Earl V. Shaffer was born on November 8, 1918 in rural Pennsylvania. Shortly after World War II at the age of 29, Earl would establish himself as a vital and important part of the history of the Appalachian Trail. In 1948 he became the “father of the thru-hiker” by completing the first documented thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in one continuous journey. He even gave himself a trail name, The Crazy One, beginning a naming tradition that dominates the AT to this day.
Earl’s high school graduation greeted him with the realities of the Depression. He, like so many, could not find a steady job, so he tried to find work on nearby farms and temporary carpentry jobs. Earl joined the Army in early 1941 and served with the Army Signal Corps in the South Pacific. In 1947, he was back home in Pennsylvania but greatly saddened by the death of a close childhood friend, Walter Winemiller, who gave his life for his country in the invasion of Iwo Jima. He and Walter had talked before the war about hiking the trail someday. The South Pacific and the loss of his friend left Earl feeling directionless after the war. The thru-hike was to be therapeutic. Earl shared said he wanted to ”walk the Army out of my system.”
Earl Shaffer, who became the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 1948, hiked the trail again in 1965 at age 46, becoming the first person to hike the AT in both directions. The first hike was south to north (Georgia to Maine) and then in 1965 his adventure traveled north to south (Maine to Georgia). Finally in 1998, at the age of 79, he made his third and final thru-hike. This time he hiked northbound as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his first victorious trek.
Earl Shaffer was a bachelor and lived most of his life in a log cabin on a farm just five miles from the trail in Idaville, Pa. He lived a simple life surrounded by his cats and goats. He did not have electricity in his home until 2000 and never had running water or a refrigerator. Earl died at the age of 83 of liver cancer on May 5, 2002 while living with his brother John in Lebanon, PA.
Earl Shaffer was one of six individuals inducted as an inaugural member of the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame in 2011. The induction banquet was held in Boiling Springs, PA (a beautiful trail town) and the Hall of Fame is located at the geographical mid-point of the trail in the AT Museum at Pine Grove Furnace, PA. Earl’s niece, Nancy Shaffer Nofziger, accepted the award on behalf of her uncle.
The original copy of Earl’s journal has been given to the Smithsonian Institute and can be seen online at https://transcription.si.edu/view/6734/NMAH-AC0828-0000025-009 The original journal has been transcribed and can be enjoyed at this same website. Earl wrote a book about his initial thru-hike published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 1982 under the title, Walking With Spring. He later developed and published his notes from his last hike in 1998 called The Appalachian Trail: Calling Me Back To The Hills. Earl was also a poet and songwriter. He played the guitar and loved to sing his folk songs.
Photo: First Hike – www.appalachiantrail.org
Photo: Last Hike – www.tgaw.wordpress.com