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[at-l] "The Crazy One" Earl Shaffer, 1918-2002
- Subject: [at-l] "The Crazy One" Earl Shaffer, 1918-2002
- From: email@example.com (Sloetoe)
- Date: Mon, 6 May 2002 17:21:52 -0700 (PDT)
The ultra-marathoning community has lost an ally and a pioneer.
Earl Shaffer, the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail as
a single "through"-hike, died over the weekend. He succumbed to
complications from liver cancer only recently diagnosed. He was
84 years [perpetually] young.
Earl throughhiked the Appalachian Trail three times; first,
northbound, in 1948; then southbound, in 1965; and then, to mark
the 50th Anniversary of the first throughhike in '48, he hiked
it again, end to end, in 1998. He finished the '98 hike just two
weeks shy of his 80th birthday.
When he hiked in 1948, Earl was fulfilling a lifelong dream
postponed by service in World War II. Earl served the entire war
in the South Pacific as a forward area radioman, hauling
ferociously heavy (and tempermental) radio and (then super
secret) radar gear up to coveted high spots on contested
islands, to set up repeater posts for Allied transmissions. He
was greatly saddened by the war loss of his childhood best
friend (at Iwo Jima), and thought of hiking the AT as much to
comfort that loss as to complete the dream the two friends
Earl's 1948 hike was met with disbelief from Georgia to Maine.
The Appalachian Trail was barely 5 years complete when war broke
out, and America's entry into the war left the AT without
maintenance through the war years and a huge backlog for years
after. Furthermore, no one thought -- even on a *maintained*
trail -- that an end-to-end hike was *possible* in a single
year. "Walking with Spring" tells Earl's story, through thickets
and blowdowns and bad blazing, as he struggled north.
He was termed "The Crazy One" by trail observers in the South,
as he was asked of his hike. "Oh, you're the crazy one I've
heard about!" became a familiar greeting -- and so he adopted
that moniker as his trail name to his last days. (Funny thing
is, to his fans amongst the throughhiking crowd, I think he's
known mostly and most affectionately as just "Earl"[!])
At the end of his '48 hike, the Appalachian Trail Conference
authorities flatly disbelieved his claim to single-year "2,000
Miler" status. He was interviewed (legend has it as
"interrogated") at ATC headquarters (then in Washington, D.C.)
by a group headed by none other than Myron Avery -- the gruff
maritime attorney generally credited with spearheading the
Appalachian Trail project to completion, and generally credited
with being the very first 2,000 Miler). Not only was the group
ultimately convinced of Earl's claim, but they received a
valuable instant snapshot of Trail conditions from Springer to
Katahdin. It might not be unreasonable to credit the existence
of the Appalachian Trail today to the intelligence gathered by
that group in debriefing Earl Shaffer in 1948, and the publicity
Although Earl lived a mostly quiet life in the decades that
followed, towards the end of his life, he did seem to enjoy the
recognition he received from throughhikers (and other AT "crazy
ones") at hiker community functions like Damascus, Virginia's
Trail Days (in May) or the autumn ALDHA Gathering. It always
impressed me how the audience at such events would greet Earl --
a rather self-effacing guy -- as a rock star. I could look
around at such times and see 4 generations of hikers giving
loud, sustained, thunderous standing ovations when Earl was
introduced... And more than a few tears were generated out
Like other pioneers in human performance, Earl Shaffer showed us
what was possible -- he took a single-year "throughhike" out of
the realm of fancy and impossible, and put it squarely into the
possible, the feasible, the doable -- for anyone willing to try.
To this day, the numbers still favor determination over all
other characteristics, among those that attempt an Appalachian
Trail throughhike and are successful. The numbers still show
that, despite a myriad of memoirs and how-to books, videos,
e-lists, Gatherings, Rucks, etc., it is only a small fraction of
those who start a throughhike each year that make it all the
way. The numbers show that while those that start tend to be
experienced young men with the latest gear, those that finish
are young, old, male, female, experienced, and not, with the
latest gear, and with shredded remnants. What all these
throughhikers have in common is grit. A quiet grit, that they
share with Earl Shaffer.
It's amazing what grit and a dream of what's possible can do.
Since its completion, the Appalachian Trail has been
throughhiked by 5 year olds and 70 year olds of both genders, by
a legally blind MS-sufferer (twice) and by a totally blind man
aided by his dog (who learned to follow the scent of other
hikers...). The AT has been throughhiked by the rich and the
poor, the firm and infirm, the experienced and the not. But
along with a healthy dollop of luck, successful end-to-enders
all share that quiet grit with that first throughhiker, Earl
The phrase "The Adventure of a Lifetime" has been used to
describe an AT throughhike for as long as I can remember, and it
has certainly stuck -- because of it's ultimate truth. An AT
throughhike can deeply affect those lucky (and gritty) enough to
complete it, for it forces you (if only for a couple of months)
to look far beyond convention in how you conduct your everyday
affairs -- it is a haj, profound and reverent, making all that
comes after seem small if not connected to some central mission.
Did Earl Shaffer know he might start such a tradition? No. All
he wanted to do was confront a war-ravaged spirit. Did he come
to appreciate what his hiking accomplishments meant to others?
>From the quiet smile on his face as he took a stage amid loud
applause, from his unfailing courtesy and genuine interest in
meeting other hikers and hearing their tales, I think yes.
At the Pennsylvania Ruck in January, I found out that Earl and I
shared a love of two particular songs -- "San Antonio Rose" and
"Polka Dots & Moonbeams" -- because of their marvelous melody
and multiple key changes. My kids have been brought up on these
songs because of the steady rhythms -- they're great songs for
hiking (and running). As we were leaving for the campsite, I
gushed "Earl, can I get a picture of you with my two boys?
They're hikers, too, you know! They completed the Long Trail
this past summer!" As tired as he was, after a long
afternoon/evening of talking, greeting hikers and singing songs,
he happily obliged.
So here's to Earl Shaffer, "the one who started it all," the one
who showed so many thousands one way to live deliberately, and
when, in coming to the close of their lives, to know with
familiarity and confidence that they have truly lived.
There is probably an ultra run you have considered that you
haven't yet attempted. Or maybe it is indeed a hike of a longer
length..... Know that you are testing yourself, as a great human
experiment, in a great human tradition, no different than the
others great and small who've come before you. Know (and hope)
that with a bit of luck and a bunch of grit, we ordinairy folk
are capable of extraordinairy things. One step at a time.
Very best to you all,
1,845th(?) ATC "2000 Miler" (just a couple beyond Earl)
Dad to Pokey & Gumby, who hiked/ran 3x(age) on Sunday: 24 miles.
My next run? The Damascus Red-Eye -- 50 miles overnight on the
AT. Go ahead: ask me if I'm psyched.
Spatior! Nitor! Nitor! Tempero!
Pro Pondera Et Meliora.
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