The First Thru-HIker
July 21, 2009 10:28 AM   Subscribe

In 1948, WWII veteran Earl Shaffer decided to "walk the Army out of his system" by hiking the full length of the Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine, in one season. At the time, no one had attempted it, and the Appalachian Trail Conference didn't think it could be done. Not only did he complete it, setting the standard for generations of thru-hikers to follow, but he did the walk twice more in his life, the last time at the age of 79.
posted by Miko (36 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Cool post, thanks. [Sanford comment deleted, "insert" your own]
posted by joe lisboa at 10:30 AM on July 21, 2009

Thank you for this post. We need to restore the phrase "Hiking the Appalachian Trail" to its rightful meaning as an expression of walking in a forest on a mountainous trail on the eastern side of the United States, so one day people will no longer hear that expression and think about cheating on ones wife in Argentina.
posted by ardgedee at 10:34 AM on July 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

I have to say that Sanford didn't even occur to me. I guess I hadn't realized that it was a pervasive enough scandal to color, at least for a while, the meaning of "Hiking the Appalachian Trail."
posted by Miko at 10:37 AM on July 21, 2009

Nice, thanks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:39 AM on July 21, 2009

That is really cool. I have wanted to do this for a long time; it's good to know I have a few years left before I am too old.
posted by TedW at 10:40 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

For a great, fabulous, wonderful story about hiking the AT (I was just there this weekend!), read "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson. Excellent, excellent. You'll LOL. For real.
posted by TomMelee at 10:45 AM on July 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Wow, 2,175 miles! I'm usually up for walking ten or twelve miles for no reason at all, but hiking two hundred times that distance, damn.
posted by adipocere at 10:47 AM on July 21, 2009

TomMelee - I came in here to post that link. A Walk In The Woods is one of my favorite books, of any genre. I absolutely adore that book, and read it nightly while on backpacking trips.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:56 AM on July 21, 2009

Very cool. Everything back then seemed more difficult - I wouldn't last a day in a pair of boots from the 40's much less do a few thousand miles in 'em.
posted by GuyZero at 10:58 AM on July 21, 2009

Thank you for this post! I will be thru-hiking the AT once my daughter is grown. Until then, I read books like Appalachian Hiker and links like these to feed my trail lust. :-)
posted by chihiro at 10:59 AM on July 21, 2009

Thank for this, Miko. I'm not sure why, but somehow this post just made my day.
posted by JeffK at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2009

What a cool story.

And not that it matters, but -- is it just me, or is the text in the second link doing that "oh, he's gay and everyone knows it, but we're not going to come right out and say it" thing?
posted by mudpuppie at 11:20 AM on July 21, 2009

Yeah, I was a little puzzled by that too - no mention of any family or a wife yet there's explicit mention of his "hiking partner" at his side when he died.

It could simply be that he preferred privacy in his life but it could also read as a pretty mealy-mouthed attempt to hide the fact that he was a perfectly nice gay man. I dunno. By the same token, my bios rarely every include phrases like "he was a lifelong heterosexual"and it's not like he was some sort of activist. he was just a guy who hiked a lot.
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on July 21, 2009

"Thru-hiking" seems to have gone from man against nature to roving packs of hippies in tennis shoes eating ramen on trail, then hitchhiking to and from town to eat pizza. Dunno why, but I kind of lost my desire to do a thru hike, even the CDT is pretty overrun any more. Sorry for the derail, Earl seems like a hell of a guy.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 11:32 AM on July 21, 2009

> I have to say that Sanford didn't even occur to me. I guess I hadn't realized that it was a pervasive enough scandal to color, at least for a while, the meaning of "Hiking the Appalachian Trail."

Sorry. I meant it earnestly. I've done very small sections of it have a couple friends who've through-hiked it. I envy them for being able to take the months off for that.
posted by ardgedee at 11:35 AM on July 21, 2009

Also, don't forget the Pacific Crest Trail, which is the one I want to do...having grown up basically ON the AT.

FWIW, there are actually some significant movements to extend the AT into Alabama to the south and Newfoundland to the North.

I cannot remember his name, but there is a gentleman who has been hiking them both, first down and then up and then switching, for several years now. He's a machine.
posted by TomMelee at 11:38 AM on July 21, 2009

I got to meet Earl a few times many years ago. He was very generous with his time when I wanted to talk to him about my own planned AT hike. I remember him telling me about how he didn't wear socks when he hiked. Instinctively, I glanced down at his feet. "I wear socks other times," he said patiently. "Just not when I hike."

Earl's book Walking with Spring is worth reading.
posted by maurice at 11:40 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Here's his NYTimes obituary, which I wish I'd found and put in the post. It doesn't shed any light on the question of his sexuality; he does sound like a quirky loner, but that's in no way definitive. Usually the Times, at least in recent years, will make note of life partners where that's generally known. His hiking partner may have been just that - I don't feel like we have enough information to know.
posted by Miko at 11:48 AM on July 21, 2009

Of the 3 major north-south long distance trails in the US, the AT is one of if not the hardest. The Western trails have higher elevations but you stay up there - the App Mountains are so old and eroded it's constant up and down. Total vertical is 90 miles (471,151 feet) in 2,176.2 miles. By comparison the Pacific Crest Trail is 85 miles (450,800 feet) in 2,658 miles and the Continental Divide Trail is 77.6 miles in 3100 miles. Of course the logistics of food/water/shelter are the easiest along the AT. The scenery the least spectacular, most of the time in a tree canopy tunnel, but still beautiful in the Appalachian cool weather rain forest sort of way.

