Duo treks AT in memory of uncle, first thru-hiker

By Karen Hendricks – This article was originally published in the Gettysburg Times, June 16, 2018

In April 1948, York County native Earl Shaffer set out to do what no man had done before—hike the Appalachian Trail’s (A.T.) 2,000-some miles in one continuous hike. His motivation was to “walk off the war” and his experiences serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Not only was he the first person to successfully “thru-hike” the longest hiking-only footpath in the world from Georgia to Maine at the age of 29, but he went on to do it two more times, hiking in reverse from Maine to Georgia—and being the first to do so—in 1965; and commemorating the 50th anniversary of his first hike with a 1998 trek at the age of 79.

Last month (May 2018), during this 70th anniversary year of Earl’s first hike, two of Earl’s relatives launched their own A.T. adventure to pay homage to the legendary trail figure.

The father-daughter pair, Dan and Kim Shaffer, who called Earl their uncle and great uncle respectively, began hiking the A.T. at Pen Mar Park, Cascade, Maryland, heading north, on Thursday, May 24. During the past week, their trek took them through nearby sites such as Caledonia and Pine Grove Furnace State Parks and Michaux State Forest, with stops at the Appalachian Trail Museum in Gardners and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) Mid-Atlantic Office in Boiling Springs.

Kimberly Shaffer

“This is pretty much my stomping grounds, from my teenage years,” says Dan, who was born and raised in York; his mother was from Waynesboro. “Seeing the Michaux and Laurel Lake—it brings back memories.”

Memories are what this hike are about—not only memories of the past, but creating new memories together and keeping Earl’s memory alive.

“This whole experience has been about getting to know Earl–hiking along with my dad and listening to his stories. We’re learning a lot together, learning more about ourselves,” says Kim.

In preparation for this summer’s trek, she recently poured over Earl’s many writings, poems and music, including his book The Appalachian Trail: Calling Me Back to the Hills, published in 1998. She was only 13 when Earl passed away. Although she was born and raised in Arizona, where her father moved and also now lives, she has fond memories of summers spent visiting her relatives in Pennsylvania.

Dan remembers his uncle clearly.

Dan Shaffer

“He was always a lover of the outdoors; a mountain man. Reconnecting with the wilderness brought him peace… He had determination to take on challenges that other people didn’t dare take on until after he showed them that it could be done,” Dan says, referring to his uncle’s historic hike.

“We’re all really happy that Earl has been an inspiration for some of the returning veterans like those involved in Warrior Expeditions. I’m sure Earl would be very happy,” says Dan.

Warrior Expeditions is a program that organizes endurance trips for veterans—hiking on numerous trails such as the A.T., biking on the Trans America Trail and paddling down the Mississippi River. It was founded in order to provide veterans, at no cost, therapeutic experiences that simulated lengthy journeys historically experienced by soldiers returning from battles—time in which military personnel typically processed and came to terms with wartime experiences. The organization pays homage to Earl Shaffer’s then-revolutionary idea to “walk off the war” on its website.

Earl’s dedication to the A.T. became a lifelong passion, says Dan.

“Earl in many ways was a selfless person who played an important role in the 1960s and 70s, in having the federal government assume  responsibility for the Appalachian Trail, in addition to all of his work with trail organizations, maintaining the trail, building shelters, giving talks—probably thousands of times. He was in some ways a shy and private person, but he was always ready to talk on behalf of the trail and his experiences,” Dan says.

That’s exactly what Kim and Dan are doing along the trail—talking with fellow hikers, bringing Earl’s legacy into the conversation when possible, and continuing Earl’s lifelong mission to increase awareness of the A.T.

“It’s an amazing resource. Something like 50 percent of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the A.T.,” Kim says.

According to his 2002 obituary in The New York Times, Earl Shaffer lived much of his life close by the trail, in a wilderness lifestyle—in Adams County: “A bachelor, Earl Shaffer lived most of his life with his cats and goats in a log cabin on a farm in Idaville, Pa., about five miles from the Appalachian Trail. He got electricity two years ago, but never had running water or a refrigerator.”

“Even when Benton MacKaye conceived the idea of the A.T. [in 1921], it was this escape from busy society. Today, it’s still an escape, but it’s also a pursuit of peace, knowing yourself better, really challenging yourself. This is the biggest challenge I’ve ever set for myself, discovering what I’m made of. Getting back to nature, a lot of people are trying to do that as a society, we really do need time alone and time in nature,” Kim says.

Currently, the pair is averaging ten trail miles a day. Kim’s mother (Dan’s wife), Ya-mai Shaffer is shadowing them in a support vehicle. Together, they are visiting many relatives still living in Pennsylvania during the evening hours. After a month together, Dan will return to Arizona, and Kim will continue hiking alone, increasing her daily mileage to 15-20 in order to reach the trail’s northern point at Mount Katahdin, Maine. Then, she plans on returning to Pen Mar Park and hiking south as far as time will allow before returning to her job as a teacher in Arizona. It’s what’s called a “flip-flop hike” in the trail community—hiking the entire A.T. in discontinuous sections.

There are tentative plans in late August, for Kim and Dan to offer a talk at the A.T. Museum where exhibits pay homage to early A.T. trail pioneers including Earl. Some of Earl’s belongings are also on display, housed in one of many historic shelters he personally constructed along the trail.

Thru-hikers are typically given trail nicknames. Kim, following in Earl’s footsteps, was dubbed “Echo” during a recent brainstorming session at the museum.

Kim points out that their ages are similar to Earl’s ages at the time of his hikes—Kim just turned 30; Earl was 29 when he completed his first hike. Dan is 73; Earl was 79 for his final hike. Also, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Earl’s birth in 1918.

Dan and Kim Shaffer, May 2018

And, 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the National Trail System Act, which designated the A.T., according to Sara Haxby, senior office manager at the ATC’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office and Visitor Center which oversees the trail from Rockfish Gap, Virginia to the New York/Connecticut state line. The ATC manages and protects the A.T. on many levels.

“That can be monitoring plant species, monitoring the National Park boundary, or protecting the A.T. from threats such as pipelines, powerlines, encroaching development; making sure various townships are aware of the benefit of having green space,” says Haxby.

Haxby, a native of Massachusetts, completed an A.T. thru-hike in 2009. She says Earl Shaffer’s desire “to walk the army out of his system” is relatable. “I think a lot of people can identify with that situation, to take a different path for a while. Being in the woods, taking care of yourself is a way to rebuild,” Haxby says.

“Walking off the war, which we’re seeing now with soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, is as relevant today as it was then. It’s the healing power of connecting with nature and quieting yourself,” says Karen Lutz, ATC Mid-Atlantic Regional Director.

Lutz, who has served as director of the Boiling Springs office for 30 years, says she met Earl Shaffer several times. “He was a character—he truly was the definition of a character, kind of reclusive.”

Ironically, it was his historic 1948 hike that inspired her own career path.

“When I was in third grade, [growing up near Pittsburgh], we used to get Weekly Readers, and one had an article about the A.T. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it had to have been an article about Earl in the early 1960s and it captured my imagination. That stayed with me, and I worked at summer camps, going on to earn my master’s in outdoor recreation from Penn State. When I was hired, I was the first woman in a field position with the ATC.”

Lutz says Earl often sat on the front porch of the ATC’s Mid-Atlantic Office, located along the trail adjacent to Children’s Lake in Boiling Springs. She says he enjoyed connecting with hikers and talking about his experiences. It was those types of interactions that cultivated his legendary status and following among many in the trail community. She says in many ways, Kim and Dan’s hike brings Earl’s experience “full circle.”

“When I thru-hiked the A.T. in 1978, there were just 106 of us. Today, there are thousands of thru-hikers,” Lutz says, “But Earl was the first. And he used the trail as a healing experience, which is really what Benton MacKay thought it could be.”

Dan and Kim Shaffer hike past the ATC’s front porch in Boiling Springs, PA where Earl Shaffer often sat, talked with hikers


Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Baseball Stories You May Not Have Heard (Yet)

By Karen Hendricks

Just in time for summer, York County author Chris Williams has released a book of 12 little-known yarns about American’s favorite pasttime, baseball. I am so proud of Chris, a former radio colleague who is a fellow writer. Best practices call for us writers to write about what we know, and Chris certainly knows about baseball.

Could the 1966 Cubs be the best team to ever finish in last place? Would Greg Luzinski, Fernando Valenzuela, or Eric Gagne have had the careers they did, if they hadn’t been September call-ups? Should Dick Allen be finally elected to the Hall of Fame? Chris tackles these questions and more, including the unusual case of a rookie who hit .313 in his rookie season only to be sent back to the minors the following year.

The book is sprinkled with statistical analysis, along with human interest stories, and nostalgic memories. Chris recounts a childhood trip to one of baseball’s historic ballparks with his own father, and he transcribes an invaluable recording made by his great-grandfather Jacob “Jake” Jeremiah who played professional baseball in the early 1900s. Baseball simply must be in Chris Williams’ blood.

Congrats, Chris, on the fantastic book, perfect for summertime reading by fans of all ages.

Click here for more information and ordering! 

Introducing the Ice Man


Ernie DiMartino

By Karen Hendricks

Despite the cold temperatures, a handful of outdoor winter festivals thrive, mainly due to the warm, welcoming central Pennsylvania communities in which they’re hosted. Organizers say warm community hospitality is the key to shaking off the winter blues during Chambersburg’s IceFest, January 26-29, or the Lititz Fire & Ice Festival, February 17-20. Both celebrations feature fantastic ice sculptures lining downtown districts, free or low-cost admission and a festive spirit woven throughout community-wide events.

