National Museum of American History Opens New Exhibition “Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail”

June 9, 2009
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opens “Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail,” a new exhibition in its Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, July 10. The exhibition focuses on the fulfillment of Shaffer’s childhood goal, to hike the Appalachian Trail, which stretches through 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

Featured items include Shaffer’s trail diary from his pioneering 1948 hike, photographs he took along the trail, the maps he used and the boots he wore. The documents and artifacts will be on display through Oct. 30.

“Earl Shaffer is a celebrated figure in America’s naturalist and environmentalist communities,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “This exhibition will raise awareness of both America’s natural wilderness and the man who worked so hard as an advocate for it.”

Hiking the trail was a dream of Shaffer’s fostered when he was a young boy. He developed the skills of an outdoorsman during his youth in rural York County, Penn. An experienced hunter, fisherman, trapper and explorer, Shaffer gained further experience serving with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. However, the trauma and loss he experienced during the war had profound effects on him; afterward, Shaffer was determined to “walk the Army out of my system.” He was also concerned that the Appalachian Trail might soon be lost to natural growth due to its neglect during World War II. Shaffer began walking the more than 2,000 miles of the trail in April1948 and was the first to complete it in its entirety in one continuous hike. His subsequent work as an environmentalist, naturalist and activist continues to inspire hundreds of hikers to take on the rigorous trek each year.

The exhibition draws from the collection within the museum’s Archives Center and includes papers and photographs preserved when Shaffer first completed the hike. A prolific writer and poet, Shaffer recorded his experiences in a black notebook nearly every day. On display in the exhibition, the notebook’s battered condition serves as a testament to the harsh physical conditions endured by Shaffer in the 124 days it took to complete the trail. The notebook provided Americans with the first written account of the hike; no advice, footsteps to follow or guidebook was available to Shaffer when he first set out. In fact, completing the entire Appalachian Trail was deemed impossible by experts prior to Shaffer’s feat. Shaffer used the diary to record his daily progress on the trail, note animal and bird sightings, discuss various people he met along the way and express his emotions, often in poetic verse.

Shaffer completed the Appalachian Trail three times, the last in 1998 at the age of 79. After his pioneering hike in 1948, he became an environmentalist and activist on behalf of the trail and other parks and wilderness areas. His books, poetry and lectures have been celebrated for years by hikers and nature lovers across the country. This exhibition explores the writings of the man who raised awareness for the scenic beauty of American wilderness. The scope of the exhibition includes both the conception and development of the Appalachian Trail and its greater cultural and environmental impact throughout the United States.

The 1,500-square-foot Albert H. Small Documents Gallery was created to display rare and historically significant documents that reflect the broad scope and mission of the museum in a secure environment. Due to the conservation requirements of the materials on display, including the Shaffer documents, most exhibitions will be up for no more than three months. For more information about “Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail” and upcoming exhibitions in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, visit www.americanhistory.si.edu/documentsgallery.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. The museum shines new light on American history after having been dramatically transformed by a two-year renovation. To learn more about the museum, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).