To give some sense of how difficult it is, 90 miles of elevation is like climbing mt Everest from sea level and back 16 times. Not everyone can do this is one season, or should even try, but people do.
posted by stbalbach at 11:48 AM on July 21, 2009

I have hiked many segments of the AT and enjoyed them all. I used to fantasize about thru-hiking, but in the last decade or so, the desire has worn off. I'm very glad the trail exists, but I've heard and read a lot of accounts that emphasize the monotony, the up and down that stbalbach mentions, and the logistical challenges. That, and Eastern deciduous forest doesn't offer that much variety - I feel like, for six months on the trail, I'd like more landscape variation. It's also very, very close to 'civilisation' along a lot of its length; some camping areas and lean-tos double as party pits and hookup zones on weekend nights nearest the populated areas. Thru-hiking has come to seem like something one would do more as a walking meditation than an outdoor discovery adventure - not that I want the trail to go away; it's precious in a lot of ways, and I've enjoyed the time I've spent there. I'm just no longer sure thru-hiking is the experience of it that I want to have.

But you never know. If I'm 70 and bored....
posted by Miko at 11:56 AM on July 21, 2009

I spent this past weekend on the AT. I would like to spend many more weekends there. Real life gets in the way though.
posted by COD at 12:02 PM on July 21, 2009

His hiking partner may have been just that - I don't feel like we have enough information to know.

I feel bad for starting the speculation. I certainly believe that it's nobody's business but his own, and it has absolutely no relevance to anything he accomplished. I was mostly commenting on the way the About page was worded. It was so reminiscent of the hopefully bygone "longtime companion" days. But I didn't mean to imply that his sexuality should necessarily be part of his story, so I'm sorry for introducing it!

posted by mudpuppie at 12:07 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

some significant movements to extend the AT into Alabama to the south

Eastern Continental Trail. Mash-up.
posted by stbalbach at 12:11 PM on July 21, 2009

Doing some research for a possible future vacation, I just discovered the relatively new Via Alpina, which is a hut to hut trail system spanning the length of the Alps, from Trieste to Monaco. The website is awesome -- stage by stage descriptions and maps for the whole thing, for free. That's the one I really want to do.
posted by rusty at 12:52 PM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

I am alittle low brow because my first response to AT was to think of Sanford. Looks like he missed out on an amazing trip.
posted by tothemoon at 1:03 PM on July 21, 2009

rusty, that sounds incredibly amazing! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:04 PM on July 21, 2009

From his obituary:

"He got electricity two years ago, but never had running water or a refrigerator."

That's just amazing to me. I could possibly see living without a refrigerator, but no running water? Wow.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 1:07 PM on July 21, 2009

... [He] never visited a doctor from the time he left the service until he made his 1998 hike. He believed in the restorative powers of things like blackstrap molasses, green tea and a daily tablespoon of vinegar.

posted by Rashomon at 1:57 PM on July 21, 2009

Part of the AT runs through my alma mater's campus. I didn't know this my freshman fall. I worked the breakfast shift at the dining hall, which had an all-you-can-eat buffet that wasn't restricted to students and faculty.

One glorious morning I went out to the buffet to refill some eggs or something and encountered two wild-haired unbathed-looking guys who were filling plate upon plate upon bowl with eggs and bacon and fruit and bagels and cereal and glasses of juice and oatmeal and cottage cheese and yogurt and....we had it, they ate it.

I went to ask someone what was up. "Thru-hikers," I was told. Hardcore ones, apparently, who'd been living off freeze-dried food for too long.

Later, I lived in a sort of group house that had an open-door policy for thru-hikers - if they needed a shower, or a couch to crash on for the night, or a TV to stare at for a few hours, they could come to us. I met a lot of weird ones, a few who couldn't talk to people so good after not talking much for too long, but they were all pretty nice. Cleaned up after themselves, maybe left a can of beans or a book they didn't want to carry any more.

More than strong legs, you need a strong psyche to hike the AT from end to end.
posted by rtha at 2:51 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a great post. For years I've enjoyed reading accounts of thru-hikers. I would love to do it, in theory, but the reality is I'd last about 3 days. It's interesting to think about how different the trail was when Shaffer did it, especially the first time.

If anyone is interested in other accounts of thru-hikes, a few that I've enjoyed include:

On The Beaten Path

Walking Home
posted by Kangaroo at 4:22 PM on July 21, 2009

A book I really enjoyed was The Appalachian Trail Reader, a collection of stories, essays, and poems that offer a take on just about every aspect of the trail: geology, history, spirtuality ... you name it.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 4:50 PM on July 21, 2009

I was at this exhibit at the Smithsonian this afternoon. They have the boots he wore while doing the whole hike. They were basically disintegrated.

A plaque by the boots said that they gave him blisters when he first started off, and the terrain was too rough to go barefoot (the usual method, apparently) so he took off his socks and put sand in his boots to toughen his feet.

I can't quite wrap my head around that. That was one tough guy.
posted by MrVisible at 6:03 PM on July 21, 2009

I took my time - it took me 7 months.
posted by bradth27 at 6:24 PM on July 21, 2009

My friend through-hiked between college and medschool. He burned 3 pairs of modern boots on the walk.
posted by TomMelee at 6:50 PM on July 21, 2009

Another reader for whom this post is a treat. I recommend Colin Fletcher's books. If I ever get my books unpacked, I'll reread The Man who Walked Through Time.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on July 22, 2009

Addition: new Smithsonian Mag piece, Tales from the Appalachian Trail, briefly profiling 10 thru hikers.
posted by Miko at 1:18 PM on July 27, 2009

« Older Why We Say Yes to Drugs   |   Sister Rosetta Tharpe Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments