Duo treks AT in memory of uncle, first thru-hiker

Father-daughter duo Dan and Kim Shaffer are hiking the Appalachian Trail in memory of their uncle, Earl Shaffer, who was the first thru-hiker on the AT. (Karen Hendricks/Gettysburg Times)

In April 1948, York County native Earl Shaffer set out to do what no man had done before, hike the Appalachian Trail's (AT) 2,000-some miles in one continuous hike. His motivation was to "walk off the war" and his experiences serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Not only was he the first person to successfully "thru-hike" the then longest hiking-only footpath in the world from Georgia to Maine at the age of 29, but he went on to do it two more times; he hiked in reverse from Maine to Georgia, being the first to do so, in 1965; and he commemorated the 50th anniversary of his first hike with a 1998 trek at the age of 79.

Last month, during the 70th anniversary year of Earl's first hike, two of Earl's relatives launched their own AT adventure to pay homage to the legendary trail figure.

The father-daughter pair, Dan and Kim Shaffer, who called Earl their uncle and great-uncle respectively, began hiking the AT at Pen Mar Park, Cascade, Maryland, headed north, on Thursday, May 24. During the past week, their trek took them through nearby sites such as Caledonia and Pine Grove Furnace state parks and Michaux State Forest, with stops at the Appalachian Trail Museum in Gardners and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's (ATC) Mid-Atlantic Office in Boiling Springs.

"This is pretty much my stomping grounds, from my teenage years," said Dan, who was born and raised in York. His mother was from Waynesboro.

"Seeing the Michaux and Laurel Lake, it brings back memories," he said.

Memories are what this hike are about, not only memories of the past, but creating new memories together and keeping Shaffer's memory alive.

"This whole experience has been about getting to know Earl, hiking along with my dad and listening to his stories. We're learning a lot together, learning more about ourselves," said Kim.

In preparation for the summer trek, she recently pored over Earl's many writings, poems and music, including his book "The Appalachian Trail: Calling Me Back to the Hills," published in 1998. She was only 13 when Earl passed away. Although she was born and raised in Arizona, where her father moved and also now lives, she has fond memories of summers spent visiting her relatives in Pennsylvania.

Dan remembers his uncle clearly.

"He was always a lover of the outdoors, a mountain man. Reconnecting with the wilderness brought him peace. He had determination to take on challenges that other people didn't dare take on until after he showed them that it could be done," Dan said, referring to his uncle's historic hike.

"We're all really happy that Earl has been an inspiration for some of the returning veterans like those involved in Warrior Expeditions. I'm sure Earl would be very happy," Dan said.

Warrior Expeditions is a program that organizes endurance trips for veterans, hiking on numerous trails such as the AT, biking on the Trans America Trail, and paddling down the Mississippi River. It was founded to provide veterans, at no cost, therapeutic experiences that simulated lengthy journeys historically experienced by soldiers returning from battles, time in which military personnel typically processed and came to terms with wartime experiences. The organization pays homage to Shaffer's then-revolutionary idea to "walk off the war" on its website.

Shaffer's dedication to the AT became a lifelong passion, according to Dan.

"Earl in many ways was a selfless person who played an important role in the 1960s and 70s in having the federal government assume responsibility for the Appalachian Trail, in addition to all of his work with trail organizations, maintaining the trail, building shelters, giving talks, probably thousands of times. He was in some ways a shy and private person, but he was always ready to talk on behalf of the trail and his experiences," Dan said.

That's exactly what Kim and Dan are doing along the trail, talking with fellow hikers, bringing Earl's legacy into the conversation when possible, and continuing Earl's lifelong mission to increase awareness of the AT.

"It's an amazing resource. Something like fifty percent of the U.S. population lives within a day's drive of the AT," according to Kim.

In his 2002 obituary in The New York Times, Earl Shaffer lived much of his life close to the trail, in a wilderness lifestyle in Adams County. "A bachelor, Earl Shaffer lived most of his life with his cats and goats in a log cabin on a farm in Idaville, Pa., about five miles from the Appalachian Trail. He got electricity two years ago, but never had running water or a refrigerator," the obituary read.

