In April 1948, Earl Shaffer, a young outdoorsman from York County, Pennsylvania, set out to do what no man had done before—walk all 2,178 miles of the Appalachian Trail in one continuous trip. And with good reason. Fresh out of serving in World War II, Shaffer was determined to "walk the Army out of system."
A few men had walked the entire distance from Georgia to Maine, but they had done so in several trips over the course of decades. Most thought Shaffer's feat was impossible; in fact, when he claimed he had done it, he had to prove it with photographs, a travel diary and his signatures on registers along the trail.
Shaffer would thru-hike the trail twice more in his lifetime, in 1965, and again, for the 50th anniversary of his first hike, in 1998 (he was 79 years old!). In 1999, he donated the boots and backpack he wore on his 1948 hike to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and in 2002, after his death, the Earl Shaffer Foundation added photographs, maps and his trail diary to the collection. "Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail," a new exhibition, showcasing many of these artifacts, opens tomorrow in the NMAH's Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. The show runs through October 30.
Since Shaffer's pioneering hike, more than 10,000 "2,000-milers," as they are called, have followed in his footsteps, completing either section or thru-hikes of the A.T.