By DAVID CORRIVEAU
Valley News Staff Writer
He started this tradition of pilgrimages from Georgia to Maine in the summer of his 30th year. Now Earl Shaffer is racing to finish this anniversary retracing of the first-ever all-in-one-gulp of a hike along the full length of the Appalachian Trail, before his 80th summer runs out.
Well, maybe not racing in the sense of miles per hour. His legs still work pretty well, his lungs better than he can remember. But at 79 years, nine months, he needs to pause on long uphills -- "just for a heartbeat or two" -- more often than he did in 1948 or on his thru-hike from Maine south to Georgia in 1965.
And his eyes sometimes miss the subtle turns the trail, much of it over new landscape protected from development, can take in the woods. By the time he crossed the Connecticut River from Norwich into Hanover on the first Friday in September, he figured he'd walked at least 100 miles just straying from and finding his way back to the 2,100-mile route.
"I can't afford to keep getting lost," Shaffer lamented after a five-minute detour on unpaved Joe Ranger Road in Pomfret two Thursdays ago. "I thought I'd be done by now."
Instead, trying to reach trail's end atop mile-high Mount Katahdin before Maine park officials close the summit to hikers in mid-October, Shaffer just last Tuesday climbed over 4,800-foot Mount Moosilauke, the first of the big White Mountains, some 50 trail miles north of Hanover and a little less than 400 miles from the finish.
"I didn't expect it to take this long," Shaffer said on the steep walk down Norwich's Elm Street two Fridays ago. "I don't think I'd have tried it if I'd known it was going to be this hard."
Shaffer wasn't really planning to do it at all until a year or so ago, when he passed out from dehydration while working on his small farm in the southern Pennsylvania village of York Springs, about five miles from the trail.
"They put me in the hospital and did all kinds of tests on me to see if it was my heart," Shaffer recalls, "but they couldn't find anything wrong with me.
"I think that's when I got to thinking, 'Well, if there's nothing wrong with me, maybe it's time to hike the Trail again.' "
Not that he's ever strayed far from the Trail, in body or in spirit, since that first trip in l948.
Back then, he was trying to work out the whys and the hows and the what-ifs of his World War II tour of duty with the Army in the Pacific. Especially the death of his childhood friend, from sniper fire on the beach at Iwo Jima.
"We did everything together, from the time we were little," Shaffer says. "On the farm, we'd be milking cows before the sun came up, go in for that big breakfast, work some more till noon, and go in for those huge dinners -- platters and platters of food -- so we could work some more."
And they played at least as hard.
"In the woods, when there were still a lot of big trees, he could swing from tree to tree, fearless, and so fast," Shaffer says. "He'd have made a great Tarzan in the movies."
Having always felt most at home in the woods, he decided one day, three years after the war,to spend a whole summer there. Never mind that you could hardly find the path along sections of the then-ll-year-old route, which trees and brush and time overtook while the nation fought a war.
Or that people along the way might question your sanity. People like the picnicking family he caught up with on Georgia's Mount Oglethorpe -- then the Trail's southern terminus, since moved to that state's Springer Mountain -- his first day on the trail.
Asked where he was going, the 29-year-old war veteran replied: Maine. And when he replied that, yes, he'd be walking alone over the mountains to a state that might as well be on the moon, she said, "I'm glad I got sense."
That, and the reactions of friends at the Appalachian Trail Conference, which coordinates clubs that maintain the trail, earned him the trail nickname Crazy One.
Crazy enough about the trail to go back, two years after the first trip, to photograph parts, particularly in Maine, that camera trouble prevented him from shooting. The pictures went into Walking with Spring, his book of poems about his odyssey, and into a collection of slides he would show to countless audiences as the trail grew in popularity with the postwar rise in leisure time. Nowadays, 1,500 people try to hike the whole thing, and maybe 100 to 150 pull it off in one season.
Crazy enough about the trail to join the York Hiking Club, to co-found the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club and Pennsylvania's Keystone Trails Association, and to serve five unpaid years as the Appalachian Trail Conference's corresponding secretary.
Crazy enough about the trail to hike it again, this time north-to-south, at age 46. "That's when a man's really at the peak of his powers, mental and physical and in experience with life, to do something like this and enjoy it," Shaffer says.
Crazy enough to spend the intervening years trying, unsuccessfully, to work out deals with agencies public and private to spend his final years living on and taking care of a piece of land along the trail.
