Early Thru Hikers
Earl Shaffer was not the first person to attempt a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, but he was the first to complete his hike (disputes over his accomplishment notwithstanding). The first person who we know attempted a thru hike of the Trail was a young Dane named Eiler Larsen in 1931.
Larsen wrote to ATC Chairman Arthur Perkins on July 22, 1931, informing Perkins that he planned to depart Mount Katahdin on August 4, and hoped to complete the entire Trail before December. That the Trail itself was not complete in 1931 did not deter Larsen, who also wrote to ATC Board member John Sherman asking for maps and guides to the Trail in New England. Sherman wrote to Perkins about Larsen, saying:
I think that anyone who aspires to hike the whole Appalachian Trail deserves all the cooperation that the members of the various clubs that are interested can give.
Larsen managed to get at least as far at the Washington, D.C. area, because his hike garnered coverage in the Washington Post, which described him as looking like someone straight out of the Old Testament. Larsen did not manage to complete his thru hike, but he did go on to become the unofficial "Greeter of Laguna Beach."
Larsen was not the only person to attempt a thru hike and fail. In 1947, the year before Shaffer's successful traverse of the entire Trail, a 69-year old retired shoe factory worker from Binghamton, New York named Galen Tingley attempted to hike from Maine to Georgia. Potomac Appalachian Trail Club leaders, betraying the general sketicism of trail club officials about attempts to hike the whole Trail, were not impressed by Tingley. They wrote to Park Service officials in Shenandoah National Park, warning them of his approach and describing him as: "White-haired, slender built, slightly stooped; best known for his trait of securing free meals wherever he stops..."
Gene Espy (1951)
Earl Shaffer's status as the only person to hike the whole Trail in one season only lasted three years, because in 1951, three young men completed thru hikes. The first of those was Gene Espy of Cordele, Georgia. Like Shaffer, Espy was young (24), a World War II veteran in excellent condition, and an experienced hiker and outdoorsman. Like so many of the early thru hikers, as well as even more today, Espy's experience with the Appalachian Trail prior to his hike was limited to just a few nights six years earlier.
In his post-hike essay about his hike, Espy explained that he purchased all of his gear through mail order catalogs or used left overs from his war service. He used a small carbide lamp at night and not once during his entire trip did he light a campfire. The total cost of Espy's hike was $400 (about $3,800 in 2017), of which $100 was for his bus fare home from Maine to Georgia.
His fully loaded pack weighed around 45 pounds, and like Shaffer, he depended entirely on stores along the Trail for resupply. From start to finish he made the trip in 123 days, subsisting primarily on dried soups, dehydrated potatoes, chocolate pudding mix (his typical breakfast), powdered milk, deviled ham, nuts, and whatever fruits and cheeses he could buy along the way. Like many of the earliest long distance hikers on the Trail, Espy found that the most remote sections of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia still lacked a complete set of shelters. He therefore regularly asked farm families along the route if he could sleep in their haylofts, although, he reported, they generally insisted that he sleep in one of their beds and have dinner with the family. He also spent one night (as a guest) in the Damascus, Virginia town jail, having made friends with the local chief of police.
At the Smith Gap Shelter in Pennsylvania, Espy met Chester Dziengielewski, who was likewise on a thru hike--but southbound from Maine to Georgia. The two shared notes about the trail and by the end of the summer, both were successful thru hikers. Espy also reported that more than once he went more than a week without seeking another person along the trail. In an interview 60 years later, he said, “I got what I intended out of the Appalachian Trail. I got to see God’s work in nature.’’
Mildred Norman Ryder (1952)
In the spring of 1952, Mildren Norman Ryder and her friend Richard Lamb set off from Mount Oglethorpe to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season. When they reached the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania the two hikers took a bus north to Baxter State Park, where they climbed Mount Katahdin and headed southbound. When they reached the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail in Vermont, they detoured again, this time to the Canadian border, where they picked up the Long Trail and hiked south until they reached the AT again. From there they concluded their hike by returning to the Susquehanna, thereby also becoming the first "flip flop" thru hikers.
Because polite American society in 1952 would have found an unmarried couple hiking alone in the woods to be more than a bit scandalous, Lamb generally introduced them as "Dick Lamb and Mil." Neither hiker carried sophisticated gear and their diet was simple. Years later, Ryder wrote:
I lived out-of-doors completely, supplied with only one pair of slacks and shorts, one blouse and sweater, a lightweight blanket, and two double plastic sheets, into which I sometimes stuffed leaves. I was not always completely dry and warm, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. My menu, morning and evening, was two cups of uncooked oatmeal soaked in water and flavored with brown sugar; at noon two cups of double strength dried milk, plus any berries, nuts or greens found in the woods.
Either in the last stages of her hike, or immediately afterward, Ryder decided that her life's purpose was to walk across America and Canada promoting peace everywhere she went. The fact that the first hydrogen bomb had been detonated at Eniwetok shortly after the conclusion of her AT thru hike helps to provide context for her decision. In the spring of 1953, she changed her name to Peace Pilgrim and devoted the rest of her life to walking--more than 25,000 miles--bringing with her a message of peace.
George F. Miller (1952)
In the fall of 1952, George F. Miller, a 72-year-old retired college professor from Washington, D.C., became the sixth (and by far the oldest) person to complete a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. His accomplishment demonstrated that the skepticism of ATC leaders about the requirements for a thru hike--youth, fitness, a high level of backpacking skill--were not required to get from Georgia to Maine in one season.
While Miller was not young, he was an experienced long distance walker, having hiked 1,000 miles from Farmington, Missouri to Washington as a young man, and had spent the previous year hiking, camping, and most importantly testing out his home made pack.
It is that pack, pictured here, rather than his age, that makes Miller such an interesting case. Rather than relying on war surplus like his predecessors, Miller built his own rather quirky pack comprised of four distinct units--one suspended on his chest, one on his back, and one on each shoulder. The goal of this design, a goal familiar to all backpackers, was to distribute the weight of his load as evenly as possible from front to back.
Miller's diet would be familiar to today's hikers--dried soups, dried fruits, peanut butter, cheese, canned meat and whatever he could purchase at stores along the Trail. By contrast, he carried what, today, seems like a lot of clothes: five shirts, three pairs of pants, a sweater, and an extra pair of boots to change into when his primary pair became wet. Unlike his predecessors, Miller gave little indication that he was entranced by the beauty of the Trail. Instead, his notebooks read more like an accounting ledger, providing spare details about such things as trail conditions, the number of mice seen in a shelter, his walking pace that day, and whether or not it rained that day.