Imagine for a moment being the first documented human being to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine. The rush of emotion, after completing the months-long journey on such a precarious footpath, must have been overwhelming. This was history in the making. Columbus voyaged to the New World, Neil and Buzz stepped onto the lunar surface, and a certain somebody hiked the entire trail of the Appalachian mountains. The gritty trail pioneer would rise from anonymity to make trail history forever after, blazing a path for hikers yet to be born. Hiking the AT all the way through was, and remains still, a remarkable feat.
Drawn to a yellowing newspaper article hanging near a wooden deck of one of the hiker hostels, I read about such a man who accomplished that exact task—hiking the AT continuously in one season from beginning to end. With the headline TRAILBLAZER in bold caps, the faded clipping displayed a black-and-white photographic image of a man wearing a backpack and safari hat. Having a roughened countenance, the man stared with a stern expression. The year was 1948. That was the year that President Truman signed the Marshall Plan and the year Israel was recognized as an independent sovereign nation. It was the year my father was born.
The one of whom I have been referring is Earl Shaffer (aka “The Crazy One”), who in the spring of ‘48, became the first person to hike the complete Appalachian Trail in a single season. In an important sense, Earl became the first so-called “through-hiker” (later truncated to “thru-hiker”), a descriptor of one who is “hiking through.” The term is distinguished from a “section hiker” of which there were seven on the AT prior to Earl’s journey in 1948.
Shaffer, an army radioman from York, Pennsylvania, who had seen war firsthand in the Pacific Theater, commenced his well-publicized hiking trip on April 4, 1948. Beginning his thru-hike at Mt. Oglethorpe—the southern terminus prior to Springer Mountain—Shaffer sought to use the hike as a means of coping with the effects of war. Just as I use my hikes to “walk out” personal burdens when I am downcast, Shaffer, it is said, walked the war out of his system. His youthful wanderings through the forests of Pennsylvania and his spartan ways as a military soldier contributed to his becoming a hiking fixture. In so doing, much public awareness was brought to the trail.
Schaffer’s hiking gear is a story of bare necessity and the subject of much scrutiny. Many critics considered his hiking equipment to be wholly inadequate. He used his army rucksack for a backpack, and his worn boots were his primary footwear. Neither a tent nor a stove were taken—two essential items few hikers today could forego. Therefore, Shaffer went “tentless” and “stoveless” long before the ultralight movement ever existed. “Carry as little as possible,” Shaffer wrote, “but choose that little with care.” Cowboy camping under the stars was the norm for Earl and the way he preferred. After 124 days, Shaffer summited Mount Katahdin (Katahdin means “Great Mountain”), the northern terminus. Remarkably, his daily average was 17 miles per day, an aggressive pace even by today’s standard.
As for my journey through the Appalachians, I have had the privilege of meeting so many outdoorsy hikers who enriched my trail experience. Rancelot, DIY, Downhill, Longlegs, Shepherd, Hums, Velma—and the list goes on and on—are some of the trail names of hikers I passed in recent days. Meeting other hikers provides the rare opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and glean from their unique experiences.
From the GA/NC border, the scenes of Appalachian beauty continued to unfold before me. The Nantahala Wilderness (Nantahala, Cherokee for “Land of the Noonday Sun”) furnished a wonderful setting as I was introduced to the state of North Carolina. One hundred miles into the AT, I came to Albert Mountain, upon which was a fire tower—a site with commanding eagle nest views.
Franklin became my first town stop. A couple members from the Nantahala Outdoor Club who had been day hiking offered me a lift into town. They dropped me off at Ingles, a popular grocery chain in the region, to resupply. Spidy, who owns and operates the Barn AT Hiker Hostel, picked me up in town and took me back to the hostel for the night. He and his wife, who are among the friendliest people I have met, are both retired from the Marine Corps. Spidy retrofitted part of his spacious wood shop to accommodate thru-hikers. The hostel includes multiple sleeping cots, a living room space, a laundry facility, and an outdoor heated shower. The next morning, prior to the hostelers rejoining the trail, Spidy and his wife fed us a hearty multi-course breakfast. Out of my usual curious nature, I asked Spidy if there was anything that had specifically prompted his decision to create a hiker hostel. Charitably giving to others of one’s time and resources surely had an underlying motivation. Spidy explained that when he had thru-hiked the AT back in 2018, there was one particular trail angel that helped and inspired him in a most gripping way. The man’s name was Rob Bird and he had been well known within the AT community for some twenty years. The trail angel sported his beloved white vehicle, “Casper, the Friendly AT Van.” Bird regularly offered drinks and food as “trail magic” to hikers and assisted them with all the logistics he could, including handling resupply boxes and shuttling for “slackpacking.” He cared deeply for hikers, giving them hugs or what he affectionately called Vitamin H. Unfortunately, on February 28th, which happened to be the day I started my AT hike from Springer, Bird passed away after losing a battle with brain cancer. Spidy became so moved by Bird’s acts of kindness that he decided to begin the undertaking of transforming his property into a community space for hikers. Appreciative of Bird’s generosity, the pay-it-forward attitude lives on and a whole new wave of hikers are bestowed with blessings.
