The History of Combat Veterans Hiking the Appalachian Trail
There’s a first time for everything. Earl “Crazy One” Shaffer, an Army veteran who passed away in 2002, was the first recorded combat veteran to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.
As The New York Times noted in his obituary, Shaffer joined the Army on his own volition in 1941, serving with the Army Signal Corps in World War II. The Appalachian Trail hike idea came to pass during a conversation Shaffer had with a friend prior to the war in ’37. But the two were never able to make the hike together, as his friend was killed in action during the invasion of Iwo Jima. As a tip of his cap to his fallen friend, Shaffer started hiking the trail in April 1948 from Georgia, with little by way of provisions and just the simple goal of “[walking] off the war.” He completed the feat in Maine 123 days later, averaging 16.5 miles per day. (Shaffer ended up hiking the trail again, the opposite way, in 1965; and again in 1998.)
Per the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the trail itself is approximately 2,190 miles long and passes through 14 states. Nowadays, more than 250 three-sided shelters dot the trail, so that long-distance travelers can have a dry place to stay on their arduous journey. One in every four hiker that decides to walk the entire length of it succeeds, with the average journey length being about six months. More than 1,400 hikers were recorded to have passed through Harper’s Ferry, the midpoint, during attempts last year—an uptick of nearly nine percent year over year.
Since Shaffer’s groundbreaking “mission,” countless other war vets have gotten the itch to hike the trail in honor of their fallen comrades and maybe most importantly, to heal. One of those was Captain Sean Gobin, a Marine from 1994 to the mid-2000s who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After hiking the entirety of the trail himself, he founded Warrior Expeditions, to give like-minded veterans the same opportunity.
Since 2013, the ATC has partnered with Warrior Expeditions to fully fund 13 military vets on a “thru-hike” (i.e. the entire Appalachian trail), giving them the “opportunity to reconnect with the United States in a uniquely physical and psychological way.” Appalachian Trail hikes—as well as a number of others—continue to present day.