A true Appalachian trailblazer

OUTDOORS

May 12, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

He died last week at a York Springs, Pa., veterans hospital of liver cancer.

Earl Shaffer was the first man to walk from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail in one trek. But his death, at 83, received little or no notice.

Shaffer was famous, but he didn't wear his achievements on the outside of his pack. He didn't like a lot of fuss.

He also didn't like people snoring in trail shelters.

Yes, he was crotchety. But in a good way.

He loved the songs "San Antonio Rose" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" for their key changes and strong beat. He loved black raspberry ice cream. He loved simple things.

In this Gore-Tex-laminated, fleece-insulated, GPS-triangulated world, Shaffer went into the woods in a pith helmet, down vest, plaid shirt, blue work pants and ordinary tan leather boots with the heels shaved down for better traction. He stuffed his belongings in an old Army rucksack.

A Pennsylvania native, Shaffer walked the trail the first time in 1948 as a World War II veteran. It was supposed to be a buddy hike, but Walter Winemiller, a neighbor and fellow outdoorsman from York County, had been killed in the fighting on Iwo Jima.

Shaffer set out from Mount Oglethorpe, Ga., (the original southern terminus) on April 4, 1948, and reached Mount Katahdin in Maine on Aug. 5. He saw only two other hikers during his 2,160-mile trip.

"He was the Lindbergh of American hiking," says Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce, head of the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies and a seven-time thru-hiker.

"He showed it was possible," he says. "Until that time, it was believed doing a thru hike was too difficult for the human body to take. Earl hiked with that knowledge. If he had a few bad days on the trail, he didn't know he wasn't falling apart.

"Since Earl, no one has had to confront that unknown. Sometimes that's lost on people," Bruce says.

When Shaffer told officials at the Appalachian Trail Conference that he'd walked the trail end to end, there were some raised eyebrows. But skepticism turned to admiration, and Shaffer ended up being the group's corresponding secretary for more than two decades.

"He was a genuine hero," says Larry Luxenberg, a New York financial adviser and 1980 thru-hiker. "He set a great example. He stayed active in the hiking community. As corresponding secretary, he was the one who personally gave advice to the thru-hikers those first 20 years."

Shaffer hiked the trail a second time in 1965, going north to south (the southern terminus moved to Springer Mountain), and in so doing became the first hiker to do the trail in both directions.

He was awarded honorary membership in ATC in 1985, one of only 45 people so recognized in the past 47 years.

But he wasn't done. To mark the 50th anniversary of his first hike, Shaffer walked from Georgia to Maine once more, finishing just two weeks shy of his 80th birthday.

From that first hike in 1948 until March of this year, the ATC has received reports of 6,605 thru-hikes.

This weekend starts "Trail Days" in Damascus, the little town in southwestern Virginia where the Appalachian Trail and Main Street are one and the same. More than 20,000 thru-hikers, past and present, hold a reunion with the townspeople who consider it an honor to look after them.

Shaffer had been an honored guest and parade grand marshal. He gathered a huge crowd three years ago, when he showed the slides from his 1948 hike and compared that to the 1998 trek.

In his final days, Shaffer talked to family members about going to Damascus this year, although he knew it wasn't likely. Instead, the hikers on the trail in Virginia sent him a huge card.

"It's like losing part of the family," says Dave Patrick, owner of Mount Rogers Outfitters. "I got to know him over the years and he'd stop in. But he'd always attract a crowd, and it got hard to spend time with him.

"These young folks now are hiking the trail in lightweight gear as if it were something new. But Earl was doing it a long time ago," says Patrick, who was 5 years old the first time Shaffer passed through town.

During Trail Days, a campground will be named for Shaffer, and participants in a non-denominational service next Sunday will have a moment of silence for him.

Ironically, the man who didn't crave the spotlight was about to have it shined on him again, introducing him to yet another generation of hikers.

A book of his poetry and writings, accompanied by photos by Bart Smith, had been published last month. Shaffer was busily conducting interviews and autographing a print of Mount Katahdin from the book for a fund raiser when he found he was terminally ill.

"Poetry and photography kind of go hand in hand. They work on the same side of the brain," Smith says. "It's frustrating that he died when he did because he had so much more to say."

Shaffer wanted to be remembered foremost for his poetry and his service as a radio operator during World War II. The Appalachian Trail Conference and the Earl Shaffer Foundation are working out the details of a suitable tribute.

But hikers such as Tom "Sloetoe" McGinnis, a 1979 thru-hiker, are coming up with their own tributes on the Internet. McGinnis, who recalls he last saw Shaffer in January at the Pennsylvania Ruck, writes:

"Like other pioneers in human performance, Earl Shaffer showed us what was possible - he took a single-year thru hike out of the realm of fancy and impossible, and put it squarely into the possible, the feasible, the doable - for anyone willing to try. To this day, the numbers still favor determination over all other characteristics, among those that attempt an Appalachian Trail thru hike and are successful. ... The numbers show that while those that start tend to be experienced young men with the latest gear, those that finish are young, old, male, female, experienced, and not, with the latest gear, and with shredded remnants. What all these thru-hikers have in common is grit. A quiet grit, that they share with Earl Shaffer."

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