And crazy enough to leave his cat and his goat in the care of friends on his little farm near York Springs to do one more for off-the-road in the summer of his 80th year.
If a slope stays steep for more than a fraction of a mile, Shaffer will pause "for a heartbeat or two -- it seems to help," before moving on. And the slopes along the grandfather of the United States' national scenic trail run a lot steeper than he remembers from his pioneering walk of 1948.
"A lot of it used be on jeep trails through valleys, even in this stretch they called the Missing Link (between Sherburne Pass in Vermont's Green Mountains and Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire's Whites)," Shaffer said during his quick passage through the Upper Valley. "Now they go out of their way to run it over the ridges, make it more of a challenge.
"Pennsylvania's the worst. It goes up on these ridges of boulders, and it can be dangerous. In places like that, there need to be alternate routes, so people have a choice. When there's no choice, you can't call the one way a challenge.
"It's more like a jail sentence."
Even the Appalachian Trail's former Missing Link, over the relatively low hills between Sherburne and Norwich, qualified at best to Shaffer as a work-release program this time through.
"This last stretch from Sherburne was just UP and down, UP and down," Shaffer said. "It makes it harder to enjoy the experience as much as I'd like.
"On the other hand, it's not supposed to be that easy. The inspiration for a trail like this is supposed to be from the pioneers -- people like Daniel Boone, making their way through the wilderness."
So Shaffer resists the tempation to "flip-flop" -- hiker-speak for hitching a ride to Maine to climb to the top of Katahdin before winter closes Baxter State Park, then either hiking south to the jump-off point or returning to it and walking the miles between.
"I don't consider that a true thru-hike," Shaffer insisted. "Same with slack-packing (the practice of hiking stretches of trail while someone shuttles your heaviest gear to a point farther along). Boone and those people didn't have that luxury."
They also didn't have towns along the way like Hanover, where hikers can buy supplies, take a break and a hot showers ... or two or three or more ... and wash their clothes.
"I stopped at the little store in West Hartford on the way here, and had some of that ice cream everybody talks about," Shaffer admitted with a sly grin. "What do you call it? Ben & Jerry's, that's it. I had a pint of raspberry something there.
So were the very berry pancakes he ate and the hot coffee he drank at Fort Lou's in Lebanon, between shopping errands in West Lebanon -- goose-down vest and socks for those cold nights -- and Hanover -- groceries.
"Since I don't carry a stove," Shaffer said, "I don't get much hot food. So this is a treat."
About as much treat as his conscience and his schedule could bear. While other thru-hikers -- the few remaining northbounders, and a growing cadre of southbounders -- settle in for at least one night of civilization at Hanover-area motels or at places like The Tabard fraternity house at Dartmouth, Earl Shaffer shouldered his old Army-issue rucksack and started marching through town again, a little more than four hours after he'd marched in.
In the middle of the first morning of September, Jerry Hoffman follows the Appalachian Trail down the Dartmouth-Skiway side of Holts Ledge in Lyme.
To reach his destination for the night, this 58-year-old retired schoolteacher from Pennsylvania, who's spent the last 90 minutes climbing 1,200 feet up Holts, now must hike 1,000 vertical feet down to Lyme-Dorchester Road, up 2,300 to the top of Smarts Mountain, down 1,800 to a logging road and then up and down over the rocky Eastman Ledges for a mile and a half to Hexacuba Shelter. To reach his ultimate destination, Maine's Mount Katahdin, by early October, he facs at least another month of days like these.
So many miles, so little time.
"I really hate the cold," Hoffman admits. "I don't want to get caught in it if I can help it."
Ask him about Earl Shaffer, though, and Jerry Hoffman will warm immediately to the subject of the attempt by his 79-year-old fellow Pennsylvanian to complete the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, 50 years after Shaffer became the first person ever to do so.
"The last I saw Earl was in Virginia," Hoffman says. "He keeps to himself a little on the Trail, but when I mentioned I was from Pennsylvania, too, we got to talking more. When I would say I hated the cold and I wanted to flip-flop (jump ahead to climb Mount Katahdin early, then finish the rest of the Trail) he told me, 'Just keep going. You can do it."'
"When somebody like him, at 79, keeps going like that and tells you you can do it, that's a real inspiration."
Sometimes, too inspiring for Shaffer's own good.
"I was hoping to go at least halfway before letting the word out that I was trying to do it," Shaffer says. "But reporters started catching up with me before I was even a third of the way, wanting to do stories."
