ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL — Earl Shaffer stopped to catch his breath. He adjusted the canvas straps of his 25-pound Army-issue backpack and looked up at the canopy of Pennsylvania pines surrounding the footpath he has followed the past 82 days.
Two long heartbeats, then he continued. Only 1,080 miles to go.
“I’m amazed I’ve made it this far,” said the 79-year-old pioneer, the first to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in one uninterrupted trip.
On this golden anniversary hike — 50 years after he first hiked the entire trail, thus inventing thru-hiking — he has been challenged. Inclines seem steeper and more frequent, and he often rests on uphills.
But, Shaffer said, the woods are more lush and the trail is cleared and marked better than the first time he traveled the 2,160-mile national scenic trail.
“Some people say I’m a legend. I don’t know. I just keep going,” said Shaffer of York, which is five miles from the trail.
Founder Benton MacKaye proposed the idea of the nation’s first continuous walking path in a 1921 article, and the Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937, but nobody envisioned hiking the entire distance.
In the summer of 1948, Shaffer was the first to hike it, finishing in 124 days and four hours, drawing national attention to the by-then-neglected federal footpath. War and the Depression had left many portions abandoned and overgrown, often forcing Shaffer to walk along roads parallel to the path.
His hike and the book of poems he wrote during the journey, “Walking with Spring,” publicized the trail and encouraged a generation of volunteers to clear and mark the path.
“So, how does it feel to go with Neil Armstrong to the moon?” thru-hiker Christopher Boyer of Round Hill, Va., asked two hikers who walked with Shaffer for a day. His analogy was on target.
The trail now winds through mostly public land in 14 states. Each year, about 1,500 people attempt to duplicate Shaffer’s feat, beginning in late spring in Springer Mountain, Ga., and ending at Mount Katahdin, Maine. About one in 10 make it, according to the Appalachian Trail Conference.
Shaffer undertook his first hike to shake off the demons after World War II, which he spent in the military on the Pacific. His best friend from childhood was killed on the beach at Iwo Jima.
“After the war, I couldn’t settle down to do anything. So I started walking,” Shaffer said. “People didn’t believe I could do the whole thing. No one ever had so they thought it couldn’t be done.”
He sent a postcard to the Appalachian Trail Conference headquarters during the hike, but officials threw it away believing such a feat was impossible, spawning Shaffer’s trail name: Crazy One.
The trail covered easier terrain in 1948, Shaffer remembered. It sometimes passed through towns and villages or ran along country roads. Now it has morphed to cross more stunning mountaintops and ridges — ascending more challenging and rocky ground in the process.
“It’s like an obstacle course,” he said.
Shaffer thru-hiked again in 1965, walking south from Maine, and completed the trail in 99 days. Fewer than 300 people have ever completed the southbound hike because it begins on the hardest part of trail, where the path is steepest and resupply stops are farther apart.
The highlights were similar: a trio of eagles soaring above Bald Mountain, N.C.; hearing whippoorwills 40 nights in a row; and Mount Katahdin.
“Katahdin is the most beautiful. From the top you can see everything. You can look at it from so many different ways, and it looks different every time,” he said.
This year’s hike is his swan song.
“I’ve been torturing myself sometimes on this one. This is it, the last time,” Shaffer said.
His left shoulder aches often — as in his other two thru-hikes — and he has fallen down twice. The second fall, near Harpers Ferry, Va., gave him a black eye.
Shaffer reached the half-way point in Pine Grove Furnace, Pa., before lunch on July 22. He reclined in the shade for an hour, his trademark white pith helmet lying on his pack.
He downed a tub of Cherry Jubilee ice cream, eagerly following the thru-hiker’s tradition of eating a half-gallon of ice cream at the halfway mark. It was the most he would eat all day — a cup of oatmeal for breakfast, a package of crackers for lunch, bagels and cheese at night.
In another 10 miles, he would spend the night near Tagg Run Shelter. He has stayed in shelters about half the time, but he’s just as comfortable laying a mat down along the trail. If it rains, he pulls a tarp over himself and his pack.
Shaffer already was worried about reaching Katahdin before it closes, which it does Oct. 15 or at the first snow. He started May 2, planning to finish in late September, but he has averaged only 12 miles a day, less than his 15-mile-a-day goal. He expected to reach New York state by early August and Maine in early October.
“People ask me what it is to make me go off and do something like this,” he said. “It’s the beauty.”