At 2,178 miles, the Appalachian Trail is the nation’s longest marked footpath. Starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia, it crosses 14 states, six national parks and eight national forests on its way north to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. But despite the trail’s daunting length, more than 10,000 people—called “2,000-milers”—walked it in its entirety, in sections over time or as a whole. In light of “Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail,” an exhibition honoring the first person to hike the trail in one continuous trip (at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History through October 11), we take a moment to reflect on the trail’s groundbreakers, record holders and legendary characters.
1. The Founder
The Appalachian Trail was the brainchild of Benton Mackaye a land-use planner. Mackaye, who grew up about 30 miles west of Boston in Shirley Center, Massachusetts, was no stranger to mountains. The first peak he “bagged,” as climbers say, was Mount Monadnock, just a few miles away in New Hampshire. And after graduating from Harvard in 1900, he and a classmate hiked what would later become Vermont’s Long Trail through the Green Mountains. As the story goes, Mackaye was sitting in a tree atop Stratton Mountain in Vermont when the notion came to him of a trail following the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia. The editor of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects convinced Mackaye to write an article about his idea. Published in October 1921, “An Appalachian Trail, A Project in Regional Planning” fleshed out Mackaye’s vision. More than just a walking path, his Appalachian Trail was to be a destination where East Coast city dwellers could go to get back to nature—a place for recreation, recuperation and as he ever so transcendentally put it, “to walk, to see and to see what you see.”
2. The Trail Blazer
Benton Mackaye may have been a thinker, but it took a doer to turn his vision into a reality. Myron Avery, a maritime lawyer and avid hiker from Washington D.C., took lead of the project in 1930, mapping the trail’s route and organizing crews of volunteers to build it. If his reputation serves him right, he wasn’t the most amiable of men. Bill Bryson wrote in his book A Walk in the Woods that someone had once claimed Avery blazed two trails between Georgia and Maine: “One was of hurt feelings and bruised egos. The other was the A.T.” But Avery did manage to complete the trail in a mere seven years; the last swath on the south side of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine was cleared in 1937. Having rolled a measuring wheel over most of it, taking notes for future guidebooks, Avery was the first person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. He did it over the course of 16 years, from 1920 to 1936.
3. The First Thru-Hiker
Essentially, there are two breeds of Appalachian Trail hikers: section hikers and “thru” hikers. Section hikers, like Myron Avery, hike the Appalachian Trail in pieces, often over the course of years, whereas thru hikers take on all 2,178 miles in one trip. In 1948, when people had their doubts that such a feat was possible, Earl Shaffer from York County, Pennsylvania, completed the first known thru hike. Having read about the trail in an outdoor magazine, Shaffer, a World War II veteran fresh out of the service, decided that it would be a good way to “walk the army out of [his] system.” Without guidebooks, only road maps and a compass, he left for his “Long Cruise,” as he called it, on April 4, from Mount Oglethorpe, the A.T.’s original southernmost point in Georgia. Averaging 16.5 miles a day, he reached Mount Katahdin 124 days later. The moment, for him, was bittersweet. “I almost wished that the Trail really was endless, that no one could ever hike its length,” wrote Shaffer in his book Walking with Spring. He caught the bug. In 1965, he would hike the trail again, this time from Maine to Georgia, becoming the first person to walk the trail in both directions. And, then, in 1998, at age 79, he hiked it yet again.
4. The First Female Thru-Hiker
When Emma Gatewood set out to hike the Appalachian Trail in 1954, no women—and only five men—had ever hiked it continuously. The farmer, mother of 11 children and grandmother of 23 was in her mid-60s at the time, earning herself the trail name “Grandma Gatewood.” She had never hiked a mountain in her life, but that July, she started in Maine, with the formidable 4,292-foot tall Mount Katahdin, and every intention of going “a ways” down the A.T. In two days, she was lost. After running out of food, she turned up days later back on the trail at Rainbow Lake, where she had made her wrong turn. Reportedly, she told a Maine Forest Service ranger that she wasn’t lost, just misplaced. The incident spooked her though, and she went home to Ohio. The following spring, however, she was back at it, this time starting in Georgia. Five months later, on September 25, 1955, the 67-year-old finished the entire trek. “I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t, and wouldn’t quit,” she told Sports Illustrated. Grandma Gatewood would thru-hike the A.T. a second time in 1957 and a third in 1964.
5. Trail Celebrations