SUMMIT TO SHORE: Theologically and philosophically informed eclectic ruminations on everything between summit to shore, especially cycling, hiking and backpacking, kayaking, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, poetry, and creative writing by John Edward Harris, a progressive Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Minister of the Word and Sacrament.
Monday, November 20, 2017
Review of Earl Shaffer's "Walking With Spring"
Earl Shaffer was both the first
person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail and to write about it. He completed
his south-to-north (NOBO or North Bound in Appalachian Trail lingo) trip in 124
days, averaging over sixteen miles a day, backpacking every day and never
taking a day off for rest. As he himself noted, “Three years were to go by
before Gene Espy duplicated [his] south-to-north trip, and Chester
Dziengielewski and Martin Papendick completed the trip north-to-south (SOBO of
South Bound in AT ling) the same year. That year was 1951, years before “NOBO”,
“SOBO”, and “thru-hiker” became part of the AT nomenclature.
Shaffer completed his second
thru-hike, SOBO, in ninety-days in 1965. “The story that inspired thousands of
Appalachian Trail thru-hikers,” about his 1948 thru-hike but with the hindsight
of 1965 thru-hike, was privately printed in 1981. He entitled it Walking With Spring because “he had come
to the woods to walk with spring” and followed spring’s arrival in the
Appalachians as he hiked NOBO from Georgia to Maine.
The first AT thru-hiker hoped to
average twenty miles a day but was willing to settle for fifteen. While
backpacking, he calculated that it took him about two thousand steps to cover a
mile, or a stride of a little over two and a half feet. He once backpacked four
miles in fifty-five minutes, an incredible pace I would be challenged to
emulate as my best pace is a mere three miles an hour and I average far less
even without a full pack.
Shaffer was ahead of his time. Just
as The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was pioneering and perfecting
minimum impact camping, which later morphed into Leave No Trace (LNT)
principles and practices, Shaffer reflected on his 1948 thru-hike by writing,
“When I left, the signs of my presence were so slight that the next rain would
remove them. Like the Indians, I say ‘Where I go I leave no sign.’ P. 130.” It
would be decades before others would consciously adopt such practices and
The author was also somewhat
prescient, opining in 1981 about development along the AT and writing, “The
encroachment that once seemed overwhelming must be stopped if the Appalachian
Trail is to survive. P. 110” Here we are, nearly seventy years after Shaffer’s
first thru-hike and more than thirty-five years after he published Walking With Spring, and we are still
struggling to stop encroachments such as the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Reading the 2004 fourth printing of
a facsimile reprint of the 1981 edition of Walking
With Spring, published by the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1983, was a
humbling experience. Shaffer hiked with a heavy and bulky Mountain Troop
rucksack weighing an average of forty pounds fully packed, increasing to sixty
pounds for the final stretch through the Maine wilderness. Yet decades before “ultralight backpacking”
became a modern mantra, Shaffer’s motto was, “Carry as little as possible but
choose that little with care. p. 9.” He later opined, “a long distance hiker
must choose between traveling light and not traveling at all. p. 27.” I doubt
forty, and certainly not sixty pounds would qualify “as little as possible” by
today’s ultralight standards. Yet Shaffer persevered. I doubt I would have
fared as well.
Along the C & O Canal Towpath
that also serves as a stretch of the AT through Maryland
I would be hard pressed to keep up
with Shaffer’s pace even if I did not average in days spent resting, which he
did not take. I would be equally challenged to do what he did with the gear
available to him, relying instead on aluminum, nylon, and other light weight
gear easily available today but not in 1948.
At 152 pages long, Shaffer’s writing
pace is a little over 13 miles a page. Evan at that brisk pace, however, I was
able to enjoy the Native American legends and lore, local history, and
references to American woodsmen such as Boone, Crockett, Carson, Wetzel, and
others that he sprinkled throughout his work. Even though sections of the AT
have been rerouted since Shaffer’s first thru-hike, and I have never thru-hiked
the AT, I have backpacked enough of it to enjoy his descriptions of locations I
have myself visited, such as Fontana Dam, OId Rag, The Chesapeake and OhioCanal, Swatara Gap, Hawk Mountain, the Delaware Water Gap, Tammany Mountain,
Sunfish Pond, North Conway and Pinkham Notch.
At Old Rag many years ago
Shaffer’s book is a memoir about his
first AT thru-hike, not a detailed section-by-section description of the trail
or a technical “how to” guide to thru-hiking the AT. His prose is easy going,
not flowery or forced. I am glad I finally got around to reading it and
recommend it anyone who loves hiking, especially backpacking the AT.
My original review was originally published
on The Trek and was edited before I posted it here on my own blog.