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My Next Thru Hike

By Jennifer Pharr Davis

When my husband Brew and I were about to get married (looking at the calendar…) 15 years ago, we had some premarital counseling sessions with a husband/wife duo. A lot of it was beneficial but the best piece of advice we got was “you have to let each other dream.” 

Brew and I have done a great job of dreaming and letting each other dream over the years. I dreamed of setting a women’s fastest known time (FKT) on the Appalachian Trail. Then I dreamed bigger of setting an overall AT FKT.  I dreamed of becoming an author and a speaker. Brew dreamed of pursuing music and becoming a songwriter. And we’ve dreamed of continuing our adventures across the US and the world, both solo and with our two young kids, Charlotte and Gus.

Several weeks ago, I began a new dream. The same week that I turned 40, I enrolled at UC-Berkeley to pursue a Masters in Public Affairs with the goal of using my voice to preserve as much land as possible.

Granted, it’s been a long time since I dug into textbooks or listened to professors in a classroom. It’s been a lot less long since I took a good hike. So that’s naturally where my mind goes and what I keep drawing strength from.

How is grad school like a long trail? There are the obvious comparisons. It’s a journey full of twists and turns. Some parts I will no doubt love while others will be incredibly challenging. 

I’ve got my best laid plans and have done my due diligence on the front end. Checked my maps. Made my gear list. Gotten my pack weight down. Taken a few practice hikes. To some extent it may not matter. The same way you can’t simulate big miles above tree line, those econ and statistics classes are going to be tough no matter how much I prepare. 

I have plenty of experience to draw from--albeit a long way in the past. My coursework from undergrad is 20 years in my rearview, so I’m not sure how much it will help. But I’m hoping it’ll come back to me, like riding a bike. Or to use hiker parlance, that my legs will remember how to hike big miles day after day after day. It’s been 12 years since I set the FKT on the Appalachian Trail, but even when I’m out of shape and practice I can still find the groove and crank out 25 or 30-mile days.

I’ve always believed you never hike the same trail twice. It may have been rerouted. Or the weather is different. Certainly you are different. 

I like to say “the trail gives you what you need.” I certainly think that will be true of grad school. I won’t remember everything--won’t use everything--but the lessons I’ll keep and the ones that will stick in my brain will serve me for decades to come. 

I’m not sure yet where this particular dream is going to take me. But the dreaming has served me and Brew well so far. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we’ll keep dreaming together. I hope we never wake up.

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