Earl V. Shaffer, 83; First to Walk Entire Length of the Appalachian Trail
When the Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937, its creators never envisioned that anyone would ever have the audacity, desire or toughness to hike all 2,100 miles at one time.
The trail was intended for day outings or maybe a weeklong trip. It was inconceivable that anyone--even the most enthusiastic hiker--would want to spend that much time in the woods.
And, for a long time, trail organizers were right. That is, until 1948, when a dispirited World War II veteran and aspiring poet stepped on the path in northern Georgia in April and didn’t stop walking until he reached the imposing summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine four months later.
Earl V. Shaffer, the first person to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, died May 5 in Lebanon, Pa., of cancer. He was 83.
Shaffer through-hiked the AT, as hikers call it, three times. In addition to his pioneering effort, he went the distance in 1965--when he traveled north-to-south, the unconventional way of doing it--and again in 1998, at the age of 79.
In doing so, Shaffer helped usher in the era of long-distance hiking and proved it’s still possible to disappear for extended stretches into what remains of the American wilderness.
“What I find most amazing about Earl’s three hikes is that he never took a day off,” said Dave Donaldson, a Washington, D.C., teacher and hiker who is working on a biography of Shaffer.
“When you’re talking about being on a trail for months at a time, [this] is analogous to what Cal Ripken did in baseball. It’s just stunning.”
Born in 1918, Shaffer was raised with his three brothers and a sister on the small family farm outside York, Pa. He spent most of his time outside, working the neighbor’s spread in summer and trapping in the winter.
“We were living pretty much a pioneer life back in the 1930s,” said John Shaffer, Earl’s younger brother, who lives in York. “It was the Depression. We didn’t have a lot, and we got by with what we had.”
In 1941, on the day after the family home was wired for electricity, Shaffer joined the Army. He spent the next 31/2 years with the Signal Corps in the South Pacific, building radar towers as U.S. forces island-hopped toward Japan. It was unnerving, tiring work--with the unarmed corps sometimes coming under enemy fire.
Shaffer kicked around after the war, haunted by the loss of his longtime best friend, who was killed at Iwo Jima. One night in 1947, he was flipping through Outdoor Life magazine when he read a blurb about the Appalachian Trail to his brother. “It said no one had ever hiked the entire trail in one season,” John Shaffer said. “And that’s how it started.”
The hike in 1948 was no cakewalk. The trail was poorly marked and maintained, and Shaffer, without adequate trail maps, often veered miles off course. While Shaffer was on his hike, the Appalachian Trailway News--unaware of his attempt--published an article listing 10 reasons why no one would ever do the entire trail.
Then, as now, the trail wound through the hollows and atop the ridges of the thickly forested Smokies, Shenandoahs and Whites. The AT also crossed or followed hundreds of roads, where Shaffer could resupply at homesteads or tiny villages--many of which would quietly vanish in the subsequent decades.
In the end, Shaffer completed the trail in 123 days, beginning in April and finishing in August. He averaged 17 miles a day.
And, when he returned home, few believed he did it.
“When Earl sent his report in it was met with disbelief and skepticism and everything else,” said Brian King of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the group that oversees trail issues. “The editor of our magazine at the time literally cross-examined him for 31/2 hours in her office. But he had all the records, notes and photographs.”
He spent years writing and rewriting a memoir of his 1948 hike titled “Walking With Spring,” which he finally self-published three decades later. He also wrote thousands of poems, most of which have never been published.
Shaffer eventually settled on a six-acre spread in the late 1980s in tiny Idaville, Pa., living in a cabin that was once a chicken coop. He sold and refurbished antiques and occasionally clerked at auctions. His barn was full of odds and ends, including three Volkswagen buses and 13 VW engines. He never had a steady job--he never needed one--nor did he marry.
Many considered him a recluse, and the longer he was gone, the more his legend grew. Occasionally, Shaffer would pop onto the trail for a day or two, bending the ear of through-hikers willing to listen to his tales. Then, in 1998, on the 50th anniversary of his first through-hike, Shaffer decided to do it again. Over the years the trail had been rerouted, having been pushed deeper into the woods with many more ups and downs. The modern Appalachian Trail resembled a 2,000-mile tunnel of trees.
“They call it a scenic trail, but you don’t see a lot of scenery,” said a rueful Shaffer, who was extremely critical of the changes.
Even at 79, his methods didn’t change. He carried a military rucksack from the ‘30s, a tarp and sleeping bag. No tent or camping stove. To avoid blisters, he never wore socks.
The hike became a media event, with reporters often joining Shaffer for stretches. The publicity, in turn, helped fuel a boom in through-hiking on the trail and its equally difficult western counterpart, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which extends from the Mexican border through the mountains of California, Oregon and Washington to Canada.
In 2001, for example, about 2,375 tried to complete the Appalachian Trail. About 10% quit before finishing the first 30 miles. But 545 or so made it--a few of whom turned around and started walking the other way, unable to stop their momentum.
Precisely what motivated Shaffer remains something of a mystery. Those who knew him say he deeply loved nature and relished a challenge. He was also introverted and shy.
“When you stop and think about it, there had to be a first through-hiker, and in a lot of ways he shaped the people who would literally come in his footsteps,” said Bill O'Brien, a Connecticut newspaper editor and fellow hiker.
“These are individuals to the core who are able to accomplish a great deal with very little. Earl basically lived a through-hiker’s life his entire life. Very solitary, very spartan, but by the same token very fulfilling.”
Near the end of his 1998 hike, Shaffer, 79, woke up one autumn morning after spending the night in a shelter on Spaulding Mountain in Maine. The temperature had plummeted below freezing. Snow was flying, the wind howling.
Shaffer peered outside from his sleeping bag. He turned to Dave Donaldson, his hiking partner, and said “I can’t do it.”
Minutes later, perhaps out of habit, he began packing up his belongings. With little hesitation, Shaffer stepped into the harsh elements of New England and began the long trudge north.
In addition to his brother John, Shaffer is survived by two other brothers, Daniel of York, Pa., and Evan of Greenfield, S.C.; and a sister, Anna Shaffer Miller, also of York.
Donations in Earl Shaffer’s name can be made to the Salvation Army.