The Byrn Memorial Tower was yet another worthy stop along this section. From the stony tower one can see for miles upon miles over the hilly green treetops. The tower was empty when I arrived; in fact, no other hiker could be found on the whole ridge. With the wind soothingly running through my hair, there was an unrepeatable moment of repose.
Along the way I met a Michigan FKT’er (Fastest Known Time) who was attempting a Calendar-Year Triple Crown (CYTC). CYTC’ers typically “flip flop” on the three trails (i.e., AT, CDT, PCT) throughout the year, such that weather windows are hit and conditions optimized. The hiker wore only a day pack since his girlfriend served as his support system, meeting him at pre-arranged road crossings for food and water replenishments. He asked if I wanted to hike a section of trail with him; feeling energized, I agreed knowing my pace could be kept. We walked together into the night all the way to the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). The NOC (sometimes referred to by the pronunciation of the acronym, the “knock”) was closed upon our late arrival. I went back up the switchbacks aways and bedded down for the evening. Then, in the morning and early afternoon hours, I hit up the general store for ice cream and ate a barbecue-topped pizza at River’s End Restaurant. The 8.3-mile sustained climb out of Nantahala was brutal; however, the views atop Cheoah Bald justified any calf pain or achy shoulders.
Upon passing the BMT junction and arriving at the Fontana Crossings area, I headed down to the marina store for a fuel canister and also got a free popsicle on the house! A shuttle driver transported me to the lodge to pick up a resupply box that had been sent out for the Smokies section. The box was bursting at the seams with sausages, Easy Mac, and dried pineapple. Also, among the box’s contents were income tax forms with pre-stamped labeled envelopes. Filing taxes on trail is not a highlight but was necessary, and a little pre-planning made the process painless.
The “Fontana Hilton,” so-called because of the shelter’s luxurious amenities, exceeded my expectations. As the largest, cleanest, and most splendid shelter on trail, the double-decker hiker Hilton contains space for numerous hikers. There is a solar charger, water pump, picnic tables, fire ring, and even a separate bath house! I hung out at the Hilton for several hours chatting with other hikers while waiting out a rain storm. Although I had originally planned on staying the night, a restless urge led me to cross the dam and enter the Smokies in the late afternoon.
The dam itself was enormous. The FDR-era Fontana dam and hydroelectric facility, built to support the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) and the aluminum industry during the Second World War, is regulated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The sheer drop off of the dam, one of the tallest of its kind in the world, is mind-bending. In fact, Fontana Dam is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rockies. Needless to say, I snapped a lot of dam pictures! Upon crossing the dam road, I entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Having printed my thru-hiker permit at the lodge’s front desk, I tore off the bottom half and deposited it into a designated box near the park’s entrance.
Within the 74-mile park section of the AT, I weaved in and out of North Carolina and Tennessee. The hike was noticeably foggy compared to sections hiked previously. In the Smokies, the plant and tree life let off vapors that produce the foggy or “smoky” effect for which the area is known. The fog (which is a misnomer) was especially thick in the wee morning hours and the beam from my headlamp could not penetrate through it.
Hikers are required to stay in or around the shelters while within the confines of the park. Each shelter has backpack hooks along with bear-proof cables nearby for suspending one’s food bag. The trail winding through the park was rich with scenery, often taking the hiker up high on rocky ridges and crests. Clingmans Dome was of special significance as I experienced the spiraling ramp tower all alone on a drizzly foggy morning. In my younger days, I read about the tower at Clingmans in a National Geographic magazine. The issue featuring the 45-foot observation tower with its 375-foot curving ramp was burned into my memory. The structure had been constructed in 1959 and marked the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT (6,612 ft). Clingmans is also the third highest peak east of the Mississippi. It’s a gem of our National Parks and a sacred tribal center of the Cherokee.