And as the stories accumulated, so did the numbers of fellow hikers, well-wishers on the streets of towns through which the trail passes -- and even whole towns. "In Hot Springs, N.C., they had a Trail Days celebration," Shaffer recalls. "They did a big to-do about me, had me put my footprints in cement, that kind of thing. "It's nice, and the people are nice, but it takes a lot of time."
It's all right when a sales clerk at Eastern Mountain Sports in West Lebanon asks, "You're Earl, aren't you? I think it's great what you're doing. Good luck," while Shaffer pays for a down vest and a pair of socks. But on the trail, even fellow hikers, who know about the need to keep logging the miles before the snow flies, can't help asking Shaffer for a piece of his time.
During a couple of hours of shopping for supplies in Hanover and West Lebanon, he runs into six hikers -- two of whom he has passed and who have passed him on the way north -- who see his trademark pith helmet, blue flannel shirt and long blue work pants and Army-issue rucksack. They wish him well, pull out portable cameras and ask passersby to shoot pictures of them with the man they all know from his book on his book of poems and photos from the 1948 hike, Walking With Spring, and from his trail nickname: Crazy One.
"This is the highlight of my whole trip," southbounder Eric "Tripper" Neville of Taunton, Mass., says when they cross paths on Main Street. "I came into town a day ahead just on the chance I'd meet you. This is great. I hope you make it."
Soon the white blazes that mark the Trail led Earl Shaffer to the Hanover Co-op grocery store. With a little foraging through the aisles, he picked out the food he figured would carry him at least partway through the Whites.
He chose a couple of bags of whole-wheat pita bread -- more compactable than risen loaves -- and a few things to spread on the bread: deviled turkey, strawberry jelly to go with the half a jar of peanut butter nestled deep in his pack.
For dessert: Fig Newtons ("No, I don't need fat-free") and a box of dark-brown sugar, energy food he finds easier to digest than candy.
For protein: a couple of boxes of Knox unflavored gelatin. During his service on an atoll in the Pacific during World War II, Shaffer said, fallout from nuclear tests nearby shut down in him a gland that produces protein, and the gelatin seems to do the trick.
Finally, a small container of medicated baby powder, the better to keep his feet dry and clean in his boots, which he wears with no socks on the trail. Fifteen dollars worth of groceries looked like a lot to fit into a rucksack filled near to overflowing, until Earl Shaffer pulled out his sleeping bag, the tarpaulins with which he covers himself on rainy nights, and his new vest.
He transferred the contents of the new jar into the old and licked the spoon clean. Then he poured a little water from one of his two rectangular Rubbermaid quart containers into the empty jar, swirled it around, drank his ration of water for the rest of the day's hiking, and handed off the spotless jar for recycling.
Then out came a couple more glass jars, containing some more senior Fig Newtons. Shaffer polished off the stragglers -- "Good energy, and they keep me regular" -- ripped open the new package and swiftly arranged the fresh cookies in their new home.
And after maybe 10 minutes of packing and repacking, Shaffer was lifting the pack for the last time that day. "I'll put it down and sleep wherever I am when the sun goes down," he said.
At last, trail signs pointed left away from bustling Lebanon Street and toward a tunnel of green -- Dartmouth's Chase Field, and the woods surrounding Velvet Rocks.
In work boots with the heels cut off -- "You don't see athletes running in shoes with heels, do you? This is as athletic as anything else" -- Shaffer pointed his feet straight ahead. "Indian-style," he said. "A lot better for your knees and ankles than turning them out like a duck."
As the grade steepens in the woods, Shaffer reminded himself to always bend his knees a little with every landing of his feet.
"That's kept me going this long," he said.
That wouldn't surprise the forest ranger in Tennessee whom Shaffer remembers meeting early in the hike. Here came this old fellow that warm, sticky day in well-worn, long-sleeved shirt of blue flannel, long-legged blue work pants, in jungle-style pith helmet with mosquito netting, carrying his minimalist gear in a backpack out of Saving Private Ryan, aiming to hike all the way to Maine.
"To a lot of people, I probably look like a bum," Shaffer said. "But this ranger just looked at me and said, 'Oh, you'll make it.
"`You've got that look in your eyes." Those eyes turned north now, away from Hanover, and Earl Shaffer wished he could carry a guitar over these last 400 miles. "Sometimes I like to sing an old song along the way," Shaffer said. "Helps lift the spirit a bit."
Happy Trails, Crazy One.
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