In 1930 Eiler Larsen set out on what is the first recorded attempt of what we call an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. He didn't make it in one year. He got a little distracted.
In the final episode of our first season, we're going to tell Larsen's story: how he was drawn to the AT, his message of happiness, and how he ended up being the official Greeter of Laguna Beach, California (which by the way, is approximately one Appalachian Trail away from Springer Mountain in Georgia).
Mills Kelly and Donnelle Bodnarchuk, “The Apostle of Happiness,” Official blog of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, July 2, 2021
Jane Janz, Naming Laguna Beach (2018)
Martin Yewchuk, The Greeter Documentary (2016)
MILLS KELLY: Welcome to the Green Tunnel. A podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host.
[Sounds of surf]
KELLY: Today. I’m standing at the edge of the surf in Laguna Beach, California. It’s a beautiful place. One of the most beautiful on the entire West Coast. You might wonder, what does Laguna Beach have to do with the history of the Appalachian Trail?
KELLY: Well, it was in Laguna that a man named Eiler Larsen, spent the last three decades of his life and became kind of a famous local character.
KELLY: Based on all the research I’ve done, I’m increasingly convinced that Larsen was the first person to hike every step of the Appalachian Trail. He did it in a series of section hikes that began in 1930 and ended in 1938.
KELLY: However, his life after his hike was just as interesting as the hike itself, and tells an incredible story of this man and his quest to make sure everyone in the world was happy. [Surf sounds end] Before we start talking about his hike though, we have to go to Denmark. Aarhus, Denmark, in 1890.
KELLY: Eiler Larsen was born into a working-class family in Aarhus. In high school, he was interested in philosophy and foreign languages and in his young twenties he took a job with a Danish lumber company in Siberia. There, he first fell in love with hiking. Later in his life he told a reporter that between assignments he would trek through the forests of Siberia where he gloried in the beauty of that environment, that was so different from his native Denmark.
KELLY: When the First World War broke out, Larsen traveled by train to Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast. From there he booked passage on a steamship to Valparaiso, Chile–the city known at the time as the “Jewel of the Pacific.” Ships heading from Asia to South and North America often stopped there and the city was known for its system of funiculars – locally known as “elevators”– that took passengers up and down the steep hills upon which the city was built.
KELLY: While Larsen was in Valparaiso, he took to hiking the mountains of Patagonia, some of the most challenging on the planet. Larsen also took a job as a gymnastics instructor at the local YMCA. He held that post for two years, and I sometimes wonder what his Chilean acquaintances must have made of him? He was 6 feet 8 inches tall, he spoke with a booming voice, and, at least later in life, he always had a big grin on his face.
[1920s music begins]
KELLY: In 1916, the director of the YMCA sponsored Larsen for immigration to the United States. So he traveled through the newly completed Panama Canal to the port of New Orleans. From there, he took a series of trains to St. Peter, Minnesota, where he enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College.
KELLY: In 1917, Larsen became an American citizen. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to France to fight the Germans. During his tour in the war, Larsen was wounded and he had to stay in Europe until 1920 while he recuperated. Apparently, he also traveled home to Aarhus, and thus he completed his circumnavigation of the globe. [1920s music ends]
KELLY: Fully recuperated, Larsen returned to the U.S., but not to college. Instead, he moved to New York City, where he took a job as a courier on Wall Street. And it was there that his fame first began to grow. Before long, New York newspapers began referring to him as “The Flower of Wall Street.” Here’s how Larsen described his life in New York: [urban sounds end]
EILER LARSEN: “On the street in greeting a friend I’d yell loud enough to be heard by a hundred, just to let those New Yorkers know there was somebody glad to be alive.I mean, can you imagine me in Wall Street? Those poor unhappy New Yorkers! I used to carry a bunch of roses with me on my rounds of business, and whenever I saw an unhappy broker, I’d hand him a rose and say, ‘Here, friend. Be happy!’”
KELLY: As we’ll see, that habit of standing on street corners and shouting about happiness soon became Larsen’s calling card. And, we’ll also see that not everyone loved his act. As he told a reporter in 1933, the bank he worked for in New York objected to his street corner preaching about happiness. They eventually fired him from his job as a courier.
KELLY: So what happened to Larsen after he lost his job as courier? Well, he popped up in a very different place.