Newfound Gap marked a roadside point of the Tennessee/North Carolina border. There was a large parking lot upon which camera-toting tourists were swarming. The highway crossing provides easy access to Gatlinburg, which is a popular side trip destination among hikers. One day while in the park, I walked down to see some remnants of a plane crash. Apparently, there was a military aircraft that had collided on the mountain back in the 1980s. Exiting the park, I camped a mile shy of Interstate 40 where “Pitstop” (Dave), my personal trail angel from Colorado, picked me up the following morning. A double zero was just what I needed after the Smokies, and the timing was spot on because I managed to evade a snowstorm. We stayed in his camper trailer in Statesville, which is a town just outside of Asheville. As before, Pitstop cooked delectable calorie-heavy meals and got me back on trail with a smile.
The positive experience that I have had is largely credited to those trail fathers and mothers who went before me. There is much to learn from Earl Shaffer alone, the man who took on a challenge that others doubted could be done. In point of fact, some ATC naysayers questioned his accomplishment even after he completed the historic hike from Oglethorpe to Katahdin. Extraordinary claims, it is said, necessitate extraordinary evidence. Shaffer, carefully documenting his thru-hike, was able to generate such proof. Shaffer wrote copious notes as his daily entries into the “Little Black Book,” the name given to his trail diary. He also entered detailed information into the logbooks kept at the shelters where he stayed. Still further, Shaffer regularly snapped photographs and sent postcards with sketches capturing scenes from the trail.
In much the same way and in a similar tradition, my hike of the ECT is also cautiously documented. Although I do not carry a “Little Black Book,” I have developed a system of my own for keeping track of daily hiking activities and the overall expedition. All of my miles are carefully logged and reported each evening at camp in my tent during “debriefing.” A screenshot of my campsite is taken every night and publicly posted on a social media platform along with the day number, date, and miles completed on the respective trail. Furthermore, I wear a GPS tracker, which shows my exact whereabouts at any given moment. I’m an open book; there are no secrets as to the path I am walking. This provides transparency and accountability. My live tracking data is publicly available through Garmin’s MapShare, the link which can be found on my website (houseonmyback.com). If anyone were to doubt my mileage data or question whether I hitchhiked up trail (a big no-no for a purist!), they could, with the click of a computer mouse, evaluate the waypointed tracking record and see the exact route taken. Just as Shaffer faced ATC skeptics demanding evidence-heavy proof, I also want to withstand the voices of doubt and ensure my hiking trip is thoughtfully conducted and recorded. A hike needs a clear starting and ending point. There are many hikers who claim to have hiked numerous trails yet can’t even seem to produce a monument photo. It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to do it.
Photographs are also very much a part of my documenting process. The purpose is to photographically document subjects that communicate a continuous record. It’s a “docu-hike.” With a photo-journalistic mindset, I tend to emphasize signs, place names, shelters, and any other you-were-there content. Digital photos, with all their sophistication, can embed the time along with locational data. Elaborate records are reported and entered into a spreadsheet by my trusted friend Dave. He and I, working independently, keep separate tallies of the miles and compare notes every couple weeks. The spreadsheet is publicly available on social media. A documentarian ought to be concerned and preoccupied with factual content much like that of an investigative reporter or crime scene worker. Facts matter and, logged correctly, will provide a clean record of achievement to look back on in the future.
Although a careful recording process ensures integrity in terms of a hiker’s documentation, it also captures the experience in a way that is unique from others. Of course a hike is more than a mental exercise. Shaffer had a dual quality about him; he was simultaneously analytical and poetic. He was scientific-minded, meticulously logging his journey, yet he also recorded his inward thoughts through reflective poetry and philosophical expression.
In a similar manner, I want to communicate to my readers what I feel and experience, enriching them in an interesting and thoughtful way. One must not simply leave a book of numbers. Diaristic entries can be just as valuable to the historian. This is demonstrated with the well-preserved trail journals from the expedition of the Corps of Discovery led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark.
In an important sense, I prefer to write when I have something to say. When I do, it’s a blended genre of factual material with creative expression. A person’s life can be even more interesting than the most fanciful of fiction.
Shaffer eventually published his memoir, Walking With Spring, which records his experiences thru-hiking the trail. In 1965 Shaffer southbounded the AT from Maine to Georgia, making him the first person to continuously walk the trail to completion in both directions. Then, in 1998 at age 79, Shaffer hiked the trail yet again to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his history-making trek.
At one point in Earl’s recollections, he writes in a half-humorous yet serious tone, “Trail-hiking had become my way of life. Civilization seemed like a sham.” Although this statement is exaggerated, it does call attention to a sentiment felt by many long-distance hikers who are, figuratively and literally, walking in the footsteps of the Appalachian Trail’s first thru-hiker.
The flowers bloom, the songbirds sing,
And though it sun or rain,
I walk the mountain tops with spring
From Georgia north to Maine.