In 1951 a twenty-four year old young man named Gene Espy successfully completed the second known thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Gene came from Cordele, Georgia and in these early years the trail was untested but shouting for hikers to conquer its challenges rugged terrain. The demand of human endurance and the unknown adventures awaiting those early and brave hikers were unanswered questions yet to be explored.
Gene Espy was no ordinary young man. He was an Eagle Scout, In fact he was the first Eagle Scout from his hometown of Cordele. At age 16, he hopped on a bicycle and rode 740 miles through three states. He also navigated a homemade sailboat along a 125-mile stretch of the Ocmulgee River.
Prior to his hike, he had graduated from Georgia Tech University. According to Ed Grisamore in an article written for the Macon Telegraph, Gene hitchhiked from Georgia Tech to St. Louis and back in just two days, “…. just to prove it could be done. Wearing a coat and tie, he thumbed a late-night ride with a sleepy trucker carrying a load of dynamite. On the trip home, he slept on a window ledge of a closed service station in Blytheville, Ark. He spent only $2.35 on the entire trip and was back in time for classes Monday morning.”
His dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail came from a teacher. His seventh-grade teacher discussed it in class and the adventure was born. He took a week in 1945 to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains and his goal to thru-hike was sealed. He began his AT trek May 31, 1951, a month after his 24th birthday. The only person who knew of his plans was his girlfriend, Eugenia. Gene later married Eugenia and as noted in an article written in 2011 they had celebrated 57 years together. He didn’t tell his parents about the hike because his mom was quite a worrier. He carried a backpack weighing in at about 45 pounds and a carried a walking stick he had carved as a 12-year-old Boy Scout.
Espy began his journey at Mount Oglethorpe in north Georgia and completed the 123-day-trek at the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin, Maine. Gene averaged 16.5 miles each day, lost 28 pounds, killed 15 rattlesnakes and wore out three pairs of boots.
During my 2014 thru-hike, I was able to visit the Appalachian Trail museum at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania. At the museum, there is a bust and a photo of Espy, along with an exhibit featuring his hiking boots, socks, lantern, shirt and some gear from 63 years ago. My hat is off to this pioneer and adventurer.