The Appalachian Trail is 2,100 miles of mostly postcard-pretty hiking along a spine of mountains from Georgia to Maine. But one section of the trail in southern Pennsylvania could have been designed by sadists.
For 13 miles, between two piles of ankle-spraining stones that locals call mountains, the trail becomes a paved road into the Valley of Death. Here the cool of the forest gives way to summer's swelter. Dogs lie in ambush. Cars roar past in a cloud of exhaust.
After six miles of road-walking, even the most zealous hiker is tempted to stick out a thumb. But then, in the middle of a suburban sprawl of ranch-style homes, there appears this sign of salvation:
"Welcome A.T. Hikers Shipe's Watering Hole Stop In"
The keeper of this well-placed oasis is Bonnie Shipe, a 36-year-old, chain-smoking mother of two who is better known to trail hikers as "The Ice Cream Lady." From May through October, Shipe provides fruit juice and ice cream, one scoop at a time, to the army of travelers serious enough about hiking the trail to brave the stretch that passes by her house.
Shipe is not paid for her work. She recently had to take a part-time job to help pay for the refreshments she has served to more than 700 hikers in the last four years.
"When hikers arrive, the housework waits," says Shipe, whose hair and complexion are the color of orange sherbet. "I haven't missed too many hikers."
Shipe is so dedicated to her voluntary vigil that she refuses to leave home during the summer to visit her parents who live 70 miles away. Vacations are out of the question.
"Last summer a guy my husband works with offered to let us stay in his cabin down in Delaware for two weeks free. I said, 'Steve, be sensible. Who would take care of the hikers?' "
This summer 150 hikers have received a scoop of cold comfort from the Ice Cream Lady. Fifty eight have camped in the Shipe backyard. One night, 26 hikers shared a barbecue dinner.
Need a new pair of boots? Shipe will give you a ride into Carlisle to buy them. Have a message you want delivered to someone following on the trail? Shipe will hand it to them personally.
Ask why she goes to so much trouble for strangers, and Shipe will correct your use of words.
"They are not strangers. I know they are good people. I have never had a hiker take advantage of me. Besides, my kids may be out there some day. I would want people to at least be kind to them."
In 1948, 11 years after the Appalachian Trail was completed, Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire trail. This year, on the 60th anniversary of the opening of the first section of what has become the longest, most famous hiking path in the world, between 100 and 150 people will complete it.
Most begin on Springer Mountain in Georgia and walk to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Others begin in Maine. Last summer Stephen (Yo-Yo) Nuckolls reportedly hiked the trail three times.
While they are on the trail, the hikers communicate with one another by means of notebook registers left at each shelter. Poems, observations and emotional outpourings are penned by hikers who sign them with nicknames such as Old Irish Goat, Yankee Flyer, and the M&M Kids.
Shipe knows them all and is known to all of them. She is arguably more famous than any landmark on the trail and certainly the subject of more poems and songs. Last fall at Mount Katahdin when I asked four hikers who had finished the trek for their fondest memories of the trail, all mentioned the Ice Cream Lady.
"These are not the kind of people who forget you on holidays," says Shipe, sitting in the basement of her home, surrounded by scrapbooks filled with letters and pictures. Most of the pictures show triumphant hikers at the end of the trail.
"This little boy was so weary and so depressed when he got here," says Shipe, stopping at a photo of an 18-year-old exulting on a mountain top. "I told him he'd make it."
When Shipe began ministering to hikers four years ago, her parents thought she was worse than foolish for inviting strangers into her home. After meeting some of the hikers, they are now converts.
Shipe has not been converted to hiking. Last year she was awarded a lifetime membership in the Appalachian Trail Club for her work. But she has yet to take her first hike.
"I keep saying I'll walk from the bridge at Rte. 494 to the Darlington shelter. That's 1.7 miles," says Shipe. "But I don't want to leave the house. If I do, I'm afraid I'm gonna miss somebody."