Until Earl Shaffer actually did it, experts believed that a hike of the entire Appalachian Trail in one continuous trip was impossible.
On July 10, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened “Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail,” an exhibition that focuses on the fulfillment of Shaffer’s childhood goal of hiking the Trail.
Featured items on display in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery include Shaffer’s trail diary from his pioneering hike, photographs he took along the trail, the maps he used and the boots he wore. The documents and artifacts will be on display through Oct. 30.
Earl Shaffer had no expert advice, no previous footsteps to follow, or even guidebooks to help him. He started his walk in April 1948 at Mount Oglethorpe, GA, and completed the Trail four months later at Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Shaffer kept a diary, along with photographs taken along the way, to prove to skeptics that he had really accomplished what he claimed.
Except for occasional times when Shaffer joined another hiker or group, he walked alone. Stopping to camp at night, his only companion was his “little black notebook.”
Shaffer used the diary to record his progress, detail animal and bird sightings, talk about people he met, vent his frustrations and errors, and jot down poetry.
When Shaffer began his hike, his only maps were the road maps issued by service stations. The Trail itself was often obscured by natural growth, and trail markings were often faded or missing, forcing him to bushwhack through overgrown areas.
Shaffer’s diary describes frequent episodes of taking wrong turns and going miles off course. His supplies were minimal, and he even mailed his tent home only a few days after starting out. “Most people,” he wrote, “never in all their lives sleep under the open sky, and never realize what they are missing.”
Shaffer completed two more hikes of the Appalachian Trail, the last in 1998 at the age of 79. After his pioneering walk in 1948, he devoted much of the rest of his life to activism on behalf of the Appalachian Trail and of parks and wilderness areas.
Earl Shaffer went on to write books and poetry, present slide lectures about his experiences, and help with the physical maintenance of the Trail. His advice remained popular and valued among would-be Trail hikers. In possibly the greatest homage to Earl Shaffer’s historic feat, hundreds of hikers every year repeat his Appalachian Trail journey.