It is customary in the world of Appalachian Trail thru-hiking to pick a trail name, and in 1994 after reading Wingfoot’s Thru-Hiker’s Handbook – I came to realize that it was better to choose a trail name rather than have someone pick one for me.
So after completing Earl Shaffer’s Walking With Spring, I decided to take the trail name “BirdShooter” which was the brand name of the hiking boots that carried Earl Shaffer 2000+ miles up the East Coast and in to history as the first hiker to complete the entire Appalachian Trail in a single year.
I once saw Earl Shaffer speak at the annual Appalachian Trail Days festival in Damascus, Virgina, and with a crowd gathered to watch his slide show – I listened closely as he described the Trail in 1948. It was a vastly different experience than when I hiked in 1994; it was much more isolated, with manned fire towers on the route, and smaller and more sporadic shelters that often had only dirt floors for accomodations during the night.
Then this week, life-long backpacker Jim McNeely announced that he had been researching the history of the Appalachian Trail, along with its original and subsequent routes. In the research, McNeely discovered evidence that Earl Shaffer bypassed at least 170 miles of the trail which, if true, will alter the history of the Appalachian Trail forever – much as proving George Mallory didn’t actually summit Mount Everest would forever alter the history of mountaineering.
Time will tell, but what is certain is that Earl Shaffer helped to usher in a new era for the Appalachian Trail and started a trend that continues to this day – when each spring 2000-3000 people set out in his footsteps to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. For that, he deserves a lot of credit – whether he skipped a few miles or not.