of lawn chairs around a campfire. Pots of beans, rice and corn were warming over the fire.

A table was set up with cheese, lettuce, salsa, sour cream and tortillas. The RV door squeaked. A motherly woman stepped out. She handed me a plate. “Take whatever you want,” she said. “Pull up a chair and enjoy.”

I’d heard about strangers offering gifts to thru-hikers—a ride to town, a shower, a hot meal. I’d always been the independent type. This hike was something I was doing on my own. But I soon discovered I was never going to make it without accepting the generosity of others.

They call it trail magic. I call it God’s grace. P.S. Those fajitas were fabulous.

3. Let your spirit sing.

My biggest fear was cold, wet weather. It hit early on, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A bonechilling rain fell. I had to slide down Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the trail, 6,643 feet above sea level, over patches of snow and ice.

“Tomorrow will be better,” I muttered to myself. But, no, the next day was worse.

The weirdest urge came over me. Sing! What? Sing! So I sang. Not well and not loudly. I launched into “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, then “Tomorrow” from Annie. If refugees and orphans could have a positive attitude so could I.

You know what? It worked. When you lift your voice in song, your spirit sings along with it. From then on, whenever something got to me—weather, blisters, mosquitoes—I’d sing myself into a better mood. Rap, hymns, pop, folk, gospel, rock, off-key at the top of my lungs.

4. Meet God where you are.

I was used to seeing God in church. I didn’t expect to find him on the trail. How little I understood of the wonders of his creation! One night in the Blue Ridge Mountains brought that home.

The mountains, true to their name, were transforming from a barren brown to a kaleidoscope of blues. The sky was lit up with red, orange, pink and yellow more vivid than any painting. “Praise God!” I shouted into the wind. Dorky, maybe, yet it felt so right.

I remembered a verse in the Bible that said if people failed to praise God, the rocks would sing out his glories. That’s just what they were doing. Praise God!

5. Be yourself.

I’d thought I was a pretty good judge of people, but I discovered that sometimes they’ll defy your expectations. One night I settled into a shelter when a man with a long beard came in. “Arrgh! Greetings, milady,” he said. “Is there room in here for a weary pirate?”

A pirate? He had to be kidding. “There are some open bunks,” I said.

“My name is Captain Jack Daniels,” he said, “but call me Captain.” He’d been a thru-hiker for 15 years and had a number of businesses on the side. He gave me his card. There was a Bible verse printed on it. Who would’ve guessed?

It’s easy to get into conversations with people on the trail—talking makes the miles go faster. At first I felt awkward telling others what I believed. Finally I dove in. By the time I reached Maine I was much more confident of who I was.

6. Dream in teams.

Soon after that first thru-hike I fell in love with Brew Davis, a schoolteacher and an old friend of my brother’s. We got married in June. I won’t be hiking as much anymore, I thought.

Brew surprised me. He suggested I thruhike the A.T. that summer and he’d follow in our car. That was how we spent the first summer of our marriage!

By the end of it, we knew each other so well, it was like we’d been married for decades. We learned to trust each other, to share, to be patient (that would be me waiting for Brew to drive up in our Toyota Highlander when I was exhausted and starving).

Brew says he was growing in his biblical role of husbands “loving their wives as much as Christ loved the church.” Sometimes that meant forgiving his wife for eating all the granola bars!

Then we hatched a plan of beating the thru-hiking speed record, and I must insist, it’s our record. Because I was hiking 18 hours a day I was getting six hours of sleep a night, which meant that was all Brew was getting too.

He had to pack up the gear, drive and find obscure trails, do laundry, buy food. More than that, he had to meet and anticipate my needs.

We started June 15, 2011, and finished July 31. Most people assumed the record-holder would run the trail. Not me. I hiked. I went three miles an hour. It’s not always the fastest or strongest that wins but the most persistent.

Of course, it helps when you have someone as devoted as my husband supporting and praying for you the whole way. More than once I was ready to collapse. “Get some sleep and you’ll be okay,” Brew would tell me. “God is with us, remember?”

Indeed, he has been, from the moment he called me to the trail, and every step of the way since. We are all of us put on this earth to complete a journey, and fast or slow, for each and every one of us that journey ends in glory.

View photos of Jennifer's thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.


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