Every spring between early March and mid-April, a couple thousand intrepid hikers laden with backpacking equipment hiking poles and venture to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, varying in characteristics such as age, nationality, motivation, and physical ability, but all possessed with a common goal—to walk the entire distance of the 2000-plus mile Appalachian Trail. A “thru-hike” of the trail, which runs through the mountains of the eastern United States all the way to Katahdin Mountain in remote central Maine, typically involves putting one often sore and blistered foot in front of the other over sometimes steep or rugged terrain through all sorts of weather while also carrying 40 to 50 pounds of gear nearly every day for six months. For most who begin the journey with the intent of making it to a triumphant finish atop Katahdin, the goal remains an elusive dream. The physical and mental challenges of the endeavor sooner or later prove to be too much for all but about 25% of those who originally set out to complete the entire trail each season.
Earl Shaffer is the first person known to have completed a thru-hike of the AT, a feat he first accomplished in 1948. A veteran of World War II, Shaffer decided to attempt the hike as a means of dealing with war-related stress, which included the death of his good friend and hiking partner in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Shaffer’s successful AT thru-hike demonstrated that it was in fact possible to hike the entire trail in one trip, and as a result, interest in the trail grew. Shaffer completed a second thru-hike in 1965, traveling southbound this time. And in 1998 at the age of 79, Shaffer marked the 50th anniversary of his initial thru-hike by achieving the feat a third and final time. Shaffer kept trail journals during all three of his thru-hikes, and these journals are all now part of the archival collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. For my digital history print project, I propose to perform a textual analysis of Shaffer’s thru-hike journals in order to examine the themes and patterns present in his on-trail writings to assess how he ascribed meaning to his trail experiences.
Specific subject matter aside, the project appeals to me for two reasons. First, while I was quite wary of the class readings concerning computational analysis, I actually found Cameron Blevins’ use of Mallet to analyze the diary of Martha Ballard (familiar to many students of history from Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale) to be quite intriguing (“Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary”). Robert K. Nelson has also used Mallet to study the political and social history of Civil War-era Richmond by topic modeling that city’s Daily Dispatch newspaper from 1860 through 1865 (“Mining the Dispatch”). I think that it would be useful to do a similar analysis of Shaffer’s diaries (collectively and perhaps individually as well) to see how his topics varied over time both within a specific hike and between the different hikes. I thought it might also be interesting to examine how his themes varied from state to state as well since each state offers hikers a different experience in terms of terrain, flora, fauna, and people encountered along the trail. The journals might be analyzed through Voyant as well to discern additional textual patterns that provide further indication of what Shaffer found to be important while on his journeys.
All three of Shaffer’s thru hike diaries (as well as two out of three of his other AT hike logs in the Smithsonian collection, which could also possibly be included in the analysis) have been digitized and transcribed, thus making it far easier to run the text through analysis tools like Mallet and Voyant. The second draw of this project for me is that these transcriptions are the product of voluntary crowdsourced labor. The Smithsonian is a relatively new yet heavyweight player in the trend of crowdsourcing the transcription of historical documents, launching their initiative in July 2013. As someone who actually pays the rent right now by transcribing oral histories, I’m somewhat ambivalent about this kind of crowdsourcing. Yet the Smithsonian now has (by my count) roughly 360 completed transcription projects because of this effort, with another 30-something in progress, which as a history/archive-y person strikes me as a good thing. So my project in part could help demonstrate the value and benefits of the crowdsourced transcription process.
Shaffer was a pioneer in a long-distance hiking movement that has exploded in popularity since the 1970s. The thru-hike in a sense is a form of escapism—what would possess a person to leave the relative comforts of home and society to embark upon and complete a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness?—and the trail diaries bring us as close as we can get to understanding his raw experience of the trail as it unfolded. In the 50 years between Shaffer’s first thru-hike and his last, American society changed greatly, as did attitudes regarding nature and conservation. What do Earl Shaffer’s Appalachian Trail thru hike journals have to say to us about the roles of nature and of the physical journey in helping him to make sense of his contemporary world, and how do his perceptions change through the individual journeys as well as over the longer course of time?