[Fiddle music begins]
KELLY: I first encountered Larsen in the archives of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. I was leafing through an old club scrapbook and there was a photograph of a serious looking, shaggy man, with a piercing gaze. He had signed his name across the bottom of the photograph and because the image was so striking, I scanned it. Not because I was actually interested in Larsen, but because it was just too good of a photo to pass up. And then I promptly forgot about him.
KELLY: Three years later, he reappeared in my field of view. This time in the archives of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. There, in ATC chairman Myron Avery’s correspondence, was a letter from Larsen to John Sherman, the head of the New England Trail Conference. Larsen wrote:
LARSEN: “I expect to hike the whole Appalachian Trail from Mount Katahdin to Georgia during August, September, October, and November. Perhaps I may have the happy privilege and great pleasure of meeting you face to face on my trip through your state.”
KELLY: Today we’d call Larsen’s plan a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. But in 1930 this idea was something of a surprise. At that point in the trail’s history, no one had imagined that someone would hike the entire trail in one year. That was crazy talk! The AT was intended to be a place where hikers would go out for a day, a week, or possibly a couple of weeks. But hike the entire thing? In four months? No way.
KELLY: Nevertheless, John Sherman was entranced by the idea. He wrote to Arthur Perkins, the outgoing chairman of the ATC, that, “I think that anyone who aspires to hike the whole Appalachian Trail deserves all the cooperation that the members of the various clubs that are interested can give.”
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail wasn’t complete in 1930. It wouldn’t be completed until 1937. But Eiler Larsen wasn’t someone who was deterred by details like that. Instead, in August of 1930, he began his hike on Katahdin. Although he had planned to hike the whole trail in one year, it was quickly apparent that he wouldn’t be the first person to pull off a thru hike. In fact, it took him three months just to get as far as Rutland, Vermont, where he stopped for the winter.
[Fiddle music ends]
KELLY: You see, as much as Larsen loved hiking, he loved people even more. And he was a man on a mission. A mission to spread happiness to everyone he met. That mission caused him to stop again and again during his hike – at YMCAs, at Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and at public libraries – so he could give lectures about the beauty of nature and the path to happiness. Here’s a brief sample of the kind of thing he would say to his audiences wherever he stopped.
LARSEN: No human being can defeat anyone who has power and strength to stick to his ideals. I go to the mountains to get away from the limitations of human life. In the mountains, I listen to people, and I try to use the mountains for spiritual inspiration and power.
KELLY: It took Larsen two years to work his way south to Washington, D.C., where he stopped for another year and lived in Dupont Circle, one of the main office areas of the city. There he reported communing with rats and vagrants, living in damp quarters under the circle.
[Guitar music begins]
KELLY: While in Washington, Larsen returned to his ways as a dispenser of happiness to the urban worker. According to an April 17, 1933 story in the Washington Herald, Larsen spent each morning at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Dupont Circle, and every afternoon at the corner of 18th and K Streets. “Flashing smiles in rapid succession from his bronzed face framed in flowing locks and a luxuriant beard and waving his stick, Larsen hopes to pull at least one depression-bowed mortal out of the doldrums each day.”
KELLY: These days, the term “hiker trash” has come to be a term of endearment for those long distance hikers who have left behind the social expectations around establishing a career and settling down. Eiler Larsen was surely one of the first advocates for this lifestyle. As one reporter who met him wrote, “He lives his philosophy that the chief joys of life are in having no earthly possessions, in communing with one’s self and nature, in grasping to the full the realization of all the beauty in the world.”
KELLY: But perhaps the biggest difference between Larsen and those who today proclaim themselves “hiker trash,” was that Larsen stood on busy street corners in major cities and shouted out his philosophy of life.
KELLY: Members of the Washington, D.C. hiking community were entranced by Larsen and his stories of forests and mountains in Siberia and South America. But they also loved his exuberance and his philosophy of happiness. [Fiddle music begins] As a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club wrote in an introduction for a speech Larsen was to make to the club in 1932:
READER: [Alison Langford]: “Are you satisfied with the world you live in? Do you believe the world is emphasizing material things too strongly? Do you feel that mankind is permitting — or forcing — things of the spirit to take a secondary place? Are men and women and young people getting away from Nature, from the most beautiful and inspiring messages still available?
“Let Eiler Larsen bring you some of those messages, direct from the heart of the forest. Let him refresh you with songs of stones and running brooks, of woodland zephyrs, of sunrises over foggy hills, of glimpses of the purity and serenity and contentment of mountain ranges — and perhaps transmit some of that loveliness of Nature to your own life.
