Clarification (July 6, 2011: 5:41 p.m.): Chester Dziengielewski was the first person to report a Maine-to-Georgia through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, a variation of the more traditional south-to-north route. That was unclear in the original version of this story about Earl Shaffer, the first to report a through-hike of any kind and also the first person to report hiking the entire trail in both directions. | Our corrections policy


On Aug. 5, 1948, the day he made history and became an Appalachian Trail legend, Earl Shaffer kept his words simple and short.

"In morn climbed [Mount] Katahdin in leisurely fashion, reached summit of Baxter Peak about 1:30," Shaffer wrote in the journal he'd carried for 124 days and 2,000-plus miles.

With that scribbled notation, Shaffer became the first person reported to hike the Appalachian Trail in one trip -- a journey that took him from Georgia to Maine and then on to fame.

Now, 63 years later, Shaffer's own writings are being used to question his place in history.

Jim McNeely, a West Virginia lawyer and hiker who spent years researching the epic hike, says Shaffer bypassed at least 170 miles of the trail -- taking multiple shortcuts by walking on country roads and twice accepting short rides in cars.

"This is not nitpicking about someone leaving the trail to go around some downed trees," McNeely said of his findings, detailed in a 158-page report he shared with The Roanoke Times.

"I was looking for knowing, deliberate decisions to not walk the Appalachian Trail."

In painstaking detail, McNeely does more than just challenge a life-defining event for Shaffer, who died in 2002.

His report also questions a piece of history recorded by the Smithsonian Institution, which recognizes Shaffer in its National Museum of American History as the first person to walk the Appalachian Trial in one continuous hike. And it invites a debate about the true definition of "through-hiking" the 2,180-mile trail, a concept that Shaffer pioneered.

Those most troubled by the report are likely to be hikers, especially ones who consider any deviation from the trail's white-blazed route to be a breech of trail etiquette.

"There is within the hiking community a group of people who are purists, who feel very strongly about this, and Jim [McNeely] is apparently one of them, where you hike past every white blaze, and if you miss one, you turn and go back, and until you do that you aren't a through-hiker," said Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

After receiving a copy of McNeely's report -- replete with examples of missed white blazes -- the conservancy seems reluctant to rewrite history.

"The fact does remain that Earl was the first to report a through-hike," King said. "The fact also remains that the ATC accepted that report of a through-hike.

"And that's where we stand."

With a primary mission of preserving and maintaining the trail, the nonprofit trail conservancy says it lacks the resources to check every step taken by Shaffer and the nearly 10,000 through-hikers who have followed his example since 1948.

King said the organization's board "has made it clear that we should not be in the history detective business."

Following an old trail

If there is an Appalachian Trail history detective, his name is Jim McNeely.

Like a prosecuting attorney -- which he was, in Summers County, W.Va., from 2000 to 2006 -- McNeely has assembled a body of evidence to support his case.

Report on a Study of the Record as to the Actual Route of the 1948 Appalachian Trail Hike of Earl V. Shaffer

Much of his report is based on three documents: the little black notebook that served as Shaffer's daily journal during the hike; a report he made to the ATC in 1948 that led to his recognition as the first through-hiker; and the book he published in 1983 about the experience, "Walking With Spring."

Additional information came from Shaffer's other writings, donated after his death to the National Museum of American History. McNeely made numerous trips to the museum, sometimes leaving his Peterstown, W.Va., home at 2 a.m. to drive to Washington to pore over papers in the archives.

Why would the 64-year-old lawyer, Vietnam veteran, former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates and current part-time administrative judge spend so much time investigating a hike many people have never heard about?

McNeely is an avid hiker. And he is fascinated by the "lost" sections of the Appalachian Trail, the route the trail took in the 1940s and 1950s, before it was relocated far from its original path because of hurricane damage and construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

After starting his research on the old trail more than a decade ago, McNeely turned to Shaffer's writings to learn more about the route taken in 1948.

And that, he said, is how he stumbled across a passage about how Shaffer accepted a car ride that led to him skipping part of the trail near Galax.

"He had a reputation for being an extreme purist," McNeely said. "So when I read that, it really set me back. I said, 'Wait a minute, is my picture of Earl Shaffer and his historic hike correct?' "

Starting at Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia, which in 1948 was the southern terminus of the trail, McNeely found other sections of the trial that Shaffer missed in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. His inquiry stopped at Rockfish Gap in Virginia -- less than halfway to the trail's northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine -- because that was the extent of his study of the old trail route.

