Meet The Champions Of The Appalachian Trail

By John Popham

July 5, 2022

Man and woman hiking at sunset
Photo: Getty Images

Every year an estimated three million hikers find themselves on some portion of the Appalachian Trail and a few thousand of those dare to make the 2,190 mile journey from Georgia to Maine. However, only one in four end up completing the entire trail.

Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, hosts of Stuff You Should Know, give listeners a in depth look at the trail’s history and its most notable hikers.

It all started in the year 1900 when forrester and conservationist Benton MacKaye hiked to the top of Stratton Mountain in Vermont where he began to develop the idea of a single trail that followed the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. Twenty-one years later, he published "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning" in hopes to get public support for the project.

“He basically said, 'Hey, in addition to this interconnective trail that forms one big trail along the Appalachians, we can build shelters for people hiking, we can build community camps, we can build farms that are run by labor unions,’” said Clark. “Basically socialize the woods to give people the chance to get away from the rest of the world.”

Four years after the publication of the essay, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is formed and sections of the trail begin to take shape across New England. Enter Myron Avery, a maritime lawyer who took charge of the project in 1931.

“(Avery) mapped every square inch of the trail and was such a pragmatic visionary, he got the Appalachian Trail completed in seven years,” said Clark.

Despite coming across as egotistical and stubborn to some, Avery got the project done and the Appalachian Trail was finished and open to the public in 1937. However, it would be over a decade before someone managed to complete the entire trail.

In 1948, Earl “Crazy One” Shaffer became the first person to ever hike the complete Appalachian Trail, completing the task in 124 days and averaging 16 miles a day. A World War II veteran, Shaffer said he wanted to, “Walk the army out of his system.”

“Didn’t even have a tent,” said Bryant.

“So he did this in 124 days,” said Clark. “On average it takes a thru-hiker 165 days with modern gear. It just makes his accomplishment that much more amazing.”

Shaffer set the bar for future hikers of the trail again when in 1965 he became the first person to complete the trail both ways. He finished the 2,190 mile trail one final time in the 1990’s at the age of 80.

While Shaffer’s time on the trail is legendary, he is not the fastest person to complete the Appalachian Trail. In 2017, trail runner Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy completed the trek through 14 states in 45 days,12 hours, and 15 minutes averaging a grueling 50 miles a day.

“That’s nuts,” said Clark.

To hear more about the world’s longest footpath, check out “The Appalachian Trail: A Heckuva Hike,” episode of Stuff You Should Know. The podcast is available on the iHeart?Radio app or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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