In April 1948, a man named Earl Shaffer set forth from Georgia with his old Army rucksack to walk World World II out of his system. He made it all the way to Maine, making him the first person to hike the whole Appalachian Trail in one trip.
In April 2016, a woman named Kathy Finch set forth from New York to walk 1600 miles to Alabama, making her the first person to walk the entirety of America's newest long-distance hike, the Great Eastern Trail, southbound, and only the third to do it in either direction.
The Shaffer and Finch hikes are not unrelated. "This big dream hit me when I was 14," said Kathy Finch (left). "In 1967, Lyndon Johnson signed the National Trails System Act. The next year, National Geographic came out with a huge spread, photos and everything, of the old-school early hikers with the canvas backpacks, the tin cups and everything, and I was smitten with that romantic, seat-of-your-pants, old-school hike."
The AT was new back in those tin-cup days, she said, and on his big trip, Earl Shaffer would get lost, ask directions only to find that the locals had no idea where the trail was, get asked in to supper and end up camping for the night in somebody's backyard. "That's the kind of adventure I've been looking for all my life," said Kathy.
Kathy, who turned 63 while on the Great Eastern Trail, grew from an outdoorsy kid into an outdoorsy woman, still with the big dream, but times changed and the dream had to change, too. "It was always going to be the Appalachian Trail," said Kathy. "But it isn't like that anymore. It's a superhighway."
She did in fact end up hiking the AT, not in one trip but in two big chunks 12 years apart, in 2001 and 2013. She enjoyed it but it was not her idea of "seat-of-your-pants"--too well traveled and too many people. "Then along came the Great Eastern Trail and I said, this is it," she said.
Kathy was talking to The Planet in the Dade County Library, 1300 miles into her walk, on a September day in Trenton, Georgia, about 300 miles from the GET's southern terminus. She was enjoying a luxurious leg of her long jaunt, accepting the hospitality of fellow AT "thru-hiker" Greg Foster on Lookout Mountain, whom she'd connected with via online hiker circles. "This is the first home cooking I've had in a thousand miles," she said.
(A note on nomenclature: The Dade Planet is orthographically conservative to the point you will see the word "donut" in these pages when the "ough" is pried from The Planet's cold, dead fingers. But the hiking community has dumped the unpronounced letters in "thru-hiker," the term of honor for one who has walked the AT's entire length, whether in some linguistic extension of hikers' eternal struggle to lighten their packs or otherwise; and The Planet sees little choice but to accept that grudgingly.)
Sardo -- (A note on Greg Foster: He likes to be called "Sourdough," his trail name. It has been a tradition for AT "thru-hikers" to take trail names since Earl Shaffer dubbed himself "The Crazy One." But given the local pronunciation, The Planet has eliminated some letters of its own and arrived at "Sardo," which Foster has grudgingly accepted as far as The Planet can discern.)
Anyway. Sardo (pictured at right hiking locally with Kathy) not only hosted, fed and introduced to the Local Press Kathy Finch, he as a major trail-building-and-maintenance volunteer was able to arrange for her to hike an unfinished section of the Great Eastern Trail through Lula Lake Land Trust acreage. She had planned to walk down Scenic Highway for this stretch. "But because I'm coming down now, Lula Lake Land Trust said, we've got our proposed trail in place, and I got to walk it yesterday," she said.
The GET, she explained, is still very much a work in progress. "There are large sections of the trail that are not built yet, property-issue kind of things, and that's where the road walks are," she said. "The Appalachian Trail is now all trail, off road, but it took 60 years of development to do it."
GET's finished parts, said Kathy, tend to be along the network of preexisting long-distance trails strung together to form the new trail's backbones. "I just came off the Cumberland Trail and now I'm on road all the way to Cave Spring, Georgia, where I'll pick up the Pinhoti Trail," she said.
In our area, besides the Lula Lake section, the GET includes national military park trails atop Lookout as well as Cloudland Canyon State Park trails including the Cloudland Canyon Connector, Bear Creek, Back Country, Overlook and West Rim trails.
So walking the GET in 2016 is an odd pastiche of trails and asphalt, deep woods and towns, roughing it miles from anywhere and sleeping in cheap motels along the highway; but Kathy says the sketchiness of it is the whole point.
"This is my version of the 1948 Earl Shaffer Appalachian Trail hike," she said. "I said I'm going to get my seat-of-your-pants, old-school, multi-month adventure, get-yourself-in-and-out-of-trouble, road walk, trails, things-happening-all-the-time, making-new-friends, in-the-moment, things-you-can't-plan, this-is-it! -- and it's worked out that way."
Kathy says on her way from New York she's had no trouble with bears, mountain lions or things that go bump in the night, though she admits, "I've had some snake moments." Nor has she had any trouble with predators of the two-legged variety. "I've been going through good places meeting good people," she said. "Everyone's been very friendly."
The biggest problem she's faced, says Kathy, has been trail conditions. "Trails don't maintain themselves and I've found that out this year," she said. Trails become so clogged with blowdown or new growth, she said: "There've been times I get so stuck I can't get going, and I have to back out while I can. Then I may have to walk out three or four miles and find a road and go around it. There's been a lot of that."
The weather has also provided an adventure or two. This summer, she spent a rainy day holed up in a three-sided hiker's shelter atop Allegheny Mountain in West Virginia, watching the thunderstorms roll over her and enjoying having good cellphone reception for a change. "It wasn't until the next day that I dropped down and realized that 22 counties in southern West Virginia were declared disaster areas," she said.
She had arrived in West Virginia just in time for the Biblical-level flooding that devastated the state, and she stayed as Army helicopters and relief agencies rushed to the rescue. "It was an astounding experience to watch all that play out and be a part of that," she said.
Kathy has done all this walking in sturdy but lightweight tennis shoes rather than hiking boots, which she says is manageable because she keeps her backpack under 25 pounds. She carries almost no clothes except for the shirt and shorts she was wearing at her interview with The Planet, plus extensions that make the shorts into long pants and an extra pair of socks. She does carry a lightweight rainsuit she wears while laundromat-washing the other things, though she says it turns into a mini-sauna in summer. She also had a sweater she hadn't used all summer but that came in handy in the Dade library's industrial-strength air conditioning.
(Kathy with Sardo and Duke outside the Dade County Library)
Kathy travels light food-wise as well, boiling water at night to add to the dinners she spent last winter dehydrating and sealing in Ziploc bags. The postmaster in her hometown in New Hampshire ships these to her at two-week intervals, and she had picked up a boxful at the Trenton post office just prior to her interview with The Planet. "General delivery is a boon for hikers and always has been," she said.
For Kathy Finch, the Great Eastern Trail has been the the trip of a lifetime, the one she's hoped and planned for since 1967, the crazy dream that helped her get out of bed in the morning when she went through periods of depression earlier in life. "I'm in church every day," she said. "This is a joyous celebration for me."
And she hopes her trek through the great, unfinished new footpath across America will help others who want to try it. She has been posting faithfully in a GET Facebook journal (which many of the photos in this article came from) that readers can access at facebook.com/groups/GETHiking
"Not only is this my journey," she said, "the bigger picture is this is the Great Eastern Trail, and the data that I bring to the table is going to help future hikers."
Note: Since her interview with The Dade Planet, Kathy Finch touched the trailhead sign at Flag Mountain, Ala., thus finishing her long trek. She planned to take an Amtrak train home to New Hampshire, where she works as a freelance proofreader.
It was one of Kathy's hopes in talking with The Planet to publicize the need for trail volunteers, particularly on the GET. Accordingly, The Planet consulted its source on that matter, the aforementioned Greg "Sardo" Foster.
Sardo works most weeks on the Cloudland Canyon trails and can always use a hand with those, but he says they're in great shape compared to others nearby. He says the Cumberland Trail, which begins in Chattanooga and is part of the GET, hasn't been maintained in three years and is in such an awful condition that Kathy had to get off it. "If somebody wanted to do some work on GET trails locally," he said, "the Cumberland Trail would be a great place to start."
Anyone interested in volunteering on the Cumberland Trail can visit its website, cumberlandtrail.org. The GET itself also has volunteer opportunities listed at greateasterntrail.net. And to volunteer locally, readers may email Sardo at firstname.lastname@example.org.