Return Of The Forest Rover

It's just light. And the moon is setting over a part of Maine they call no man's land. A lone hiker glides through the almost silent forest. He knows this path well. He made history here 50 years ago, CBS News Correspondent Harry Smith reports.

"It had never been done before. It's awfully nice to be the first one," said Earl Shaffer.

Back in 1948, Shaffer became the first person to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. It stretches 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine along the rugged spine of the oldest mountains in America. Back then the very idea was pure folly.

"They say if you totaled up all the climbing on the Appalachian Trail it would be enough to climb Everst 18 times," he said. "Isn't that amazing?"

And 50 years later, only days short of his 80th birthday, Earl is about to be able to claim he has done it again.

"The fiftieth year was comin' up. What could I do? I couldn't stay home," he said.

Earl came to this trail a half a century ago to escape the restlessness that hauted him after serving in World War II. He called it the long cruise. The lone expedition. In the mountains he found peace. And he started writing poetry:

And I seem to hear her whisper in a melancholy plea,
Whither art thou forest rover? Will you ever come to me?

His story and his poems made him a legend. When other "through walkers," as hikers who trek the trail from end to end are called, encounter him out here they are awe struck.

"It's kind of like, how would you like to sail with Christopher Columbus? How would you like to fly with Amelia Earhart? How would you like to go to the moon with Neil Armstong?" one hiker said of meeting Earl.

Some nights, Earl walks into a nearby town for a hot meal. If there's a guitar around, lucky patrons will get a serenade.

His 50th anniversary trek along the Appalachian Trail is almost complete. It's taken five months. And Earl's as surprised as anyone at just how good a trip it's been.

"I thought by the time I got here I'd be crawlin' on all fours. It's amazing really. I can't explain it. No way," he said.

In 50 years Earl has walked away the sorrow. And in truth he's lonesome no more. Solitude it turns out can be pretty good company.

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