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Appalachian Trail hiker shares adventure in writing

December 06, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- Gene Espy thought he was going to be first to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail when he left Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia on May 31, 1951, and struck out for Maine's Mount Katahdin, 2,050 miles away.

He harbored that thought until the trail crossed the Virginia farm of an elderly man who gave Espy the bad news.

"Son," the old guy said to the 24-year-old hiker, "If you get to Maine, you'll be second."

The farmer told Espy that Earl Shaffer from York, Pa., became the first "thru-hiker" in 1948, three years before Espy began his trek and 11 years after the trail opened. 

Since then, according to unofficial numbers from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, nearly 11,000 thru-hikers -- some who hiked in one fell swoop, others who did it piecemeal -- have followed in Shaffer's footsteps.

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Espy met Shaffer at an Appalachian Trail Conference meeting in Virginia in 1952 and the two became good friends over the years. Shaffer died in 2002 at the age of 83.

Espy, 82, who lives with his wife, Eugenia, in Macon Ga., hiked the trail in four months, reaching Mount Katahdin on Sept. 30, 1951.  

He was a special guest Saturday at the conservancy's annual community open house. He was invited to sign his self-published autobiography, "The Trail of My Life: the Gene Espy Story."

Readers of the book can sense the hardships and exhilarations of the trail through Espy's breezy writing. They can feel his exuberance at climbing a steep mountain; his anxiety clawing through brush so heavy it hid the white blazes that mark the path; his fear of poisonous snakes (he killed 15, rattlesnakes and copperheads, with his walking stick); and the amazing final moment when he touched the northern terminus marker on Mount Katahdin.

Today, the trail's southern terminus is Springer Mountain in Georgia. Because of relocations over the years, the trail now stretches to 2,179 miles, 129 more than the original route.

The ravages of a major East Coast hurricane in 1938 and its neglect during World War II left the trail overgrown with brush and covered with fallen trees, and obliterated many of its white markers, Espy says in the book.

In those days, much of the trail left the spine of the Appalachian Mountain chain and led hikers along miles of rural roadways. Today, AT hiking clubs maintain the trail in all 14 states it crosses and there are only about 20 miles of roadway left. 

Pieces of Espy's backpacking equipment from 58 years ago are museum pieces today. He donated much of them to the museum in the visitors center at Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia.

He writes in his book that, "The L.L. Bean Company and World War II army surplus stores supplied most of my hiking equipment."

His gear included three pairs of L.L. Bean hiking shoes, a canvas Army surplus ski trooper's steel-frame rucksack, a Trapper Model down-filled sleeping bag from the Alaska Sleeping Bag Co., a Primus gasoline cook stove, his Boy Scout tent (Espy was the first Eagle Scout in his hometown of Cordele, Ga.), a miner's carbide lamp, Boy Scout knife and cook kit, and three pairs of white duck Navy pants.

His backpack when full weighed 45 pounds.

Thru-hikers are obsessed with weight. Espy sent his razor home to lighten his load. According to the foreword in his book, written by Espy's friend, Larry Luxenberg, he exchanged two nickels for a dime in a Virginia post office because the dime was lighter.

Espy, in the book, tells of meeting a north-to-south thru-hiker who, when reading his Bible, ripped out finished pages to save weight.

His desire to hike the trail came when he joined a Georgia Tech classmate between semesters in February 1945, on a weeklong jaunt in Great Smokey Mountain National Park. He first saw the Appalachian Trail when they took a side trail.

"I enjoyed it so much that I said to myself, 'If ever get a chance, I would hike the whole thing,'" he said in an interview in Harpers Ferry last week. 

When the chance finally did come six years later, he was already dating Eugenia. She was in college and they kept in touch through letters.

"Today they call back home every night. We didn't have cell phones back then," he said.

Espy became the subject of much attention in Maine newspapers upon completion of his hike. 

The Daily News said in an Oct. 6, 1951, editorial, "We take our hat off to Eugene M. Espy of Cordele, Georgia. The young man set his sights on a distant goal and reached it, and who can say there isn't something worthy in that?"

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