Even as he began to doubt Shaffer's legacy, McNeely felt his admiration for the man grow as he learned more about the hardships a solo hiker faced in 1948.

Trail conditions and markings were poor, especially in Southwest Virginia, and Shaffer began his trek with no trail maps or guides. He had only state highway maps to guide him -- which showed the trail's route in a vague, dotted line -- and a sense of determination that bordered on obstinateness as he forged ahead, time and again, after losing the trail.

McNeely's mission, as he saw it, was to figure, "Where did Earl Shaffer go, how did he get there, and what the hell was he thinking?"

A shaky start in Georgia

Earl Shaffer grew up in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, where he honed his love for the outdoors. He was "a prolific poet and loner who often sought solitude in the mountains," according to the Smithsonian's online exhibit.

After serving in the Pacific theater during World War II, Shaffer decided to "walk the Army out of my system, both mentally and physically," by fulfilling his long-held goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

At the age of 29, Shaffer began his hike without the benefit of lightweight gear and well-traveled paths available to today's hikers. In his low-tech rucksack he stuffed heavy cooking utensils, food, a change of clothes and a blanket.

After taking a bus to Jasper, Ga., Shaffer set out on April 3, 1948.

The hike may have been flawed from the beginning, McNeely wrote in his report.

Lacking a good map, Shaffer asked random strangers which of the nearby mountains was Mount Oglethorpe, his intended starting point.

"No one seemed to be quite sure," Shaffer wrote in his report to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

"After considerable fumbling around," Shaffer wrote, he found his way.

But based on the landmarks he described, including an old fire tower, McNeely believes Shaffer first hit the Appalachian Trail at Sassafras Mountain, 3.3 miles north of where it actually began.

McNeely's hunch is based, in part, on a discovery he made while examining photographs taken by Shaffer, held in the Smithsonian archives.

One of the slides, showing a sign at the Mount Oglethorpe trail head, had black tape along the bottom and right side, McNeely said. With the help of an archivist, the tape was carefully peeled away to reveal what shocked McNeely -- tree branches in the foreground with fully developed leaves, more likely present in midsummer, not the first week of April at such a high elevation.

Further research showed that Shaffer returned to the area by car in the summer of 1950, two years after his hike. McNeely said he believes that by then, Shaffer realized his mistake and took the photograph of the Mount Oglethorpe sign then, later cropping it to make it appear it was taken at the start of his hike.

As any prosecutor would know, the photograph alone was not smoking-gun proof that Shaffer missed the first 3.3 miles of his epic hike.

But it was a piece of circumstantial evidence, McNeely figured. And as the trail headed north, there would be more direct evidence to support his theory.

Lost in Fries

By the time Shaffer reached Southwest Virginia, he had been hiking for a month.

"Cold and gusty," the May 4 entry in his journal reads.

As Shaffer walked north from Damascus to Galax, he and the trail again parted ways at Byllesby, where hikers at the time were supposed to catch a ferry across the New River.

Rather than cross the river, Shaffer continued along the railroad tracks to Fries, which he mistakenly believed to be on the Appalachian Trail's route, according to McNeely's report.

By the time he reached Fries, it was raining hard, and darkness was falling. Expecting to find the trail, Shaffer "blundered around for an hour" on a hillside, misdirected by a woman who thought he was asking about the Appalachian power line.

Cold, tired and lost, Shaffer accepted a man's offer for a car ride to Galax, where he knew the trail waited.

"And so I committed the heinous crime, skipping several miles of the trial," he later wrote in an early draft of his book. "However, my conscience was eased by the fact that I had spent more time and effort around Fries than would have been required to walk the distance."

By taking the car ride, Shaffer skipped 5.5 miles of the trail before rejoining it in Galax and continuing north.

As McNeely notes in his report, that candid admission does not appear in the final version of Shaffer's book, nor was it included in the report to the trail conservancy that Shaffer made in late 1948, when he was seeking recognition as the first through-hiker.

Another ride off the trail

Shaffer continued north, making it to Bearwallow Gap, northwest of Bedford, on May 14.

As he broke camp that morning, Shaffer was approached by a forest ranger who reminded him that word of his hike was getting around.

"Once again I heard: 'you must be that Lone Trail-hiker," Shaffer wrote in his book.

The ranger "insisted on driving me down a side road" to see some flowering rhododendron, then on to the Peaks of Otter, even though the Appalachian Trail no longer went that way, Shaffer wrote.

From there, Shaffer walked along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Apple Orchard Mountain, where he reunited with the trail. In the process, he skipped 18 miles, partly by riding 4.8 miles in the ranger's truck, according to McNeely's report.

