Earlier this year I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural Leatherwood Mountains Ultra Run 50k. While it would turn out to be the toughest 50k I've ever done, it would also be one of the more fun races I've done too. I went down early to help one of the race directors mark the course and got a bit of a sneak peak of the trails and the weather. Heavy rain made the course extremely muddy but that was part of what made it so much fun. The constant elevation change made it hard as hell.
During the pre-race dinner, the organizers had Jennifer Pharr Davis speak about her adventures on the Appalachian Trial (AT) as a thru-hiker, as a Fastest Known Time (FKT) record holder, and as a wife and mother. Through all of her words, the message that came through the strongest for me was about trail magic and about how she was just a normal person.
All too often we idolize our heros and put them on pedestals and worship the ground they walk on. I'm just as guilty of doing this as anybody else. Long ago I was a constant fan of the author R. A. Salvatore. I followed every move he made and hung on his every word. When I met him and had drinks with him (in a group, not just the two of us), the magic he had over me diminished. I came to realize that he was just a normal guy that wrote books. Books that a lot of people loved, sure, but still, he put his underwear on just like everyone else.
Meeting Jenn Pharr Davis wasn't quite the same. As she gave her speech and hung around taking pictures and signing books, I realized she was just a normal everyday person. It was more in what she did and how she acted that gave it away. But for some reason it wasn't a big shock to me. I felt comfortable around her. Well, as comfortable as I can be around attractive women, but you get the idea. She felt like a friend that I'd known but never met. Almost like a second-hand shirt. It feels like you've worn it forever even though it's your first time. So even though she's a hero of sorts in the hiking and running community, she came across as just a normal person.
She spoke a little about trail magic during our dinner but it didn't really stick. It wasn't until she signed my book and I had time to read it that I realized her message was more than just words. There was something ethereal about trail magic that you couldn't really put your hands on. Something that was there but not seen. As I got most of the way through her book, I realized that when she saw God or had something "magical" happen, that to me, that was why I "chased the dragon" by doing ultras.
In a sense, you get this high from doing these extreme events and for her, she described it as trail magic. Although sometimes trail magic simply meant that somebody left a stash of food or goodies for thru-hikers, in the end, it was this magical moment where strangers helped you accomplish your dream. For me, those strangers are the aid station workers at races. They help me reach that dream of finishing my race and somewhere in between the aid stations, I hope to find that other type of trail magic where I feel in touch with myself and nature.
That's a lot of blabber about my feelings toward the author and her book, so I'll move into the content itself. At first glance you may mistake this book as an account of Jenn's FKT on the AT. It isn't. It's about one of her many thru-hikes on the AT and the adventures she has along the way. Some were good, some were bad, but in the end, she emerged from the other end of the AT as a new person. The trail had transformed her as it does many others. Her language is great and she's clearly educated. She uses normal words you'd encounter in any conversation and doesn't treat you like a dummy or like a genius.
There are no pictures but each chapter starts with a map of the route she's taking. Each chapter is also dedicated to a particular section of the trail and she moves from south to north toward her ultimate finish line. She takes a few breaks here and there which I found educational because I just assumed thru-hikers never left the trail until they finished. Jenn talks about her relationship with herself, with others, with nature, and with God. But she doesn't get "preachy" when she talks about God. She does make it clear that she's a Christian but she doesn't rub it in your face or make you feel bad for not going to church.
In the end, Jenn Pharr Davis reaches the end of the trail. She writes well enough that you feel like a piece of you made the entire journey with her. It's a great story for anyone interested in the Appalachian Trail, thru-hiking, hiking, ultra running, or what it's like to be a woman alone in the woods. Educational, entertaining, and well worth the time to read it.