Not long after he embarked on his historic hike of the 2,168-mile
Appalachian Trail in April 1948, Earl Shaffer encountered a
family enjoying a picnic lunch in the northern Georgia hills.
"Where you headin'?" asked the husband.
"To Maine," Shaffer replied.
The man's wife couldn't stifle a chuckle. Shaking her head, she
said, "I'm glad I got sense, Mister. I'm glad I got sense."
However, on Aug. 5, 1948, Shaffer--who died earlier this month
from liver cancer at age 83--arrived atop Mount Katahdin in Maine,
the first person to conquer North America's most famous trail.
Solely the domain of day hikers when it was completed in 1937,
the AT became a through-hiking mecca after Shaffer's trailblazing
feat. More than 6,600 wayfarers have followed in his footsteps,
ranging from college-age hipsters to eccentric grandmothers to
rugged individualists straight out of Walden.
Shaffer led an intensely private life in York Springs, Pa., where
he lived with a cat and two goats in a house without running
water or, until recently, electricity. He was a prolific, if
little-known, writer whose death came just weeks after the
publication of his second book, The Appalachian Trail: Calling Me
Back to the Hills, which recounts his 1998 hike of the trail.
Donning the same primitive gear he had 50 years earlier (pith
helmet, Army-issue rucksack, leather boots, no socks), Shaffer,
at age 79, walked the AT in 173 days. "I'm mighty glad it's
over," he said at trail's end. "If I had to go another week, I'd
fall on my face." --Greg Bowers
COLOR PHOTO: GREG MAHANY/THE YORK DISPATCH