Espy honored for famed Appalachian Trail hike

gris@macon.comSeptember 16, 2011 

When Gene Espy’s name was called, the most surprised man in the ballroom pushed back from his chair and stood up.

He had not prepared any remarks for the special presentation. He didn’t even know about it. The ceremony at the Exchange Club of Macon had been a top secret for weeks.

Espy took three steps to the left of his plate of mashed potatoes and green beans and delivered a brief, 17-second speech.

It was nice to be remembered for the famous hike that took four months and more than 6 million steps.

Sixty years ago this month -- on Sept. 30, 1951 -- he became the second “thru-hiker” in history to complete the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous and marked footpath in the world.

He traveled across 14 states and 2,025 miles of mountain streams, hardwood forests, rugged slopes and gentle meadows.

His eyes were filled with enough mountain laurel to cover a thousand hillsides.

Laurels of another kind were reserved for the beginning of Thursday’s meeting at Idle Hour Country Club.

A few minutes after noon, Eugenia, his wife of 57 years, tip-toed through the back door of the ballroom, along with his daughter, Jane Gilsinger, and granddaughter, Courtney Holliday.

Bobby George, who organized the presentation, called Espy a “modern-day Huck Finn.’’ Clay Murphey, the city’s director of external affairs, then read a proclamation from Macon Mayor Robert Reichert.

Mark your calendars for Friday, Sept. 30, two weeks from today.

It will be “Gene Espy Day’’ in Macon.

The proclamation acknowledged Espy’s famous hike at a time when the path was often crude, overgrown and poorly marked.

The feat of his feet has made Espy a legend in the hiking world. This summer, he was one of six men (and the only one still living) inducted into the inaugural class of the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania.

The word “second thru-hiker” is not a typographical error in the proclamation, although it may not be entirely accurate.

Espy actually may have been the first.

Jim McNeely, an attorney from West Virginia and an avid hiker, recently researched the journal of Earl Shaffer, who is credited as the first person to complete the trail in August 1948. McNeely has produced evidence that Shaffer bypassed about 170 miles of the trail by taking shortcuts on country roads and traveling for short distances as a hitchhiker.

Espy, now 84, said even though he would love to be acknowledged as the first pioneer thru-hiker, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy still recognizes Shaffer. And that’s OK with him.

“I got what I intended out of the Appalachian Trail,’’ he said. “I got to see God’s work in nature.’’

Those who knew him when he was growing up never doubted his determination to do anything he set out to do. He was the first Boy Scout to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout in his hometown of Cordele. He was also the first person to water ski at both Lake Blackshear and Lake Allatoona.

At age 16, he took a 740-mile bicycle journey through three states. He navigated a 125-mile stretch of the Ocmulgee River in a homemade sailboat.

And when he was a student at Georgia Tech, he hitchhiked to St. Louis and back in two days -- just to prove it could be done. Wearing a coat and tie, he thumbed a late-night ride with a sleepy trucker carrying a load of dynamite. On the trip home, he slept on a window ledge of a closed service station in Blytheville, Ark. He spent only $2.35 on the entire trip and was back in time for classes Monday morning.

His fascination with the Appalachian Trail came after hearing his seventh-grade teacher discuss it in class. A weeklong hike in the Great Smoky Mountains in 1945 whetted his appetite for the adventure.

He got a late start in the hiking season on May 31, 1951, because he had to wait for his 18-year-old hiking companion to graduate from high school.

He was dating Eugenia at the time, and she was the only person he told about his plans.

“My mother was the worrying kind,’’ said Espy. “So I did not tell my parents I planned to hike the entire trail.’’

He started a month after his 24th birthday. He carried a 45-pound backpack and a walking stick he had carved as a 12-year-old Boy Scout.

By the second day, his load was considerably lighter. The young scout who began the hike with him literally took a hike. He quit and returned home.

Espy opened his journey at Mount Oglethorpe in north Georgia and didn’t stop until he had reached the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin, Maine. He averaged 16.5 miles each day, traveling as many as 34 miles in one stretch.

At the finish line, he sported a 123-day-old beard, had lost 28 pounds, worn out three pairs of hiking boots and killed 15 rattlesnakes. There were times when he went an entire week without seeing another person on the trail. (Now, as many as 3 million people hike on parts of the trail each year.)

A commemorative plaque honoring him was placed where the trail crosses the Richard Russell Scenic Highway between Helen and Blairsville. In 2008, he wrote his autobiography, “The Trail of My Life.’’ His book has been on display everywhere from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., to L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine.

At the Appalachian Trail museum in Pennsylvania, there is a bust and a photo of Espy, along with an exhibit featuring his hiking boots, socks, carbide lantern, toilet kit and chambray shirt from 60 years ago.

On the May 31 anniversary of the start of his historic hike, his son-in-law, Jim Gilsinger, took him to Springer Mountain, where the southern terminus of the trail was moved in 1958.

The 84-year-old made the walk to the top, then turned around.

If he had only been 60 years younger, he would have been tempted to keep right on walking.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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