The Story Is in the Pictures

Learning from the Past

My university is allowing me to attempt an AT thru-hike if I can directly tie it to the research I conduct as a professor. Some of the research that I’ll conduct aims to understand people’s lived experiences. This kind of research not only reports what people say, but creates meaning from the stories in a way that connects with people or uses theory and philosophy to explain the story.

While preparing for my thru-hike and the research I’ll do during it, I’ve bought every book on the AT that I can get my hands on. Among the many stories, I felt connected to Earl Shaffer’s memoir, Walking with Spring. Mr. Shaffer’s book recounts the first thru-hike of the AT that he undertook from April 4 to August 5, 1948. While reviewing the notes I had taken in it, I stopped on the following passage in the first chapter:

“In April-true first month of the year-the woods are at their finest, with the buildings and leafing of trees, the blooming of flowers, the full-flowing streams and waterfalls, the rainswept blue of the sky. And the little old Retina, rugged and dependable, would record the beautiful scenes.”

The “little old Retina” was his camera, and I was curious to learn more about it. I researched Kodak Retina cameras, and found that the Kodak Retina was a series of cameras that ran from 1934-1959. In fact, Sir Edmund Hillary took the famous picture of Tenzing Norgay after climbing Mount Everest for the first time with one. After reviewing the models, I figured out that there were ten possible models that Mr. Shaffer could have used.

After more searching, I found that in 2002 a large collection of Mr. Shaffer’s was donated to the Smithsonian, and that the entire collection had been cataloged. Anyone can read the descriptions of the items and also see scanned copies of the photos that Mr. Shaffer took. The collection indicated that a Kodak camera was included in the collection, but gave no details about it. I emailed the archivist for the collection, who put me in contact with the curator who maintained the actual artifacts. They did not have the model information, but sent me pictures of the camera, and I was able to identify it as a Kodak Retina I Type 148, which was manufactured between 1939-1941. After some hunting on eBay, I was able to find one in remarkable condition for its age, and that’s how I came to own the same camera that Earl Shaffer used on his 1948 thru-hike.

Sharing with the Future

My planned start date is April 4, 2020, the same date that Earl Shaffer started. I had planned for early April because of the feasibility with my teaching schedule. Ironically, when I drafted my original hiking plan with an April 4 start date, without planning, my summit of Katahdin was scheduled for August 5; the same as Earl Shaffer’s. I thought about the similarities and differences that backpacking and the AT itself have experienced between 1948 and 2020, but one thing that I suspect is the same are the stories. Not the stories themselves, but that along the way, people have the opportunity to create meaning for the hike, and make sense of the circumstances that led them to undertake it. Within my research, I’m hoping to bring life to the parallels that unite all hikers, both those from yesteryear and today.

The opportunity to not just “Hike with Spring” in 2020, but to also “Hike with Earl” is a pretty neat opportunity. My little old Retina needs some maintenance before it’s ready to regularly take pictures, but with any luck, it will be ready for my thru-hike this spring. Weighing in at 16.5 ounces, it’s not exactly ultralight, but I’m eager to see the story that I know it can tell.


Twitter & Instagram: @EvBasedAthletic


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Comments 4

  • David Odell : Oct 14th

    Cool story today. Good luck on your AT hike. Will be looking forward to your on trail blog.
    David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

    • Marshall J Milbrath : Oct 14th

      Thanks for the well-wishes David!

  • TBR : Oct 14th

    So, are you taking the Kodak Retina with you on your AT hike?

    What kind of film does it use — and is that film still available?

    Had a Kodak box camera growing up.

  • Marshall J Milbrath : Oct 14th

    That’s the plan if I can get it working reliably and justify having it in my pack. It actually only takes 35mm film.


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