50 years as trailblazer Hiker: Earl Shaffer, 79, the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail in both directions, is on a 50th anniversary walk.

July 17, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL -- Stand clear, when you give food to backpackers going all 2,158 miles of the Georgia-to-Maine path. In the wilderness, they're always famished.

Especially if it's Earl Victor Shaffer, the first person to go end to end and the first to go both south to north (1948) and north to south (1965). To mark the 50th anniversary, the 79-year-old from York Springs, Pa., is making one last walk the entire way.

"As long as I don't break a leg or something drastic happens, I'll keep on going and make it," he said yesterday. "I knew it was tough."

Shaffer devoured a huge slice of watermelon that a hiker carried several miles into camp from Earl's brother, John Shaffer of York, Pa. The fruit vanished in seconds into his slight, 150-pound frame. Earl's trail diet is oatmeal, peanut butter and a daily gallon of water.

"Wow" was the only word he could manage. It was worth repeating. "Wow." Five hikers watched, admiring the man they regarded as a legend making a victory stroll into pedestrian history. They smiled at his happiness Wednesday night.

But some days are depressing, Shaffer acknowledged. On hot and humid Tuesday, he carried his 40-pound pack 15 miles over rough Virginia terrain that gained and lost 5,000 feet. The trail has been moved a lot, so he didn't encounter those hills in 1948.

Overall Shaffer has averaged 13 to 17 miles a day in the 11 weeks since Georgia. After an "easy" day of five miles, Earl was stopping for the night at the David Lesser Memorial Shelter along the Virginia-West Virginia line.

Shaffer is almost halfway to Baxter Peak on Katahdin in Maine. He knows people say only one in 10 through-hikers, or end-to-enders, make it all the way. He thinks, "Maybe it's one in 20."

He has hiked about 1,039 miles and has 1,121 to go. He's behind his schedule by two weeks. "I thought I would finish in August, now it looks like the end of September."

In Harpers Ferry, W.Va., he was the guest of honor yesterday at a party at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference, which helps manage the trail. Brothers John and Daniel and families and hikers welcomed him.

He planned to sleep last night at Sandy Hook Hostel, Sandy Hook, Md., hike today and take the weekend off for a family reunion in Pennsylvania. He would then attack most of the 39.8 miles of Maryland's section on South Mountain's spine. His walk would later take him within 10 miles of his Pennsylvania home.

The lifelong bachelor, who generally hikes alone, met only two fellow walkers in 1948 when the trail was young. Since May 2, when he left Springer Mountain in Georgia, he's met hundreds of backpackers.

"Not nearly as many call me crazy as they used to," he said. His fans laughed.

"You're famous," said one through-hiker, Gail Johnson of Pickens, S.C., who with her husband, Dan, has walked into the woods five times since May 2 to meet Shaffer and bring food and encouragement. Gail appreciated his talent; she hiked the path solo herself in 1996.

Shaffer is so well known in the woods community and so loyal to trail traditions that he never signs his name in shelter registers. He writes hard-to-read initials and a self-deprecating trail name that questions his mental capacity.

"If I signed my name, people would rip out the page for a souvenir," he said.

When asked what he wants to be remembered for, he says, "My writing."

His book "Walking With Spring," published by the Appalachian Trail Conference, recounts with many poetic images his famous 1948 hike. He has written more than 1,000 poems.

Far bells were somewhere singing/Out on the mountains high/Their silver voices singing/Allegro to the sky.

He wrote accounts of his wartime experiences, including a 40-page poem, "Doughboy Odyssey." He is keeping a log, "An Ode to the Appalachian Trail," on this hike.

"Would we know Thoreau, the hiker, without 'Walden' "? he asked.

Like any veteran hiker, Shaffer has his personal rules. Taken together, they fit only him. He is a compact motorcycle engine of a walker, about 5 feet, 8 inches, usually 160 pounds, now 150. He mainly hikes alone at least five miles each day. When on the trail, there are no all-rest days. He likes the one-word description of him by a brother: "Stubborn."

He wears no socks, only powder; no fancy hiking boots, only work boots. He carries no stove, usually eats cold food, much bought at stores near the trail. Occasionally, he cooks eggs in an all-purpose metal container. He carries no tent, only two tarps and a bedroll.

"I love to sleep on the ground at the top of the mountain," he said.

Only 12 times, he has slept in shelters. He did Wednesday and regretted it, waking up angry yesterday. "The guy next to me snored so loud I couldn't sleep. It was awful," he said.

He has no cellular phone. His brother John gave him one in May for the adventure, but Earl mailed it back from the trail after a week. Any extra weight is too much. Purists view cell phones in the wilderness with vigorous disdain.

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