HARRIS SHETTEL helped blaze much of the Appalachian Trail, then spent the next two dozen years hiking it. Now, at 87, his hiking days are over, but he welcomes a visitor and the chance to relive them.
Though he says his "ticker" gave him some trouble six years ago, he walks briskly to his desk and pulls out, first, a sheaf of faded photographs, then a dogeared book bearing the symbol of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. The book is entitled "Log of Trips."
Shettel sets the photographs aside. Gently turning back the inside cover of the log, he looks up. "This is my life on the trail." Following his name, address, phone number is the notation: "If found, drop me a card and I will call."
"There are places where the trail has been rerouted because of land development and some nice areas have been lost," Shettel says, "but all in all the trail today is pretty much as I remember it. It is still the best place in the Washington area to be alone and get away."
He was born in York, Pa., and started hiking as a teenager. he came to Washignton in World War I as a pattern maker for ship parts for the Navy and soon started hiking the Blue Ridge.
When Myron Avery founded the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in 1927, the Appalachian Trail scarcely existed in these parts. The Trail had been proposed a few years earlier by Benton MacKaye of Massachusetts and initially began with the consilidation of several existing trails, mostly in New England.
Shettel joined the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in 1934 when membership numbered in the dozens. It was not until 1937 that MacKaye's idea of an "endless pootpath" culminated in the completion of the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trial from Maine to Georgia. Men like MacKaye and Avery laid out the trail. Others like Shettel did the actual blazing, clearing, weeding, and building necessary to turn it into the public facility it is today. The club now has over 2,000 members and Shettel is one of them.
"Back then the trail was a little hard to find in some places," Shettel recalls. "There were a lot of trails up in he mountains. Hillbilly trails they were, and you could get off the path real easy."
Most of the hill people and their paths are gone now, and for today's hikers getting lost is not as easy as it used to be. Signs to landmarks, potable springs and other facilities are conveniently placed.
Shettel settles back to reminisce about how they got there.
"You look at the map today of Shenandoah (National) Park and you see 'Hoover's Camp' on the Rapidan River a little ways off the trail.Everyone knows that President Hoover used to go up there to fish and retreat from his work in Washington, sort of like Camp David. Us oldtimers used to go there, too, but no, we didn't call it 'Hoover's Camp.' We called it 'Camp Methane' for all the beans we ate up there. Hot air doesn't just come from politicians, you know."
"It's a funny thing," he goes on, "we had a number of Army men in the club in the early days, and God knows they had done enough hiking. But the idea of being alone in the mountains, of being away from people and away from cars - that's what the trail was set up for."
The dream of men like Mackaye. Avery and Shettel came true in 1968 when Congress passed the National Trails System Act and designated the Appalachian Trail as one of thefirst components. But portions of the trail are still privately owned, so the threat of development or land sales still exists. To counter this, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club has established a fund to support the purchase of threatened tracts of land. Since 1969, the local club has made several such purchases.
Shettel's log runs from 1934 to 1954, listing hundreds of trips, several thousand miles walked, trails cleared, signs posted for those who followed.
There are notes of fear, of wild turkeys, foxes, and even one of wolves in 1938 in Pennsylvania. There is the gasoline rationing of World War II and the limiting of trips.
A typical entry: "Cleared three miles of trail - very hot and sultry - feasted on wild raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries." Followed by, "Finished by picking off 30 jiggers and 8 ticks."
After World War II, Shettel became superintendent of trails for the Potomac Appalachian Trial Club. Once again he was out on the trail every week. In 1951, he spent two weeks hiking in Maine on Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail. He was in his 60s.
Shettel continued to hike until he was 70.
"Anything less than 80 or 10 miles I don't really call a hike," he says. "Looking back on it now I have a lot of fond memories. I hiked in the Smokies and I hiked Maine. And I did one heck of a lot in between the two."
Shttel comes upon another notation in his long:
"Myron Avery died July 26, 1952 at Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia."
"Myron was hiking at the time," Shettel says. CAPTION:
Picture 1, Harris Shettel - "You could get off the path real easy." By Jack Richards for the Washington Post; Picture 2, From Harris Shettel's photograph album of early days on the Appalachian Trail: "Bear Spring Shelter Work Trip, May 12, 1940.; Picture 3, Trail sign entries in Harris Shettel's log.