Explore hiking trails, environmental issues, recreational funding challenges and trail maintenance in Central Pennsylvania with Jim Foster.
Map of Great Eastern Trail
Once a hiking trail is laid out, it is almost inevitable that some intrepid hikers will attempt to hike its entire length in one year. This feat is generally known as a “thru-hike”. It is, of course, much too late to become the first to thru-hike one of the long established trails such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.
Even non-hikers know the story of Earl Shaffer of York County. After serving with distinction in World War II, Earl decided to become the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. He completed this feat in 1948 as an attempt to “walk off the war” as he famously put it, and as a tribute to his good friend Walter Winemiller, who died on Iwo Jima. Earl’s classic book “Walking With Spring” tells this story in great detail. Since 1948, over 11,000 of us have followed in Earl’s footsteps on the A.T. It’s my honor to be one of them.
The A.T. was laid out in the 1930s and was eventually named the first National Scenic Trail. One of the newer long distance hiking trails is the Great Eastern Trail, or GET. The GET largely parallels the A.T., extending from north to south a short distance west of the A.T. for 1,800 miles across nine eastern states from Alabama to the Finger Lakes district of New York.
The GET is a “braided” trail, which means that portions of it follow already existing hiking trails. In Pennsylvania, these include the Mid State Trail, the Standing Stone Trail and the Tuscarora Trail. At present, approximately seventy percent of the GET is a true trail. The rest must be traversed on roads for the time being. Local trail organizations involved in the effort to complete and maintain the GET include Keystone Trails Association, the Mid State Trail Association, Inc., and the Standing Stone Trail Club, Inc.
In 2011, Joanna Swanson was looking for another adventure. Jo, whose trail name is “Someday”, had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and longed to do something like that again. But, due to her schedule, she needed to start in January. That is a risky time to start on the A.T., since elevations of over 5,000 feet in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina make nasty snowstorms a frequent occurrence. Then, she learned about the GET. That trail is more conducive to a January start, since it begins further south and generally keeps to lower elevations. Best of all, there had been no documented thru-hikes of the GET.
Over the next two years, she worked towards this goal. She worked as a VISTA volunteer coordinating efforts to build the GET in West Virginia. She found a hiking partner, Bart “Hillbilly Bart” Houck, a substitute teacher and athletic trainer for a West Virginia high school. Jo and Bart began their adventure on January 10, 2013 in Alabama.
In many ways, attempting a thru-hike of the GET is like Earl Shaffer’s initial thru-hike of the A.T. in 1948. The trail is not completely marked. There is no well established network of shelters, communities and “trail angels”, like now exists on the A.T. Jo and Bart had to figure many things out on their own, although they got lots of help from strangers who are now their good friends. Bart even read Earl’s “Walking With Spring” to get an idea of what a pioneering thru-hike would be like.
They crossed the Mason Dixon into Pennsylvania on May 20. During their four weeks in the Keystone State, they were assisted by several trail angels. These included members of local maintaining clubs such as Pete Fleszar of the Mid State Trail Association and Jim Garthe of the Standing Stone Trail Club.
Joanna Swanson & Bart Houck, first to thru-hike the Great Eastern Trail
Finally, on June 21, they achieved their goal, the northern terminus of the GET, where it meets the North Country Trail. Jo and Bart are surely heirs to the legacy of Earl Shaffer. See below for a link to their complete journal.
I encourage you to follow in their footsteps and hike a portion of the GET. You might start with the famous Thousand Steps. This is part of the Standing Stone Trail, and is located between Mt. Union and Mill Creek, PA. See below for more information.