In 1948, Earl Shaffer, an Army veteran who had served in the Pacific during World War II, told a friend he was going to “walk off the war.”
Shaffer wanted to use his love for hiking to clear his mind of the sights, sounds and losses he had experienced, particularly the loss of his dear friend Walter Winemiller, who was killed during the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima.
Shaffer started hiking the Appalachian Trail, beginning at its southernmost point in Georgia in April.
One hundred and twenty four days later, he concluded his trek at Mt. Katahdin, Maine, becoming the first solo hiker to complete the Appalachian Trail without interruption.
Shaffer’s accomplishment was chronicled in his book, “Walking with Spring,” and was the inspiration for similar Walk off the War hikes by military veterans.
That tradition continued last week when Sharon Smith, going by her trail handle “MamaGoose,” hiked through the High Country on her quest to hike the entire 1,150 miles of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Smith, 48, an Air Force veteran who served as a front line medic during Operation Desert Storm, spent Wednesday afternoon in Blowing Rock with her hiking partner Craig Smith (no relation) aka JetLag, 69.
The hikers are using the hike to scout it out as a possible destination for “Warrior Hike,” a modern version of “Walk off the War,” started in 2012 by veteran Sean Gobin after military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There are a lot of therapeutic benefits to through-hiking,” said Sharon Smith, using the term for hiking a long trail from end to end.
“We hope by setting a precedent on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and making contacts along the way that we can help other veterans who attempt this later on.”
Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, is helping Smith and Smith by contacting members of the organization along the way to assist with supplies and accommodations when camping is not an option.
“That’s the issue with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from here forward,” Sharon Smith said. “We’re working to establish a network of people to assist hikers along the trail. So, when I’m in Blowing Rock or Mt. Airy or Elkin, I can call up someone and say, ‘Hey, I don’t have a place to stay. Can I camp at your place of business or in your yard?’”
Two such contacts helped out Smith and Smith when the hikers found themselves entering the High Country on Halloween at the same time that the first serious snowstorm of the year was bearing down on the mountains.
“Scott Carpenter, deputy county manager for Burke County, and his wife, Susan, are big MST supporters,” Sharon Smith said. “When we hit mile 181, we knew that the storm was coming in, and Scott met us and brought us to their house. We got a bath that night and watched the storm blow over the next day.”
The hikers spent an off day that Saturday getting resupplied at Footsloggers in Boone and visiting the Boone Saloon.
“Thank God we knocked off that day,” she said. “Because even the next day it was cold. The day after that, we were going up to Beacon Heights, up toward Grandfather (Mountain). It was so slick. There was so much snow and ice up there that I slid and severely sprained my ankle. And I’ve got a surgically repaired knee from 2002, anyway.”
Fearing she may have broken her ankle, Smith decided to get help.
“I got up and managed to hike maybe two miles out and Scott and Susan picked us up again, brought us to their house, and I elevated my ankle and iced it,” Smith said.
“We were going to take the next day off, but I’m a physical therapist, so I taped it the way I know how to tape it and took some ibuprofen and hit the trail and did 16 miles.”
The pair completed another 10 miles on Wednesday before stopping in Blowing Rock. They got a room at the Holiday Inn and grabbed some pizza at Mellow Mushroom.
“We’re taking the rest of the day off,” she said. “We’re going to dry out all our stuff because we stayed next to the river last night and because of the cold and the dew, everything we had was wet.”
The hikers admit that starting the MST at this time of year presents some unique challenges.
“We’re both experienced backpackers and I’ve done winter hiking before, so it wasn’t that big of a deal, or so we thought,” Sharon said.
“We got to see some incredible fall colors coming up the mountain. I wanted to experience fall and winter hiking,” Craig added.
Smith and Smith met last year while hiking the Appalachian. Craig is originally from Indian Head, Md., and retired after spending 45 years as a civil servant for the U.S. Navy.
Sharon, a self-described huge Chicago Cubs and Bears fan, is from Rockford, Ill., and spent seven and a half years in the Air Force.
“I flew C-130s with the First Marine Division as their combat casualty support on the front line of Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991,” Smith said.
Sharon now lives near Shulls Mill Road in Watauga County and works as a physical therapist at Glenbridge Health and Rehabilitation in Boone.
“I met JetLag last year when we were both hiking the AT and we hiked together for a couple hours and chatted. I didn’t see him again until May at the very end of the trail. But we knew a lot of the same people,” she said.
As president of the North Carolina chapter of Warrior Hike, Sharon has thru-hiked some of the longest trails in America, including the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail.
“We also want to give the option for smaller hikes for guys and girls,” Smith said. “So, we decided to do a side trail that goes from Georgia all the way to Big Creek, Ky. It’s 286 miles long and I wanted to scout it out, but I decided I didn’t want to do it alone. So I asked JetLag and a friend of ours called Mother Teresa. We did 286 miles in 16 days.
“I wanted another hike for North Carolina and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was it. I was going to do it alone and then JetLag called me and said, ‘MamaGoose, I’ll go with you.’ I was happy that he decided to go.
North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail is just a few years old, but has already proven to be popular among both long distance hikers and day hikers.
This year, 600 miles of the trail were rerouted and an additional 195 miles were added to the MST, most of them along the North Carolina coast. The entire trail is now 1,150 miles long.
“We’re thinking it should take us about 68 days to complete the trail,” Sharon said. “We’re very fast hikers, and until my ankle injury and the snow, we were doing 17 miles a day. When we get out in the Piedmont, we’ll have 25 and 27 mile days.”
While on the trail, the hikers are getting equipment support from sponsors such as Hoka One-One (shoes), Big Agnes and Granite Gear (tents and lightweight gear).
“We’ve also been fortunate to run into a lot of what we call trail angels,” Sharon said.
“A UNC-TV truck driver named Gary gave us a ride when I twisted my ankle and we’ve had lots of people feed us. Knowing that there are helpful people out there is a comfort when you are heading into the unknown,” she said.
Follow the MST adventures of MamaGoose and JetLag on Sharon Smith’s online journal at http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?trailname=17721.