Click here to read my latest story for Susquehanna Style magazine, Frozen Fever: Ice Festivals Bring Warmth to Winter in Central PA (January 2017).

And meet the talented man who is carving out a name for himself, “Ice Man” Ernie DiMartino:

“Our major tool is the chainsaw—modified to make it faster or more powerful, plus die grinders, disc sanders, and ice chisels,” says Ernie DiMartino, owner of DiMartino Ice, who provides the creative talents behind both festivals’ ice sculptures.

The majority of one-block sculptures are created and stored at his Pittsburgh-area facility in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. He begins carving Chambersburg’s sculptures in September.

DiMartino’s team includes about 10 sculptors including two nephews and his stepson, but whom he says are all “like family.”

Ice-carving became a part of the family-owned ice business about 25 years ago when a neighbor, trained as a chef, taught DiMartino his skills in order to diversify the business. Today, DiMartino Ice provides sculptures for 13 annual festivals concentrated in the winter months.

“There’s a greater demand for interactive carving today—for example, a snowman with a space for visitors to put their faces where the snowman’s face would be. Or Cinderella’s horse and carriage which we created last year in Chambersburg, with people able to sit in the carriage,” DiMartino says. “Sponsors love it and people love it because they post the pictures on social media and share the fun.”

DiMartino says visiting Chambersburg and Lititz every winter is like going home. “I feel and the rest of team feel a part of those communities; we are very well received; we eat together as a family with festival organizers, for example. It’s nothing we ever asked for; it just evolved. In Lititz, Dawn Rissmiller opens her home to us. In Chambersburg, Café Italiano opens the restaurant to cook breakfast for us. Some of my guys are chefs–they jump in and help cook breakfast. We return for lunch and dinner too because they’re like family.”

“I never go on vacation,” DiMartino says with a laugh. “I’m always trying to find time for vacation; I think I’d like to go to Chambersburg or Lititz in the summer.”

Ernie DiMartino

Ernie DiMartino

Ice-Cold Facts:

  • One block of sculpture ice weighs 265 pounds.
  • It takes the sculptors one hour of labor for every block of ice carved.
  • It takes four refrigerated trucks to haul the sculptures from Jeannette to each festival.
  • Largest sculpture DiMartino ever built: Chambersburg’s ice slide created from 75 blocks of ice, measuring 40 feet long.
  • Highest sculpture DiMartino ever built: An 18-foot high Eiffel Tower for First Night State College.


Footnotes from the Foothills

On the Foothills Artists' Tour: Hobbit House Pottery

On the Foothills Artists’ Tour: Hobbit House Pottery

By Karen Hendricks

“Over the river and through the wood,” begins the beloved holiday poem about Thanksgiving travels. It could also apply to the adventuresome Adams County tour known as the Foothills Artists’ Studio Tour, always held the weekend before Thanksgiving. This year’s 10th annual tour, Nov. 19-20, links the homes and studios of about 10 artists dotting the picturesque landscape of western Adams County.

In the shadow of South Mountain— the northernmost Appalachian Mountains—the tour is more of an experience than an artist tour, mixing all genres of art with historic homes, unique studios, winding back roads, countryside vistas, conversations, and Continue reading

Embracing “Nerd” Status


By Karen Hendricks

The term “nerd” is thought to have evolved from the 1950  Dr. Seuss book, “If I Ran the Zoo.” Today, “Merriam-Webster” defines “nerd” as “an unstylish, socially inept person; one who is slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.”

However, a group of eight Gettysburg teenagers are not only embracing their nerd status, but also promoting it via a successful downtown shop, Nerd Herd Gifts & Games.

Click here for my latest freelance writing piece, “The Nerd Herd: Downtown Gettysburg Shop Takes Fun & Games to a New Level,” published in the Sept/Oct issue of Celebrate Gettysburg magazine. And go behind-the-scenes with photos I snapped during the writing of the story, below. What a great group of kids–check out their unique shop the next time you’re in downtown Gettysburg, PA! Continue reading

Authentic Flavors, Family, and Achieving the American Dream

By Karen Hendricks – Did you know that Mexican restaurants are the third most popular type of restaurant in the U.S.? According to figures from 2014, there are 54,000 Mexican restaurants across the country. Interestingly, a huge market share–74 percent–are independently-owned.*

One fine example can be found in Gettysburg, PA: At Tania’s Mexican Restaurant, it’s all about authentic flavors, family, and achieving the American dream.

Continue reading

Footnotes from the Appalachian Trail

View from Pole Steeple

View from Pole Steeple

By Karen Hendricks – I’ve been fascinated by the Appalachian Trail since my elementary school days, when I created my first ever science/research fair project on the A.T. So when I recently had the chance to write a magazine article on “the most popular hiking trail in America,” I jumped at the chance and was fascinated all over again, some 35 years later. Continue reading