ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL -- Stand clear, when you give food to backpackers going all 2,158 miles of the Georgia-to-Maine path. In the wilderness, they're always famished.
Especially if it's Earl Victor Shaffer, the first person to go end to end and the first to go both south to north (1948) and north to south (1965). To mark the 50th anniversary, the 79-year-old from York Springs, Pa., is making one last walk the entire way.
"As long as I don't break a leg or something drastic happens, I'll keep on going and make it," he said yesterday. "I knew it was tough."
Shaffer devoured a huge slice of watermelon that a hiker carried several miles into camp from Earl's brother, John Shaffer of York, Pa. The fruit vanished in seconds into his slight, 150-pound frame. Earl's trail diet is oatmeal, peanut butter and a daily gallon of water.
"Wow" was the only word he could manage. It was worth repeating. "Wow." Five hikers watched, admiring the man they regarded as a legend making a victory stroll into pedestrian history. They smiled at his happiness Wednesday night.
But some days are depressing, Shaffer acknowledged. On hot and humid Tuesday, he carried his 40-pound pack 15 miles over rough Virginia terrain that gained and lost 5,000 feet. The trail has been moved a lot, so he didn't encounter those hills in 1948.
Overall Shaffer has averaged 13 to 17 miles a day in the 11 weeks since Georgia. After an "easy" day of five miles, Earl was stopping for the night at the David Lesser Memorial Shelter along the Virginia-West Virginia line.
Shaffer is almost halfway to Baxter Peak on Katahdin in Maine. He knows people say only one in 10 through-hikers, or end-to-enders, make it all the way. He thinks, "Maybe it's one in 20."
He has hiked about 1,039 miles and has 1,121 to go. He's behind his schedule by two weeks. "I thought I would finish in August, now it looks like the end of September."
In Harpers Ferry, W.Va., he was the guest of honor yesterday at a party at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference, which helps manage the trail. Brothers John and Daniel and families and hikers welcomed him.
He planned to sleep last night at Sandy Hook Hostel, Sandy Hook, Md., hike today and take the weekend off for a family reunion in Pennsylvania. He would then attack most of the 39.8 miles of Maryland's section on South Mountain's spine. His walk would later take him within 10 miles of his Pennsylvania home.
The lifelong bachelor, who generally hikes alone, met only two fellow walkers in 1948 when the trail was young. Since May 2, when he left Springer Mountain in Georgia, he's met hundreds of backpackers.
"Not nearly as many call me crazy as they used to," he said. His fans laughed.
"You're famous," said one through-hiker, Gail Johnson of Pickens, S.C., who with her husband, Dan, has walked into the woods five times since May 2 to meet Shaffer and bring food and encouragement. Gail appreciated his talent; she hiked the path solo herself in 1996.
Shaffer is so well known in the woods community and so loyal to trail traditions that he never signs his name in shelter registers. He writes hard-to-read initials and a self-deprecating trail name that questions his mental capacity.
"If I signed my name, people would rip out the page for a souvenir," he said.
When asked what he wants to be remembered for, he says, "My writing."
His book "Walking With Spring," published by the Appalachian Trail Conference, recounts with many poetic images his famous 1948 hike. He has written more than 1,000 poems.
Far bells were somewhere singing/Out on the mountains high/Their silver voices singing/Allegro to the sky.
He wrote accounts of his wartime experiences, including a 40-page poem, "Doughboy Odyssey." He is keeping a log, "An Ode to the Appalachian Trail," on this hike.
"Would we know Thoreau, the hiker, without 'Walden' "? he asked.
Like any veteran hiker, Shaffer has his personal rules. Taken together, they fit only him. He is a compact motorcycle engine of a walker, about 5 feet, 8 inches, usually 160 pounds, now 150. He mainly hikes alone at least five miles each day. When on the trail, there are no all-rest days. He likes the one-word description of him by a brother: "Stubborn."
He wears no socks, only powder; no fancy hiking boots, only work boots. He carries no stove, usually eats cold food, much bought at stores near the trail. Occasionally, he cooks eggs in an all-purpose metal container. He carries no tent, only two tarps and a bedroll.
"I love to sleep on the ground at the top of the mountain," he said.
Only 12 times, he has slept in shelters. He did Wednesday and regretted it, waking up angry yesterday. "The guy next to me snored so loud I couldn't sleep. It was awful," he said.
He has no cellular phone. His brother John gave him one in May for the adventure, but Earl mailed it back from the trail after a week. Any extra weight is too much. Purists view cell phones in the wilderness with vigorous disdain.
He has never smoked nor drank alcohol. "It's unhealthy," he said. Two medical checkups before this trek were his first visits to a doctor in half a century.
Day after day, he wears a frayed old pith helmet, blue flannel shirt and blue pants. He bears a World War II Army rucksack made by Abercrombie & Fitch.
Home is a farm north of Gettysburg, Pa., where he lives with a cat and a goat. He has been carpenter, beekeeper, auction clerk, a buyer, seller and refinisher of antiques and junk, a self-described jack-of-all-trades. He loves to play his guitar and sing folk songs. He still gives free slide shows of the 200 photographs from "The Long Cruise" half a century ago.
Why did he sail on the cruise in the first place?
In 1948, he wanted to get World War II out of his system. He had enlisted in the Navy before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and served in the South Pacific. He lost his closest friend from their hometown of York at Iwo Jima. In 1948, the trail was in danger of being forgotten and needed publicity. Maybe the hike would help.
Benton MacKaye had announced his idea for a trail in 1921 in the article "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning" in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. Myron H. Avery of Lubec, Maine, helped organize clubs from Maine to Georgia to build the trail and was the first to hike all sections. The official opening was Aug. 14, 1937.
Six others did it section by section, but no one undertook all sections at one time. MacKaye's original idea was for the trail to be a host of short hikes. It was an unheard-of idea to go end to end at once.
"Why not me?" Shaffer reasoned. He started, kept going and stopped at the end, after four months and four hours. He has since been called the Charles Lindbergh of the trail.
Shaffer has a rationale for The Last Long Cruise: "Why not? It's a HTC chance to help the trail again. But this is it."
Pub Date: 7/17/98