It was really the only way. In the ’90s, when I became aware of his story, I was working as a sportswriter for a local newspaper. Earl V. Shaffer was an intensely private man. He lived in the woods near York Springs, Pennsylvania. He had no phone. He had no running water. His brother John visited him from time to time and promised to deliver my request.
The answer was no. Every so often, I called John back and asked again. Sometimes others in the sports department put in the calls. The answer was always no. The dance went on for years.
Right about this time every year, in early spring, hikers get ready to tackle America’s most famous trail — affectionately known as the AT, opened in 1937 and still reputed to be the world’s longest, continuous hiking-only trail. Making the trek has long been a goal of young people with lives that have not yet gotten crowded and old people with lives that have become less crowded. Earl Shaffer hiked it first in 1948. Seventy years later, it remains daunting. Each year about 2,000 people attempt the hike. One in four makes it the entire distance.
Shaffer’s first thru-hike was documented in a little black, six-ring notebook — one of the few things he carried with him. The notebook has been transcribed (many of the pages are rain-stained and some are hard to read because the ink has seeped through from the other side) by the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian also grabbed Shaffer’s Army-issue rucksack and leather hiking boots for its collection.
Hiking the AT is a lot of mind-numbing one-foot-in-front-of-the-other work and most of Shaffer’s notebook shows a man intent on keeping track, making a written record of the trip — perhaps to convince doubters.
But the mind sometimes wanders more than the feet. And there are some passages that light up even all these years later. The notebook, with its handwriting, water stains, scratch-outs and overwrites, stands as a first-draft experience that readers rarely get a chance to see. It’s also an example of how the discipline of journal writing can result in unexpected surprises.
In one section, up on a mountain pass, he noted this in ink:
Came to gulch had trouble starting fire wood, water soaked. Sky clearing, sun shine (sic) few times briefly.
Then later, in faint, barely readable pencil, a piece of vivid description:
What do the gray clouds whisper? Up through the tallsome (sic) timber.
Even all these years later, that bit of personification works. The “whisper” line blooms in juxtaposition with meat-and-potatoes lines just before it.
Self-taught, Shaffer’s writing is heartfelt. Like folk art, this is more passion than polish. Later Shaffer self-published “Walking With Spring,” a more fleshed-out and thoughtful version of his diary. His book was reissued by the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1983 and is in its fourth edition. In contrast, the original edition consisted of 300 mimeographed copies, hand-bound with green library tape. After Shaffer’s death in 2002, his brother John sent me one, signed by Earl. It’s on the “special” shelf of my bookcase.
But even with that at hand, looking back at his original loose-leaf Trail diary documents, stored online by the Smithsonian, has its rewards.
Came on a mink and several kits. One ducked under roots with mother, other stayed put. I snapped his pic and he ducked like he’d been shot. Crawled under grass and opened his mouth wide squawling (sic) like a baby. Mother came out in a flash, came straight for me. I rapped her on the nose with the toe of boot. She flipped over and gave me both barrels. I smell somewhat musky ever since.
Shaffer might have been unaware, but he was marking the trail not only for future hikers, but also for future writers. In the years since, Appalachian Trail journals have become almost their own mini genre. Shaffer’s trail notebook entries are raw, but they were the start of it all.
In 1965, Shaffer hiked the trail a second time, this time in reverse from Maine to Georgia. Then, in 1998, word came that the “Crazy One” was back on the trail. Hikers take on trail names for the journey, which typically takes between five and seven months. Since 1948, Shaffer was known as the Crazy One. Now he was 79 and out there again. This was news.
When he finished, he became the first and, at the time, the oldest person to do an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. That’s when I got a phone call from John Shaffer asking me if I still wanted an interview with his brother.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Greg Bowers’s 1998 interview with Earl V. Shaffer is not, as far as we can determine, available online. However, Bowers did a brief obituary for Sports Illustrated upon Shaffer’s death in 2002.