I thru-hiked the AT in 1999, but just recently read Shaffer's first book, which was published commercially in 1983 by the Appalachian Trail Conference. I have long heard about Earl Shaffer, being that he is a trail legend and all, and after finding a very old copy of the book at a book sale recently, I dove right in.
I won't spend my time here detailing the AT, or what it is like to walk it, but I will tell you that it is an adventure. In 1948 the very recently developed 2050 mile trail across the Appalachian Mountains had been completed, and Shaffer headed out to find some solitude in the woods. What struck me most in reading this account, was how different his experience was from my own. He was truly on his own. There were no published maps, no trail community to slide into, and no one's previous experience to help him plan. The AT that Shaffer hiked was rough, rustic, and much more challenging, in the outdoorsman kind of way, than the one I hiked.
Shaffer's book is written about as roughly as the AT route is. He clearly took bits from his trail journal, pieced together his memory, and typed it onto a page in whatever order it came to him. His writing jumps all over the place in any given chapter, of which there is one for each of the states the trail passes through. The logic of the book is based solely on the chronological and navigational order of his experience. There are few other ways to tell a thru-hike story.
What is captured, when you wade through the words, is the essence of what a thru-hike once was. And if you can forgive the author his amateur writing, there is real joy in the telling. Shaffer describes people he meets with honesty and reality, and often with a laugh. He talks of the day to day minutia of walking and how that affects his being, his mind, his soul. He tells of the hard trail conditions, the nights slept out in a rainstorm, and the extra miles trekked to simply find his way along the right route. As he does all this, the reader gets pulled along in amazement of the man's fortitude and strength of perseverance. Most of us would have gone home right at the start. But as he was compelled to keep on walking, we are compelled to keep reading.
It's a simple book, about a truly simple existence. But Shaffer was a pioneer in the AT world and an amazing one at that. He thru-hiked the AT two more times in his life, and published another book. I don't think you have to have a prior affection for the Appalachian Trail to enjoy and appreciate this book, but if you do, Shaffer's story will remind you just how much you love the trail.
More info about Shaffer and his hike: