Author’s note: At times the subjects of articles published over the past 20 years come to mind as having particular relevance or interest. This article is one of those occasional features based on earlier topics and writings. It first appeared in the May-June 2021 edition of Nurturing Faith Journal, a publication of Good Faith Media.
Gene Espy first heard of the Appalachian Trail — the world’s longest footpath, stretching for more than 2,000 miles across the rugged mountain range from Maine to Georgia — from his seventh-grade teacher in Cordele, Georgia. The trail had been completed just two years earlier.
Ever the adventurer, Gene was intrigued that it reached into the northern portion of his home state, although he lived in South Georgia and had never seen a mountain. Several years later, in 1945, Gene and another Georgia Tech student walked a portion of the trail in the Great Smoky Mountains during a school break.
“I thought, ‘If I ever get the chance, I’d like to hike the whole trail,’” Gene said in a 2010 interview for this journal.
That time would come in 1951, when at age 24 he unknowingly became just the second person to “thru-hike” the trail — that is, making the entire 2,025-mile trek in one outing. And he did it alone — covering 14 states over 123 days.
The now-popular trail was obscure then — known somewhat as the “government trail” to those who lived near its construction. At times Gene would bushwhack his way to stay on course, unlike hikers today who follow white rectangular blazes along well-tended paths.
At times, Gene would walk for more than a week without seeing another person.
A retired aerospace engineer, Gene, now 93, and his wife Eugenia lived for six decades across the street from Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia, where they were actively engaged. Now they live with their daughter in metro Atlanta.
His slight build and soft voice belie the courage, curiosity and even mischief that have marked his long and adventurous life.
“My lack of fear and my yearning to explore the world drove me to conquer new things,” said Gene in the earlier interview.
A 10th-grade Spanish class led Gene to suggest to a classmate that they ride their bicycles to Mexico the next summer. But his friend’s father overheard their planning and put a stop to it.
So, Gene set out on a solo bike trip from Cordele to Dothan, Alabama, then into Florida, with stops in Panama City, Tallahassee and Jacksonville. He then rode through Waycross, Georgia, en route to home.
“I’d never heard of gears,” said Gene with a grin. But his strong legs, adventurous spirit and balloon tires were enough to complete the journey.
Gene pitched his tent in cemeteries or churchyards, he said. And he had no contact with his parents until he rolled back into the driveway a week after his departure.
“But I enjoyed it,” said Gene in his usual understated fashion.
More adventure would come when the Flint River was dammed to form Lake Blackshear near Gene’s home. He had seen a newsreel about water skiing at Cypress Gardens in Florida and thought: “I’ve got to try that.”
A make-your-own water ski kit from Popular Science magazine, and some locally bought rope, lumber and a broom handle were all he needed. Or so he thought — since he had already built his own boat.
However, no one anticipated such water sports, so many stumps were left just below the lake’s surface. But Gene had a plan.
He acquired a plat of the land before the lake was built and identified the location of trees. Then he bought a case of dynamite to eliminate the stumps.
“I’d go down about three feet,” said Gene, explaining his technique that included lighting long fuses. He then marked the course for himself and future skiers to follow.
Dynamite came in handy again when he led a group of boys from the First Baptist Church of Cordele to transport — by boat — an “outdoor privy” to the new lakeside picnic area of the local Baptist association. However, the ground at the designated spot “was like concrete.”
So, Gene drove over to the next county and bought dynamite. Testing a stick with a leak, he accidentally started a quick-spreading grass fire that required the aid of fire fighters to put it out.
Once extinguished, one of the firefighters pointed to a sawdust pile near the edge of the burned area and surmised: “This fire must have started from spontaneous combustion.”
Gene nodded his head vigorously and said, “Probably so.”
As a college student, Gene got the bright idea he’d hitchhike from Atlanta to St. Louis and back one weekend just because he’d never been there. It was before the era of interstates, so after Friday classes Gene pointed his thumb northward on U.S. 41.
When two men headed for Indiana offered him a ride, Gene knew it wasn’t a direct route to St. Louis, but he was “just traveling” and had never seen Indianapolis either. Next, he flagged down an 18-wheeler emblazoned with “Danger — High Explosives.”
The driver said he wasn’t supposed to pick up hitchhikers but needed someone to talk to since he was having trouble staying awake. Gene asked what he was hauling.
“Dynamite,” the trucker responded. Gene recalled, “So I talked pretty good to him for 60 miles.”
In St. Louis at 10:30 on Saturday morning, Gene sent a penny postcard to the Georgia Tech classmate who doubted the success of his journey. The return trip included sleeping on a bench at a closed gas station in Blytheville, Arkansas, before catching a ride to Memphis and then one to Georgia with two businessmen headed for Savannah who treated him to a nice Sunday lunch along the way.
They dropped Gene at his dorm around 5:30 on Sunday evening — completing a 1,600-mile adventure through 11 states in one weekend. “And I only spent $2.35,” said Gene proudly.
ON THE TRAIL
With that kind of spunk and tenacity, taking on the Appalachian Trail seemed natural. Gene was not pleased with a sales job he’d taken after graduation, so he decided the time was right.
He started the hike on May 31, 1951, later in the season than preferred, because a 17-year-old Boy Scout from his hometown wanted to join him and needed to complete the school year.
“He had a lot of complaints about his heavy backpack and the rough trail,” Gene recalled. “On the second day, he went back to Cordele and I hiked the rest of the trail by myself.”
Gene’s equipment was simple but his planning meticulous. He shipped supplies — including replacement boots — to post offices he could leave the trail to visit. He secured the needed information and kept the most current map under his hat for safety and easy access.
Gene said he enjoyed the solitude and would add some miles by taking side trails to waterfalls or overlooks described in his guidebook. “I didn’t keep track of the mileage; I just enjoyed it.”
With an increasingly scruffy appearance, Gene didn’t always receive a warm welcome when he ventured into towns for food and other supplies. However, he recalled a police officer in Damascus, Virginia, offering to give him a driving tour of town.
Afterward, Gene was heading back to the trail as darkness and a storm moved in. But the officer suggested he spend the night “down at headquarters.”
“Headquarters was the jail,” said Gene with an impish smile. But he enjoyed the comforts of the bunk secured to a cell wall by chains “just like in the movies.”
Returning to the trail, Gene would continue his adventure that had but one purpose: “I wanted to see God in nature.”
MILES & MILES
Gene’s most trusted companion was a walking stick he found as a 12-year-old boy. It’s a good bit shorter now than when he began his AT thru-hike — and not from daily wear.
“I killed several rattlesnakes,” said Gene, matter-of-factly, noting one well-placed swing took about a foot off the end of the stick. How many is several?
“I lost count at 15,” he said with a shrug. “I killed all the rattlesnakes I saw.”
Oh, and then there were the copperheads he encountered “mostly in Pennsylvania.”
Gene would reward himself with Baby Ruth or Hershey’s Chocolate bars for reaching various destinations. “Then I’d read the wrapper a couple of times; it was my only contact with the known world.”
On occasion he would meet another hiker, such as the generous Boy Scout who gave Gene a plastic container with a lid to help with preparing his powered milk and other dry mixes.
“I’d never heard of Tupperware,” recalled Gene. “But it sure came in handy.”
Gene never built a fire, cooking his meals on a small camp stove that allowed for setting up and moving on quickly. His staples included dehydrated potatoes, pudding and cornmeal, which he sweetened with sugar and raisins. And he ate a lot of sandwiches.
“I’d buy two loaves of bread and three jars of different kinds of preserves,” said Gene of the times he’d go off trail to find a store. He would assemble the sandwiches and return them to the bread bags, alternating the flavors, for easy access and some variety.
At times the trail was more adventurous than expected. After two wildcats visited his campsite, Gene creatively strapped himself and his sleeping bag to a nearby fire tower — some 50 feet aloft — using his belt and shoestrings.
He went through three pairs of L.L. Bean hiking books and got great results from Wigwam 100% nylon socks. “Two pairs for the whole trip — with no holes in them.”
Gene said he’d wash his feet and socks each night — attaching the newly cleaned pair to his backpack to dry during the next day’s hike.
Only once did he question his decision to tackle the entire trail. It came on a very cold September day in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when the winds were so strong, he had to lean forward to stay afoot.
In the distance he spotted smoke coming from a house’s chimney and wished for the comfort of that fire. But he quickly remembered that allowing such thoughts could lead to desperate consequences. So, he finished his Baby Ruth and hit the icy trail.
“That was the only time I wondered what I was doing,” said Gene, a good and determined man who described even military boot camp as “fun.”
When Gene finally reached the end of the trail atop Mt. Katahdin in Maine, on a cold Sept. 30, 1951, there was no grand celebration as is common among AT hikers today. In fact, there was no one else around.
So, Gene just took in the spectacular views in all directions, and then leaned his trusty though shortened walking stick against the sign and took a picture.
“Then I knelt down and said a prayer of thanks to God for watching over me and allowing me to make this hike.”
The trail had ended, but not the adventure. Gene had to get home somehow.
First, he would spend the night at nearby Katahdin Stream Campground where his tales spread. The next day a reporter came out for an interview.
As Gene disposed of some remaining food, a deer walked over and licked his outstretched hand. An alert photographer captured the moment — which later a Maine artist made into an oil painting.
Gene was invited to speak to the local Chamber of Commerce in nearby Millinocket, Maine, where he eased back into civilization. He even received a discount on a new “Sunday suit” that, along with a haircut, he hoped would make hitchhiking home easier.
Before sticking out his thumb, however, Gene shipped his hiking gear back home and mailed a postcard to let his parents know he’d made it to the end.
“We only made long-distance phone calls if it was an emergency,” said Gene. “And I didn’t figure finishing the trail was an emergency.”
Before his postcard could reach Cordele, Georgia, however, his mother read an Associated Press news story about Gene’s adventure.
After hitchhiking some 500 miles southward, Gene saw the road filled with uniformed soldiers and knew he wouldn’t have much luck catching a ride. So, he flagged down a Greyhound bus and rode back to Georgia in relative comfort — satisfied with all he had experienced over many mountains and many miles.
Indeed, he had encountered God in nature as he had hoped — yet in ways beyond what he had imagined.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.