It was the second time that Shaffer accepted a ride that advanced him north on the trail, the report notes. And it was just the latest example of the many times he walked along a road instead of following the trail, skipping a total of 170 miles of the trail from Mount Oglethorpe to Rockfish Gap.

At one point, Shaffer hiked a portion of Skyline Drive that paralleled the trail to avoid the brush, soaked by a thunderstorm, that hung over the trail, according to McNeely's report.

"It is a striking image: Earl V. Shaffer, on his way to recognition as the first AT thru-hiker, walking along the Skyline Drive ... because he didn't wish to walk in the wet brush along the AT," McNeely wrote.

Defending the lone hiker

At the Appalachian Trail Museum in Gardners, Pa., an exhibit devoted to Shaffer includes one of his boots, his camp cook kit, a rain hat and a knapsack.

"The first thru-hiker," proclaims a plaque next to Shaffer's photograph -- a display unlikely to change because of McNeely's report.

"I'm not questioning the evidence or the facts; I'm questioning the conclusions," the museum's president, Larry Luxenberg, said of McNeely's report. "I think you're putting a modern conclusion on something that happened 60 years ago."

In 1948, the then-2,050-mile long Appalachian Trail was poorly marked in Southwest Virginia, with some sections missing completely.

Shaffer, in his report to the trail conservancy, "said he didn't hike a lot of it because he couldn't find it," Luxenberg said.

In fact, the conservancy was skeptical in 1948 that the trail could be through-hiked, said King, the organization's spokesman. It was only after a careful examination by two dubious board members that Shaffer's hike was accepted by the organization, which is the closest thing to an arbiter of through-hikes.

"I don't think you can contest that he walked from Georgia to Maine," King said. "Where exactly he walked, I think that is what Jim is contesting."

And while McNeely makes much of Shaffer's fondness for walking along country roads, his supporters point out that in 1948 the trail often followed such routes.

As for the car rides, "I think that was more accidental than intentional. He was trying to locate the trail," said Shaffer's brother, John, who serves on the board of a foundation devoted to promoting the hiker's prose and poetry.

If McNeely's report were to prompt a formal inquiry, that task could fall to the trail conservancy, which compiles a registry of through-hikers. King said there have been no such requests to the board of the organization, which is holding a conference this week at Emory & Henry College.

Second-guessing the hike could be dicey, as Shaffer's reputation has risen over time with the publication of his writings and his subsequent accomplishments.

Shaffer made history a second time in 1965, when he hiked the trail in reverse from Maine to Georgia, becoming the first person to report through-hikes in both directions. And he attracted national media attention in 1998, when he completed a third through-hike at the age of 79.

What defines a through-hike?

In the end, the questions raised in McNeely's report may prove to be not ones of fact, but policy: Just how strictly should a through-hike be judged?

The way McNeely sees it: "If you're going to be the first through-hiker ... there ought to be a standard applied, because it's extremely important to all the other people who are walking the trail."

Others argue that such a zeal for accountability can be the enemy of the trail's true purpose -- to offer a path through natural beauty, where personal satisfaction is defined on the terms of each participant.

"That's why the trail is there," King said. "It's not there to be a motocross."

Similar thoughts are held by Gene Espy, who completed the Georgia-to-Maine trek in 1951 to become the second reported through-hiker.

Like others who have read McNeely's report, Espy does not dispute its factual findings. Nor does he feel slighted by Shaffer's claim to a distinction some might say should be his, the 84-year-old said in a telephone interview from his home in Macon, Ga.

"I made my hike in 1951 and I got my enjoyment out of it," Espy said. "I was out to see God and nature ... and I'm satisfied with what I got out of the trail myself."

The perfect hike

Late last month, McNeely put his research aside and started to pack for a hiking trip.

He began his expedition June 24 near Troutdale in unusual fashion. Instead of picking up the Appalachian Trail at that point, he veered off the beaten path.

Thus began McNeely's long-planned dream hike: a walk through Southwest Virginia along the old Appalachian Trail route. He plans to finish July 22 on Catawba Mountain north of Roanoke, where the current trail crosses U.S. 311.

With his dog Geva at his heels, McNeely is finally blazing the trail he pursued for so long though dusty archives, aging documents and hours at his computer.

"The old AT came up this road right here," McNeely said last Wednesday, while passing through Byllesby.

It is the perfect hike for him -- along a lost trail, retracing the hallowed, but imperfect, footsteps of Earl Shaffer.

Staff photographer Matt Gentry contributed to this report.

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