I finger the small black leather journal in my palm and bring it up to my nose to inhale its scent. It is soft and lined, almost seventy years old. Its cover is worn by the fingerprints of a great man, a hero, and a leader. He carried it on an epic journey, through sleet and snow and rain and baking sun along a huge mountain range. It is the journal of Earl Shaffer, the first man to hike the entire 2,185-mile National Scenic Appalachian Trail (AT) in one stretch. He is the father of the long distance hiking culture, my pen pal and friend who directly influenced my life as a writer. I am in the Archives Center of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC to discover
In 1947, Earl returned from the war in the Pacific with a broken heart. He lost his childhood friend, Walter in Iwo Jima, whom he tramped the woods with from adolescence until they were both deployed in World War II. Walter died and abandoned Earl with their mutual dream to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. No one had ever thru-hiked the long trail, where one begins at the trail’s southern terminus in Georgia and does not stop hiking until one has gained the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The feat was thought by many to be impossible, and perhaps none had found reason for such a long hike until returning from a war. The soldiers planned to hike it when the war was over. Earl had to do it alone, however, carrying along just Walter’s memory.
He wrote in his AT journal….
“Those four and a half years of army service, more than half of it in combat areas of the Pacific, without furlough or even rest leave, had left me confused and depressed. Perhaps this trip would be the answer.
World War II veterans did not get tested by a psychologist to determine their level of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), once referred to as “shell shock.” They received no aid from the Veteran’s Administration, no counseling. Earl took this life situation into his own hands and sought a solution. He would attempt to walk off the war along the length of the Appalachian Trail.
The AT was the dream of forester Benton Mac Kaye, who also conceived the idea of the Interstate Highway system, and participated with Gifford Pinchot to establish our system of national forests and parks.
The trail was designated by the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1937 (re-named the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2005) after twenty-five years in the planning and construction stages. This confederation of local hiking clubs is comprised of thousands of volunteers who build and maintain the entire route, as well orchestrate the construction of 225 shelters.
The war effort took the trail maintainers away, however. While they fought to overcome the Germans, the green briar and the blow downs fought to overcome the trail.
Armed with compass and roadmap, Earl shouldered his Army gear, complete with pit helmet as a sunhat. He often walked sockless in his army boots, searching for the 2” X 6” white painted blazes on the trees, ever heading northbound.
Earl continued in his journal…
“My plan was to move north with the spring, with the seasonal change, with no definite day by day goals but never tarrying long, as weather and terrain permitted. The early start from the south would allow maximum of at least six months to reach and cross the timberline of New England.”
Earl spent much of his journey searching for the trail, looking for signs that the trail even existed and wading through waist-deep beaver ponds in the process. With Earl blazing the way for us all, he very much helped to create this iconic symbol of adventure, what was to become the American journey of a lifetime.
The pages of Earl’s little leather journal are covered with expressive cursive handwriting, scribed with a fountain pen that bled through some of the pages, probably when the night was damp. At the end of the book are poems. Earl was not just a long distance backpacker and hiker but also a writer. He allowed his feelings, his grief and disappointment, his joy and love of the natural world, pour forth through his poetry. In many ways it saved him. In his journal, it is possible to follow his train of thought as he crossed out words, searching for a better one to describe what he was feeling. Readers are transported under his tarp in the great green tunnel of the Appalachian woods, as he penned his words by candlelight.
Go ye out to the mountains
Far far from a town
Stretch yourself on the clean forest floor
Gaze aloft through the canopy
To frown and remember your troubles no more
In the archives, I found a cover letter to Doubleday Books introducing his poems for possible publication.
Many of these verses were written under the most difficult conditions, often by firelight, flashlight, candlelight or moonlight, and sometimes key phrases were scribbled blindly during total blackout. I carried the ever growing collection with me all over the Pacific, in and out of customs, on shipboard, in planes, hunched in mosquito bars, on mail sacks, in pup tents. The results are not calculated to be sophisticated but rather are meant to record a portion of the intricate pattern of global conflict, as seen by a soldier who was a minute part of it.
My purpose in writing is to help provide some understanding of what I and my buddies experienced, in the hope that such knowledge will be of value in shaping a better future.
Earl’s manuscript of poems was not present in the Smithsonian collection; just a few in the back of his trail journal. The archive historian had no idea what became of them. They were never published.
His Appalachian Trail memoir was eventually published…Walking with Spring with the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1982.
After I completed my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1979, Earl and I wrote long handwritten letters back and forth. Hiking the trail had coaxed the writer out of me, and Earl was a great source of inspiration. I shared my manuscript with him and he offered feedback. My first book, A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail, hand written in calligraphy and illustrated with 125 ink and charcoal drawings would become a classic, in print for over thirty consecutive years. It too was published in 1982, the same year as Walking with Spring.
The publisher of Earls’ book, Brian King of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, told me that for years, Earl would stop in and see him at the organizations’ headquarters whenever he was in the area. The two men would sit and chat and Earl would still tear up decades later, when he spoke of his friend, Walter, and this great loss in his life.
Hiking the AT certainly helped Earl cope with his PTSD, but perhaps what was most therapeutic was how he designed his life afterwards. Earl realized that to stay truly happy and on the road to healing, he had to adopt those same qualities and principals that he gleaned from the trail and incorporate them into his lifestyle.
When I first met Earl at the age of 75 in 1995, he looked closer to 50. He was strong, well-built, glowing from a life of living healthy. He maintained the same weight for 55 years, had never needed a doctor, took no pills, and didn’t even need to wear eye glasses. At his rural York County, Pennsylvania home, he raised chickens and goats, kept bees, raised his own organic food and maintained an orchard. He hand dug a spring fed pond which was his water source, and laid a stone road by hand through a swampy section on his property. Earl found that living a simple lifestyle close to the earth, allowing one to work the soil with your hands is a very therapeutic way to heal and live.
Earl earned a great deal of his income from peddling goods at flea markets, a livelihood that paralleled his beliefs of recycling and reusing. Even as a youth, Earl sold his handiwork, using money he made from trapping furs to pay for his clothes, often with his childhood friend, Walter. The freedom he found walking off the war from Georgia to Maine became such a need that he devised a way to support himself and keep that freedom.
Earl successfully re-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail at the age of 79 on the 50th anniversary of his thru-hike. He died a few years later.
The table that I sit at to now write this book was given to me by Earl. My husband had just built me a writing cabin and I needed a table to write on. During my visit to Earl, we explored his barn of refinished antiques, and found an American chestnut table with thick, turned legs that he had stripped of paint that would do the job. I slide my hands over the smooth wooden surface, knowing his hands rubbed oil into the grain of the table top. I come out here to this place of solace to write my own books.
Since Earl thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1948, 14,000 hikers have completed the entire journey, earning the title, “2,000 Miler.” Many, like me and my husband, Todd, have gone on to also hike the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. This status earns the title of “Triple Crown Hikers.” Earl has helped to create a whole culture of people who have discovered the healing power of nature, which intensifies when walking the length of our nations’ long trails. And it makes me think of the 2014 Appalachian Trail thru-hikers ready to embark on their life-changing journey with such high hopes. They follow in his footsteps. I read one more quote before I set his journal aside…
And now the time had come. Why not walk the army out of my system, both mentally and physically, take pictures and notes along the way, make a regular expedition out of it. It will benefit me at a time of very low ebb.
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