“Larsen is a foot-traveler, a trail-blazer, a son of the forest. He has wandered over Siberian steppes; he has climbed the rocky cliffs of South America; he has walked along the skyline of our own largest mountain chains. He knows mountains, their lore, their mysteries, their beauties and their inspiration as do few. To his solitary campfire atop lonely peaks have come wild creatures; birds eat fearlessly from his hands; flying squirrels play with his flowing beard and his hair which curls to his shoulders. With head always bared to north winds and southern breezes, he has followed the gleam, seeking the Holy Grail, and he has caught a vision from Nature which he wants to give to others. Still wearing his picturesque mountain garb, still bronzed by years of rain and sun, still with long hair and beard testifying to his kinship with Mother Nature.” [Music ends]
KELLY: Okay, I’m dubious about the flying squirrels, but you get the idea. He made a big impression on people.
KELLY: Having done what he could for the poor, depressed toilers in downtown D.C., Larsen departed for the AT again in 1934. Along his way south, he didn’t always make a positive impression on everyone.
KELLY: As he told a reporter in Knoxville in 1936:
LARSEN: “Most people below the Potomac are afraid of any man with long hair and a beard. But a little boy once observed that I looked like “God coming out of the mountains.”
KELLY: Others thought he might be a spy or a kidnapper, and at least a few children believed he might be Santa Claus.
KELLY: In 1938, Avery wrote to two people in Southwestern Virginia who took in AT hikers as boarders. “We have been told that a few years ago a long-haired man and a dog traveling along the route left a rather unfortunate impression. As to this we would like to say that this individual was not connected with the Appalachian Trail or any Trail Club in any way and was making this trip on his own responsibility.”
KELLY: In 1937, Larsen once again met Myron Avery, this time in the Smokies. In Avery’s personal scrapbooks in the archives of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, I found two photos that Avery took of the Danish vagabond and his dog Happy, one of which is identified as being on the summit of Mount LeConte, just outside of Gatlinburg.
KELLY: And somewhere between Shenandoah National Park and the Smokies, Larsen met George W. Outerbridge, and Martin and Mary Kilpatrick who were in the final stages of completing their own section hike of the AT. Writing about their hike several years later, Outerbridge described Larsen as “the strange, wandering Dane with the shaggy hair, who has done most, if not all of [the trail].”
KELLY: Did Larsen make it all the way to Mount Oglethorpe and complete his section hike of the AT? There’s no direct evidence that he did. The 1930s registers from Mount Oglethorpe, now in the Georgia State Archives, contain no sign in from Larsen. But that register is also only a spotty record at best. Thus far, the only evidence I’ve been able to find that he did complete the trail comes from the Orleans, Vermont Monitor from early 1938. In a little news brief, the paper reported that Larsen, who many in Orleans would have remembered from 1931, had written to a friend there to say that he had completed his hike of the AT.
KELLY: For now we’ll have to leave the Appalachian Trail part of his story there. I remain convinced that he was indeed the first person to hike every step of the AT as a section hiker. But more research is needed before I can say with absolute certainty.
[Fiddle music begins]
KELLY: Before we get to Laguna Beach and what happened to Larsen after he left the AT, I want to let you know that this episode is the final show of our inaugural season. If you’re a regular listener, you know that our show depends on the support of listeners like you, and today I want to say thank you to just a few of the people who have sent us donations over the past few months.
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KELLY: All of us in the team would really appreciate your support. [Fiddle music ends]
KELLY: Now, back to Eiler Larsen.
KELLY: What do you do after spending eight years section hiking the AT? If you’re Eiler Larsen, you go to Hollywood to star in movies that will make children happy. That’s what he told people he was going to do anyway. There isn’t any evidence that any Hollywood director was impressed enough to find a role for a tall shaggy Danish vagabond with a booming voice and a ready smile, which is kind of too bad when you get to know Larsen a little better.
KELLY: He did make it to California. In 1940 he was living in Carmel. But according to local news reports the good citizens of that city didn’t appreciate him. And so he found his way to Laguna Beach.
MARTIN YEWCHUK: It was a hippie town, it was I mean so many things have started in Laguna, from Timothy Leary and LSD and that whole scene…You meet people that have done everything. This guy invented the surfboard. This guy invented the skateboard. This guy invented the blah blah blah chip. Like ,it’s a very creative place and it’s a very high energy place, and when I was doing my research, it was amazing how many famous people came through there from John Wayne to Betty Davis.
