HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Forty of James Haskell’s family members and friends traveled thousands of miles to hike his final mile of the Appalachian Trail with the man from Maine last Sunday — a sparkling autumn day in the central Appalachian Mountains.
Supporters congratulated Haskell with high-fives, hugs and handshakes on 10-10-10 as if he had won the Boston Marathon. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Massachusetts State Senate also sent their congratulations.
Haskell, who grew up in Levant and graduated from Hermon High School at the top of his class in 1978, completed his adventure that has consumed much of his free time for 21 years. Beginning in 1990, he has section hiked about 100 miles of the 2,179-mile trail — that stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine — every year.
He believes that the Appalachian Trail, which will be 75 years old in 2012, is still one of the America’s best-kept secrets for physical fitness, environmental appreciation, historical and cultural exploration and personal adventure.
“I am so thrilled that you are making this one of the most memorable days of my life,” Haskell, of Ipswich, Mass., told those who toasted his accomplishment. “So many of you have made this possible by driving me to trail heads, driving me home and hiking parts of the trail with me during these past two decades.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it. I really admire him for what he’s accomplished, and I’ve hiked over 200 miles with him myself,” said former Maine high school basketball star Erin Shaw, Haskell’s niece and a police officer in Westport, Conn.
Harpers Ferry is far better known as the Waterloo for radical abolitionist John Brown, who seized the federal arsenal there and then was captured following a bloody skirmish in 1859. Haskell made it his final destination because it is also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that oversees the legendary trail for the National Park Service. He hiked his final 50 miles of the trail toward Harpers Ferry the week before the Sunday celebration.
“It’s unusual for a hiker to come here with so many people to finish the AT. We are delighted that Jim chose to do it this way,” said Conservancy spokesperson Laurie Potteiger.
Although it is not unusual for people to spend many years hiking the entire trail in sections, it is the through-hikers, the people who cover the distance in one or perhaps two seasons, who get most of the attention. Haskell does not know of anyone else who has devoted 21 consecutive years to hiking the entire trail.
He also maintains that hiking it that way gave him the time to learn a lot about the eastern United States that other hikers who are tied to the trail don’t have.
“Most through-hikers have to grind out an average of 12 to 15 miles a day to hike the entire distance, going south to north, during a single year,” Haskell said. “That doesn’t give them much time to explore the countryside off the trail.”
Haskell explored, among other places, little-known Saltville, Va., which provided salt for the Confederacy during the Civil War and where more than 100 wounded black Union soldiers were massacred in October 1864. He also visited a small museum with an exhibit about the moonshine business just off the trail in Roanoke, Va.
“The trail is a national treasure. It is accessible to about 170 million people who live east of the Mississippi River,” said Haskell, 50, an affordable housing consultant who has hiked the trail during weekends and vacations. “You have to be in reasonably good shape to hike it, but you don’t have to be a superb athlete. And it can be an incredible adventure in a wilderness that’s practically in your backyard.”
Haskell has experienced the wrath of thunderstorms from the safety of a shelter that overlooks a long valley in North Carolina and while hiking in the middle a trail above tree line in the White Mountains. He has had close encounters with a bear and a moose. He has faced danger and escaped death more times than most people realize.
On the other hand: He has met a man using an early, suitcase-size, global positioning system on the trail and a self-proclaimed presidential candidate from Maine who didn’t know about the New Hampshire primary. He has savored sunrises and sunsets while camping beside vistas that are too spectacular for words.
His trail name is “Two Tents” because he once, unintentionally, carried both of his tents in his backpack up a 4,000-foot mountain.
Haskell has hiked most of the trail on his own, in solitary obscurity. But he has earned kudos from one man who hiked 870 miles of the trail and then wrote the 1998 book “A Walk in the Woods,” a New York Times bestseller.
“That’s a wonderful achievement,” wrote author Bill Bryson, now the chancellor of Durham University in the United Kingdom. “Please convey … my congratulations and admiration.”
Bob Haskell is a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass., and a former Bangor Daily News sports editor. He is James Haskell’s brother.