Second A.T. Thru-Hiker Gene Espy Recalls 1951 Trek

82-year old Gene Espy is recognized as the second person ever to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. In 1951, at the age of 24, Espy hiked from Georgia to Maine, taking four months to complete the 2,000-mile journey. Espy recently wrote The Trail of My Life, a book detailing his thru-hike.

What made you decide to hike the A.T. in 1951?
In 1945, I had hiked some of the A.T. through the Smokies between terms at Georgia Tech. I liked it so much, I decided if I ever had the time, I’d try to hike the whole thing. After I graduated from Georgia Tech, I decided to do it. I thought it would be the best way to see God in nature.

Had you heard of Earl Schaffer’s thru-hike when you decided to make the trek?
No. I didn’t know about Earl until I reached Virginia. The trail went through the land of a dairy farmer, and he told me that if I made it to Maine, I would be the second person ever to hike the trail. After that, I found a couple of index cards that Earl left in shelters along the way. He wrote notes on them and stuffed them in cracks between logs. That was in 1948. I was surprised that nobody else had hiked the entire trail in those three years.

What was the trail like in 1951?
It was rugged and hard to follow. There weren’t a lot of hikers back then or trail clubs. So the trail wasn’t very well maintained in parts, and it got overgrown. At times, it was hard to follow, especially in Georgia and parts of Virginia and New Hampshire. When I started, I had a partner, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout. He left me on the second day in Georgia because the trail was too rough and his pack was too heavy.

Did you see other hikers on the trail?
Occasionally I’d see somebody, but there would be weeks at a time when I didn’t see anyone on the trail. I saw a lot of wildlife though. That’s something hikers don’t see as much of today. Now, 1,500 people start in Georgia trying to hike to Maine.

What did your family and friends think about you wanting to hike from Georgia to Maine?
Nobody really knew about my hike or the Appalachian Trail. I told my parents I was going to hike a portion of the trail, but not the whole thing. They were used to that sort of thing though. When I was 16, I took a bicycle trip through the Gulf Coast and Florida on my own. I didn’t call them at all during my hike. Hikers today carry cell phones and call home every two days, but back then, long distance calls were for emergencies. When I finished the trail in Maine, I sent my parents a postcard. But my story got picked up by the Associated Press and a local news announcer broadcast the news about my hike on the radio. That’s actually how my mother found out I had finished the hike.