SHELBY, N.C. — The Appalachian Trail opened in 1937 as a continuous footpath and, a year later, Lee Barry first set his boots on the trail.
At the time, Barry was a 15-year-old Boy Scout from Newark, N.J. He joined other scouts for a 100-mile hike of the Georgia-to-Maine trail.
As was required for the Scouts, Barry fashioned his own pack from ash, hickory and World War I Army web belts. He made the troop’s tent from white muslin, dipping the cloth into a pot of alum and paraffin to waterproof it.
Sixty-six years later, Barry, who now lives in Shelby, hit the Appalachian Trail in 2004, carrying a homemade pack (made from nylon with no frame) and wielding a pair of hiking poles for stability. With shuttles provided by his wife, Lois, he started Jan. 2 at the trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Ga., hiking for three weeks at a time and returning home for monthly church council meetings. When he finished walking the trail’s 2,175 miles on Nov. 20, he had turned 81.
Though he didn’t set out to do so, Barry became the oldest “thru-hiker”, based on records kept by the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. A “thru-hiker” is one who intends to complete the trail on a continual, but not necessarily non-stop, basis, according to spokesman Brian King.
The “Easy One,” Barry’s trail name, edged out “The Crazy One,” who was the late Earl Shaffer, the first person in 1948 to make a thru-hike. Shaffer completed his third and final thru-hike in 1998, finishing just before his 80th birthday. (King said 82-year-old Mike Caetano of Pensacola, Fla., completed the trail in 2004, hiking sections over two years. Barry said he has met both Shaffer and Caetano on the trail.)
Barry said he was unaware of the age record until partway through the trek. “The only thing I thought about,” Barry said last week of his advancing years, “if it’s going to get done, I’ve got to get it done now.”
The trail has become Barry’s second home. He first thru-hiked it in 1996 and finished section-by-section hikes from the late 1980s to 2000. While his contemporaries may play golf, fish or garden, Barry has spent a cumulative 4 1/2 in his retirement years scaling mountains and fording creeks on the A.T.
Barry tempers his pace, knows his capabilities. “I don’t mind huffing and puffing for hours,” he said. “I just want to be out here for the fun of it. I don’t abuse it; I just try to use it.”
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Barry worked in New York as an engineer. He resumed hiking and conquered the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondack Mountains, bagging them once in warm weather months and again in winter, often in snowshoes, as well as 140 other mountains.
In 1974, he moved to Shelby to become general manager of the Fasco Industries Inc. Plant. The Blue Ridge Mountains were nearby so he joined the Carolina Mountain Club in Asheville and began “peak bagging.” He climbed the 40 peaks 6,000 feet and higher, all in North Carolina and Tennessee. That inspired him to climb all peaks 5,000 feet and above. Then he took on all peaks 4,000 feet and above except for three. (Peaks must have a 300-foot drop on all sides to qualify.) All told, he’s surmounted 1,000 peaks from Georgia to Virginia.
In 1998, Barry was stung by yellow jackets mowing his lawn. He suffered a life-threatening allergic reaction. Another sting could be fatal. He began taking monthly shots to build up his immunity against vespids (bees, wasps, hornets), a process that took five years. He arranged his hikes seasonally to avoid active vespids.
The immunity program enabled him to consider — and plan — his 2004 thru-hike.
Thru-hiking the A.T. is a daunting challenge. King of the Appalachian Trail Conference said an estimated 1,535 prospective northbound thru-hikers started at Springer Mountain last year. About 20 percent finished.
Barry averaged 10 miles a day during his 220 days on the trail. He sometimes hiked north, sometimes south, depending on the location of highways that let Lois Barry pick him up. A sister, Helen Chambers of Boonton, N.J., shuttled him north of New Jersey. He summited Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus, on Aug. 10. He ended the hike in Sugar Grove, Va.
A trail minimalist, Barry carried only essentials. No books, no radio, no cell phone. He prepared meals by pouring boiling water into freezer bags’ holding contents. Breakfast was a porridge of oatmeal, farina, grits and powdered milk. Lunch was cheese and peanut butter-jelly sandwiches. Dinner was chicken or tuna, noodles, textured vegetable powder and instant rice. No snacks, no cookies, no candy.
He didn’t get sick. The only injury was a sprain to his right wrist, which he wrapped with duct tape.
With at least 15,000 miles under his boots, he plans to continue hiking but rules out another Appalachian Trail thru-hike. “I have nothing to prove at this point,” said the Easy One.