Earl Shaffer, the First Thru-Hiker of the AT, Embodied the Trail’s Soul

On April 4, 1948, 29-year-old Earl Shaffer shouldered a rucksack and started hiking near Mt. Oglethorpe in Georgia. He soon encountered a picnicker and stopped to chat. The picnicker looked Shaffer over and asked where he was headed. “Maine,” said Shaffer. “Huh. I’m glad I have more sense,” replied the picnicker. With that, Shaffer continued on, pointed roughly north, in the direction of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, over 2,000 miles away, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. When Shaffer finished some four months later, he had become the first person to thru-hike the AT.

The concept of a FKT, or, heck, an Only Known Time, wasn’t really a thing back then, but for many years, Shaffer’s hike of the AT in 124 days would have been a record. More importantly, however, is that Shaffer not only hiked the whole AT in one go—prior hikers had completed the entire trail in sections—but that he essentially established the concept of the thru-hike in the process.

It’s not entirely clear whether the idea of hiking the AT in one continuous push was even considered by the trail builders when they laid out the AT’s sections in the early 1920s. Shaffer didn’t set out to finish the whole dang thing for accolades, either. He’d hiked parts of the trail in years past with his childhood buddy Walt Winemiller and the two had discussed hiking all the trail when it was officially completed in 1937. After Winemiller was killed in WWII, Shaffer decided to take it on himself.

Shaffer was born in York, Pennsylvania, not far from a stretch of the current AT, in 1918. After high school, he worked as a carpenter and a fur trapper, always on the lookout for work in a Depression-era downturn. He joined the Army in the spring of 1941 and was put to work as a radar equipment technician in the South Pacific. After the war, Shaffer returned home a bit listless. He’d read that the AT had been hiked in sections, but not yet in one thru-hike, and that many doubted it was possible. That doubt was part of the motivation he needed. Shaffer also wanted to put his war experience in the rearview mirror, at least as much as possible.

“I wanted to walk the war out of my system,” he once said.

And walk he did.

Shaffer early on got rid of his tent, in a bid to save weight and preferring instead to sleep only under the cover of his poncho. He carried no stove, cooking over an open fire. No maps, navigating by trail signs and his wits. No sleeping mat either. Whatever the 1948 version of an ultralight backpacker was, it certainly applied to Shaffer. He hiked the entire AT in the same pair of boots, the “Birdshooter” model from Russell Moccasin Company. He preferred to go sockless.

“They are smelly,” said a Smithsonian curator, where Shaffer’s boots are part of the permanent collection. “Those cabinets are opened as little as possible.”

The Smithsonian also displays Shaffer’s trail journal, a metal-ringed book filled with his lovely but sparse prose, written in flowery longhand. He considered himself a poet, and his trail observations are lovely, sometimes hilarious, and make for surprisingly good reading (The journal has been digitized and can be read, here). His poetry can be a bit rough:

“When the billowy clouds are as gleaming as snow
In a sky of cerulean blue
Streaming by in a pattern of effortless flow
Constantly and refreshingly new
Go ye out to the mountains, far far from a town
Stretch yourself on the clean forest floor
[[change ink color]] Gaze aloft through the canopy, ceasing to frown
And remember your troubles no more.”

But when writing about the trail, he had a gift for observation and description.

“Sang Lullaby Yodel as I hiked. My voice must terrify wild things. A grouse hen fluttered on trail ahead; chirping pitifully and acting crippled. Seconds later tiny brown chicks went scurrying from underfoot; cheeping like tiny peeps. Mother came back within a few feet ruffling her feathers and ready to fight. I’m convinced she would have tackled me if I had hurt chicks. Grouse usually are very wild. If she could have known my thoughts she would have proudly lined up her brood for a picture.”

Shaffer’s notebook. Via Smithsonian.

After his hike, Shaffer settled into a deeply rural life. He lived in a log cabin surrounded by goats and cats, with no running water and no refrigeration. Shaffer drew drinking water from a nearby spring and downed a spoonful of vinegar each day for health. He didn’t have access to electricity until 2000. Shaffer continued a piecemeal employment strategy working off and on as a beekeeper, a carpenter, and an antiques dealer. He was something of an amateur Volkswagen mechanic, with a small fleet of microbuses in various states of function parked on his property.

In 1965, Shaffer decided to hike the AT again, this time from Maine to Georgia. Concerned with finishing quickly, he cut nearly a month off his record for the first thru-hike, but found the experience less fulfilling than his first go-round. Partly because of his rushed pace and partly because he started in late summer and there were fewer wildflowers to enjoy.

At age 79, in 1998, Shaffer returned to Georgia and set out for yet another thru-hike of the AT as a 50th-anniversary celebration of his original trek. This time, a slower and more reflective Shaffer finished in 173 days. At the time he was the oldest person to complete the AT, adding to his status as the Grandfather of the AT.

Shaffer began that hike in $10 boots from a thrift store, his tattered old Army jacket, and a pith helmet.

In 1983, Shaffer self-published a memoir of his hiking, Walking With Spring, which has since become a cherished title among AT hikers. “The board sign was battered and weatherbeaten, its posts held up by a heap of gathered stones,” the book begins. “A wintry wind gusted across the bleak and isolated summit, rustling brown leaves among the scraggly grass and muttering through the surrounding trees and bush.” It’s a cracking lede and one that inspired countless hikers to pick up Shaffer’s mantle and carry on.

Shaffer passed away in 2002 at age 83, having lived an outdoor life entirely on his own terms, working when he saw fit, strumming a guitar and singing to his animal companions as the sun set over pink horizons over his Pennsylvania cabin, hiking every day. Three thru-hikes of the AT later, his life well-lived actually may be Shaffer’s true legacy.

Below is an interview a 79-year-old Shaffer gave NPR in 1998, the day after finishing his 50th-anniversary hike.

Words by Justin Housman. Top photo: Facebook




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