Book Review: Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr-Davis

I met ultra-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr-Davis in October 2010. She was in Chattanooga, TN to run the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K trail race. Pharr-Davis hiked the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail over 57 days in 2008 – the current women’s speed record.

A few years ago I had teamed up with another speed hiker, Matt Hazley, who was planning to hike the trail in under 40 days, having just come off setting the record for the Triple Crown (Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian Trails back to back). Unfortunately the “AT Sub-40″ project was called off at the eleventh hour. Matt hurt his foot on a 500 mile warmup walk, and that was that. But through all the planning I became kind of obsessed with the AT. So I was psyched when Pharr-Davis handed me a copy of her new book, Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail and asked if I’d like to review it.

There is something I love about first-person adventure narratives. The reading is accessible, but takes you to places far beyond your comfort zone. The humble AT is the most “urban” of trails yet passes through some wild country with lots of objective hazards to beat down even the toughest hiker. Jennifer brings you along on her first thru-hike of the trail, when she was still finding herself in the outdoors and before she started thinking about record-breaking speed hikes. You are there with her from the beginning, and I feel like at any chapter you could look up from the book and say to yourself, “Yeah, I’d probably quit after that.” But the great thing is, she doesn’t quit. So you can still share in the afterglow.

I have to admit, having read a lot of books about the AT, and being someone who makes my living in the outdoors, I didn’t expect to stay so engaged in a book about a long-ass hike. But what kept me turning the pages was the little things. The simple descriptions of those first experiences on the trail brought me back to my own. At one point Pharr-Davis pitches her tent alone for the first time, waiting for trail companions who never arrive:

I pitched my tent and waited to hear the sounds of Sarah’s and Doug’s heavy boots approaching. My hope faded with the daylight, and after searching in the darkness with my headlamp one final time, I entered my tent to prepare for bed. I would have been less intimidated about my first solo campout if I hadn’t just heard a harrowing story of Indian sacrifice and been warned against criminals who lived along the trail. My mind was racing and my body was too tense for rest. I was tossing and turning when a soft rain started to drum a gentle rhythm on my tent. The steady shower turned into a harder rain, followed by thunder and lightning, followed by sleet. Eventually, feeling warm, dry, and relatively safe inside my tent, I fell asleep.

It’s kind of amazing how similar dozens of these moments are, and must be for everyone. Beyond the sheer adventure of it, its that common brotherhood (sisterhood) of the trail that keeps us “getting out”.

Experiencing the pleasures and pains of the trail is one thing, but this book is also about the kind of self-discovery that makes time spent in the woods an intensely personal and unique adventure.

“I think college grads are called to the trail because we have a lot of figuring out to do. The trail provides a place to sort through the fact and fiction of our childhoods,” Pharr-Davis reflects. “That was one reason it was so important to me to meet  as many different people as possible and not become part of a group. I wanted to retell my story and explain who I was until it made sense.”

Later, after many physical mishaps (a bad backpack, getting caught in bad weather, not eating enough fresh food), Pharr-Davis hits her stride, and to an epiphany:

It was a drizzling morning with heavy fog, but I felt much, much better, and after a big breakfast I set out to test my new strength. I knew that my recent turn toward self-destruction was my own fault, but I also don’t think I grew up with a very good model. The majority of our culture believes that we can operate with very little sleep as long as we supplement it with enough caffeine and processed food. My college friends treated caffeine pills like candy and Red Bull like water. None of us really thought about how what we put into our bodies would affect their outputs. But the trail was teaching me that if I wanted to make it to Maine, I was going to have to take care of myself. I was going to have to eat often and vary my diet to include more than snack cakes, candy, and energy bars. I was also going to have to rest and maybe not hike thirty-mile days back to back.

Just then she encounters long distance trail legend David Horton, and glimpses her own future.

“I found things in the woods that I didn’t know I was looking for… and now I’ll never be the same.”

For most people, it will be satisfying enough to experience Pharr-Davis’ adventure vicariously, but I know for sure that others will take this book and be inspired to try something just as mad. Pharr-Davis’ book is a great primer for these would-be thru-hikers. Each chapter gives you a great flavor for different sections of the trail, and you come away knowing what to look for, and what to avoid.

Jennifer later co-founded the Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Check out the website for links to her writing and blog

And by the way, she can run pretty good too. Check out the video I did for Rock/Creek’s Stump Jump race, featuring a quick interview with Jennifer Pharr-Davis:

Rock/Creek StumpJump 50k 2010 from Rock/Creek on Vimeo.

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