KELLY: That’s Martin Yewchuk, a documentary filmmaker and former Laguna Beach resident. Several years ago he made a film that featured Larsen as one of its main characters.
YEWCHUK: He just wanted to spread joy and happiness and to get people to wake up.
KELLY: And the way Larsen went about spreading joy in Laguna Beach was exactly the same way he did it in New York, Washington, D.C., or Knoxville, Tennessee. Sharon Thoresen grew up in Laguna Beach and remembers Larsen fondly. I interviewed her out on her deck above the Pacific Ocean.
SHARON THORESEN: He was just part of my childhood. And just the best word which has been described before his voice, he had a bombastic voice. And he would stand on the corner, down at Main Beach. And as people came into town, he would welcome them, loudly. Pointing his finger, bending over and pointing his finger and saying, “Hello there!” you know, like this, but it would be a very drawn out a very drawn out hello there…. From what I’ve heard, through the years, is a lot of children were terrified of him. And some adults. He was an odd-looking character to say the least, I guess for those times.
[Surfer music begins]
KELLY: There are only a couple of options for getting into Laguna Beach. The best way to get there is to come down Laguna Canyon Road. That road intersects with the Coastal Highway right at what locals like Sharon call “Main Beach.” And, it was at that intersection that Larsen would stand, calling out his messages of joy to passersby. And before long, people started calling him “The Greeter.”
KELLY: Eiler Larsen wasn’t the first Greeter of Laguna Beach and he wasn’t the last. A man everyone called Old Joe Lucas held that title in the 19th century and these days a man from Rhode Island named Michael stands, spins, and dances at the intersection of those two main roads. But Larsen was the one who people in Laguna remember today. There are restaurants named after him. His sandal-clad footprints are in a section of sidewalk near where he liked to stand. His picture seems to be just about everywhere. And there are two bigger than life statues of him along the Coastal Highway.
[Surfer music ends]
KELLY: Larsen died in 1975, but I managed to find two other people who remember him from when they were children. Johanna Ellis is a board member of the Laguna Beach Historical Society. I interviewed Johanna outside in downtown Laguna. Today she looks back at her interactions with Larsen and laughs, but when she was a little girl, she didn’t love being close to him. [Traffic sounds]
JOHANNA ELLIS: My parents had to drive to San Diego every weekend to tend to a business they had down there. It was a four hour drive from Pacific Palisades, we would do it every weekend. And Laguna Beach was about a halfway stop for us. So we’d stop here, whatever. And my siblings would push me out the door whenever they saw Eiler Larsen because he was always standing over there at the corner of Coast Highway and around for us there on the ocean side. And they would push me toward him to get a rile out of me and I was scared to death of him. And he would always come at me with his arms lifted above his head and yell like, “Rarrr!” and chase me and I would scream and drop whatever I was holding and was just terrified. And they wouldn’t let me back in the car. And it became a common thing. And before long, it became kind of funny, but I was still always terrified of him.
KELLY: Mostly, though, Larsen made people smile. He made them laugh. In December he would dress like a Danish version of Santa Claus. And he did his best to spread joy to everyone he met. As the years went by, he became a real fixture standing there on the side of the road. Eventually, the town council decided to make his status as the town’s greeter official.
ELLIS: So Laguna Beach, voted him in as the official greeters. So that became kind of official for him. There were people protesting to get him in. I think I have pictures of this demonstration to support him.
KELLY: Following his elevation to “official greeter,” the Hotel Laguna – right on the beach – gave Larsen a free room just a block from where he liked to stand and wave. Local restaurants gave him meals. And I assume he had some sort of veteran’s pension that he lived on. He did a little gardening. He got paid from time to time to pose for local artists. But mostly he just stood on that corner, waved, smiled, and invited people to be happy.
KELLY: Like Sharon, Glenna Matthews grew up in Laguna Beach. Following her retirement from university teaching, she has returned to her hometown. Her father was the editor of the local newspaper. It was through her father that she came to know Larsen a little better than others.
[Outdoor sounds begin]
GLENNA MATTHEWS: Eiler was a genuine once in a lifetime type of character. From Eiler, it came from a deep place in the soul.
KELLY: During our interview, Glenna showed me one of her proudest possessions –- a children’s book that Larsen had inscribed for her and given her when she was young. She still treasures that book because it reminds her of that once in a lifetime character.
