Artifacts in need of a campsite

In an age of Gore-Tex and Power Bars, a proposed museum would honor hiking's simpler days.

June 20, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

HARPERS FERRY, W. Va. -- Larry Luxenberg thinks it's a shame people can't see Emma Gatewood's shower curtain. Or Gene Espy's 40-year-old wool socks.

For Luxenberg, an author, New York financial adviser and passionate hiker, these everyday items are sacred icons of the sport he loves. He wants to display them and other historic hiking artifacts in a museum near the Appalachian Trail Conference headquarters in this historic town.

Such a museum, he says, would honor people like Gatewood and Espy, who found pleasure in putting one foot in front of the other, and, perhaps, inspire folks who believe the great outdoors is the space between their car and the office to, well, take a hike.

But is there really a need for another esoteric shrine in a world that seems bent on honoring everything from Madonna's bras to balls of twine?

Luxenberg has an answer: Today's Power Bar-chomping, Gore-Tex-swaddled hikers sometimes lose sight of the sport's simple allure.


Consider Gatewood, a tennis-shoe-wearing granny, who wowed the outdoors crowd four decades ago with three end-to-end hikes of the now 2,100-mile-long Appalachian Trail, all after her 70th birthday. The sheet of bathroom plastic was her nighttime protection from damp ground and raindrops.

Less was also more for Espy -- the trail's second through-hiker in 1951 -- who still has all his original equipment, including those socks.

And the granddaddy of them all, Earl Shaffer, was the model of simplicity when he became the first man to walk straight through from Georgia to Maine and repeated the feat last year to mark the 50th anniversary: canvas rucksack with the outside pockets cut off, pith helmet, down vest, plaid shirt and work pants and ordinary tan leather boots with the heels shaved down.

"You have to marvel at the equipment," Luxenberg says with a laugh. "You wouldn't catch a lot of people stepping out that way today."

In the talking stage

Luxenberg, a 1980 trail through-hiker and author of "Walking the Appalachian Trail," acknowledges the museum idea is still in the talking stages, but warns that Espy's socks aren't getting any fluffier.

"When I was researching my book, I realized that a lot of memorabilia and old equipment was being lost," he says. "Harpers Ferry is a natural location."

His best shot at stirring up the troops will come next month at the Appalachian Trail Conference's weeklong convention in Virginia.

Putting hiking history under glass might seem to hard-core adventurers like knotting a tie around Paulie Shore's neck, or making rules for a food fight.

"It makes sort of institutional something that's recreational," says Brian King, spokesman for the ATC, which oversees maintenance of the 2,000-mile trail. But the American Hiking Society's Mary Margaret Sloan says a museum could have real appeal for weekend warriors and students.

"My hiking museum is the trail, but depending on how it's executed, it could be pretty interesting and educational," she says.

King says a museum in concert with an education center is a legitimate idea. But, he says, the center would cost "in the low six figures" to run, and money is tight.

"You have to ask yourself if that would come before volunteer recruitment and training," he says.

While the clothing and equipment of hiking pioneers might be the draw, the heart of the museum would be its archives, Luxenberg says.

National organizations keep reference works and store their own records, but don't have the attic space for lots of other peoples' stuff. Luxenberg worries that if someone doesn't account for these historic walking sticks and diaries, they might get thrown out with the trash.

Shaffer's slides from his 1948 hike, for example, are safe, but many hiking clubs and outdoor organizations have trailhead registers, photographs and newsletters that are yellowing and turning to dust.

"They don't have the room to store them or the technical expertise to preserve them," Luxenberg says. "I think there's a lot of interest in donating this material."

Sloan says she hears all the time from groups that have run out of space and are looking for storage. "It's definitely a concern," she says.

Since he took on the task, Luxenberg has gotten offers from museum professionals who have volunteered to help assess and catalog donations, but first he needs a building.

"It would take a separate building to do it right," says the ATC's King. "But if the opportunity arose, we'd jump at the chance."

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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