"Even when Benton MacKaye conceived the idea of the AT (in 1921), it was this escape from busy society. Today, it's still an escape, but it's also a pursuit of peace, knowing yourself better, really challenging yourself. This is the biggest challenge I've ever set for myself, discovering what I'm made of. Getting back to nature, a lot of people are trying to do that as a society, we really do need time alone and time in nature," said Kim.

Currently, the pair is averaging 10 trail miles a day. Kim's mother and Dan's wife, Ya-mai Shaffer, is shadowing them in a support vehicle. Together, they are visiting many relatives still living in Pennsylvania. After a month together, Dan will return to Arizona, and Kim will continue hiking alone, increasing her daily mileage to 15 to 20 miles in order to reach the trail's northern point at Mount Katahdin, Maine. Then, she plans on returning to Pen Mar Park and hiking south as far as time will allow before returning to her job as a teacher in Arizona.

It's what's called a "flip-flop hike" in the trail community, hiking the entire AT in discontinuous sections, she said.

Tentative plans for late August call for Kim and Dan to offer a talk at the AT Museum where exhibits pay homage to early AT pioneers, including Shaffer. Some of Shaffer's belongings are on display, housed in one of many historic shelters he personally constructed along the trail.

Thru-hikers are typically given trail nicknames. Kim, following in Shaffer's footsteps, was dubbed "Echo" during a recent brainstorming session at the museum.

Kim points out that their ages are similar to Earl's ages at the time of his hikes; Kim just turned 30 and Shaffer was 29 when he completed his first hike. Dan is 73 and Earl was 79 during his final hike. Also, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Shaffer's birth in 1918.

And, 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the National Trail System Act, which designated the AT, according to Sara Haxby, senior office manager at the ATC's Mid-Atlantic Regional Office and Visitor Center which oversees the trail from Rockfish Gap, Va., to the New York/Connecticut state line. The ATC manages and protects the AT on many levels.

"That can be monitoring plant species, monitoring the national park boundary, or protecting the AT from threats such as pipelines, powerlines, encroaching development, and making sure various townships are aware of the benefit of having green space," said Haxby.

Haxby, a native of Massachusetts, completed an AT thru-hike in 2009. She said Shaffer's desire "to walk the army out of his system" is relatable. "I think a lot of people can identify with that situation, to take a different path for a while. Being in the woods, taking care of yourself is a way to rebuild," Haxby said.

"Walking off the war, which we're seeing now with soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, is as relevant today as it was then. It's the healing power of connecting with nature and quieting yourself," according to Karen Lutz, ATC Mid-Atlantic regional director.

Lutz, who has served as director of the Boiling Springs office for 30 years, said she met Shaffer several times. "He was a character. He truly was the definition of a character, kind of reclusive."

Ironically, it was his historic 1948 hike that inspired her own career path.

"When I was in third grade, (growing up near Pittsburgh), we used to get Weekly Readers, and one had an article about the AT. I don't remember exactly what it said, but it had to have been an article about Earl in the early 1960s and it captured my imagination. That stayed with me, and I worked at summer camps, going on to earn my master's in outdoor recreation from Penn State. When I was hired, I was the first woman in a field position with the ATC."

Lutz says Shaffer often sat on the front porch of the ATC's Mid-Atlantic Office, located along the trail adjacent to Children's Lake in Boiling Springs. He enjoyed connecting with hikers and talking about his experiences, she said. It was those types of interactions that cultivated his legendary status and following among many in the trail community. In many ways, Kim and Dan's hike brings Shaffer's experience "full circle," she said.

"When I thru-hiked the AT in 1978, there were just 106 of us. Today, there are thousands of thru-hikers," Lutz said. "But Earl was the first. And he used the trail as a healing experience, which is really what Benton MacKay thought it could be."

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