[Outdoor sounds end]
KELLY: All of the people in Laguna Beach I spoke with who remembered Larsen kept coming back to how much he loved giving presents to children, whether it was books, or candy, or small amounts of pocket change. Of course, today a 6’8”, shaggy man standing on a street corner giving candy to children would probably provoke a police response. But in the 1950s and the 1960s, we were all a little less suspicious. And, of course, people in Laguna knew Larsen because they couldn’t avoid him. He was always there at the main intersection in town, smiling, waving, and calling out messages of happiness and joy.
KELLY: During the worst of the Covid quarantine, one of my students, Donnelle Bodnarchuk, who these days is a law student, co-wrote an essay about Larsen with me for the official blog of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Through that work, Donnelle had a lot of time to reflect on why it was that people responded to Larsen the way they did, whether it was in New York, along the Appalachian Trail, or in Laguna Beach.
DONNELLE BODNARCHUK: IDeep down, people want to be happy, and they want to experience that joy and especially during the 1930s, when you know, things weren’t so hot in the country. Having that free source of happiness. It’s priceless and it’s something small to make your day to encounter someone that is just so genuinely happy and wants to spread that happiness, because I think there are a lot of happy people in the world, but they don’t necessarily want to share it or you don’t want to see it, but with Larsen, you know, he was like a good person and people are attracted to that.
KELLY: And I think it would have made Larsen very happy to know that almost 50 years after his death, studying his life has given at least one young person the kind of happiness he hoped to give to everyone.
BODNARCHUK: So if you don’t fit the norm, or what society deems normal, it’s harsh and so you know I think Larsen speaks to that…It was one of his quotes, I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something about like, “If you have your inner strength your happiness can’t be destroyed.” And I think that quote, that has kind of stuck with me since reading and studying him because, life’s not easy at all and there’s a lot of things that happen to kind of throw a wrench in things. But I think, knowing that Larsen had that inner strength and knowing that, okay, if I have that inner strength, then my happiness isn’t going to be corrupted either. So I think he’s a big role model for me, and I want more people to know about how cool he is, because he’s a cool guy. He’s a cool guy.
[Greeter Song begins]
KELLY: That’s it for today. This is the final episode of Season One of the Green Tunnel. More than 20,000 downloads later, all of us here on the team hope that through our show we’ve spread a little joy in your life as well. We want to thank everyone who has listened to the show, who has told a friend about the show, and who has posted about us on their social media. And a big shout out to those who have donated to support our show. We’re so glad you’ve listened, so glad you keep coming back, so glad you are helping others find their way to the Green Tunnel, and so thankful for your financial support. It means the world to all of us.
[Mountain music begins]
KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Today’s episode was produced by me. Abby Mullen is our Executive Producer and Jeanette Patrick did the sound design for this episode. A special thank you to Sharon Thoresen, Johanna Ellis, Glenna Matthews, and Martin Yewchuk for spending time with me during my visit to Laguna Beach and for sharing their stories of Larsen. We also want to thank Mike Geiger, the President and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and a proud Danish-American, for his readings of Larsen’s quotations and our own Alison Langford who read from the PATC write up about Larsen.
KELLY: Our original music is performed by Scott Miller of Staunton, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. This summer we’ll have a bonus episode for you about these wonderful musicians.
KELLY: Thanks for listening and if you’re out on the Appalachian Trail this summer keep an eye out for the Green Tunnel team. We’ll be there doing some trail magic, meeting with our podcast ambassadors, and interviewing hikers in the wild.
KELLY: Stay safe and we’ll see you soon.
Johanna Ellis is a member of the board of directors of the Laguna Beach Historical Society. She grew up nearby and encountered Eiler Larsen a number of times as a child when her family passed through town on their way north or south.
Glenna Matthews is a retired American women’s historian who received her PhD from Stanford University. She grew up in Laguna Beach, she returned there after retiring from university teaching.
Sharon Thoresen grew up in Laguna Beach, California, which is how she came to know Eiler Larsen. She lived in the Washington, D.C. area for many years before returning to Laguna, where she now lives in the house she grew up in.
Martin Yewchuk is a documentary filmmaker and is the producer and director at Elestial Productions, based in California. His film, The Greeter, tells the story of Eiler Larsen and several other former (and current) “greeters” of Laguna Beach.