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How to Be a Trailblazer: Five Lessons From My Appalachian Trail Adventures

Hiking backwards down a mountain, having one eye frozen shut in a blizzard, a stalker, and tough love from a husband. National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Jennifer Pharr Davis shares these and other stories to challenge and inspire all of us to blaze our own trails.

I’ve been fortunate to have hiked tens of thousands of miles around the world. And I’ve been called a trailblazer for being the first and only woman to set the fastest known time on the Appalachian Trail (hiking 47 miles a day for 46 straight days).

I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drummer and walked in my own pair of hiking boots. And I take those trail memories and lessons with me everywhere I go.

Whatever trail you’re blazing, I hope these stories from my Appalachian Trail adventures inspire you!

1. Vision and Direction

Two hundred miles into my first Appalachian Trail “thru-hike,” I was passing through the Smokies in East Tennessee when I got caught in a snowstorm. On one exposed ridge, I closed my eye to protect it from the swirling snow and wind, only to have it freeze shut! When I reentered the forest, I picked the icicles from my eyelashes and looked for the trail markers—6×2 inch white blazes painted on trees. As you can imagine, those are kind of hard to see in a blizzard.

Fortunately, I made it out of the snowstorm safely. But that predicament helped me realize the importance of maintaining vision and direction. Hard work hardly matters if you don’t know where you’re going.

What blazes can you establish in life and work to keep you headed in the right direction?

2. Clear Communication

A few weeks later, I met a fellow hiker in Virginia. We had a nice, interesting chat. When the conversation ended, I said, “It was nice to meet you. Have a great hike!” But he didn’t get the clue. And he stayed on my heels for six solid days.

I grew up in the South, and thankfully times have changed, but as a young woman, I was taught to be non-confrontational.

On the trail with my stalker, I was just too polite for my own good. I kept dropping hints, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. (Disclaimer: I never felt threatened by this guy. I’m pretty sure I could have taken him.)

After nearly a week, I got some separation, sprinted off the trail, and hid under a rhododendron thicket. But before he could come around the corner, I realized, “This is not the way I want to live my life!”

So I climbed back onto the trail, waited for him to arrive, and said plainly, “I don’t want to hike with you anymore.” This time he heard me, went on his way, and I never saw him again.

After that encounter, I made myself a promise that I’d never again hide from a difficult conversation. I owed it to myself—and to others—to be honest.

What tough conversation is making you hide under a rhododendron bush?

3. Remain Adaptable

Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Six years after my first Appalachian Trail hike, I went back and attempted the fastest known time.

The record had always been held by elite male ultrarunners. And when I started out, my plan was to run as much as possible. But I quickly developed shin splints. At one point, they got so bad that I had to walk backwards down a mountain in Maine. But going backwards to go forwards was what I had to do.

There were other ways I adapted. Going for the record was all about doing whatever I needed to do. To find ways to keep going, to bend and not break.

What never-before-tried adaptations can you make to achieve your goals?

4. Teamwork

Being a trailblazer requires a team. While I was walking 47 miles a day, my husband met me at road crossings, resupplied me with food and water, did my laundry, bought groceries, cooked, posted blogs, recruited others to hike with me, and most importantly, offered loads of emotional support.

If not for him, I would have quit my record attempt just a few weeks into trying. On one stretch in New Hampshire, I got caught in a sleet storm and became sick and depleted.

When I reached a road crossing in Vermont, I told my husband, “I can’t do this. I want to quit.” He looked at me with all the love in his heart and said, “You can’t quit. At least not today. You feel too bad to make a good decision. You owe it to yourself—and a little bit to me—to keep going. If you still want to quit tomorrow, fine. But you’ll regret it if you quit on a bad day.”

Then he got in our car and drove off. And it’s very hard to quit a long-distance hike without a ride.

Who is your team? How do they make you better? In what new and different ways can they help you?

5. Resilience and Optimism

So I kept going. And after a while, I started feeling better, both because I got over my illness and because I started focusing on the positives.

I’d been chasing invisible record holders down the trail and comparing myself to others instead of making it my own journey. Once I started running my race and hiking my hike, my miles skyrocketed.

Every day, I told myself, “I’m doing what I love with the man I love in the place that I love. What’s better than that?” The attitude adjustment made all the difference in the world.

What mantra can you adopt to work through tough times? I’ve spent a lot of time in nature and tried to glean as much wisdom from it as I could. I hope these stories and lessons help you blaze your own trail. Happy Trails!

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