In Memory of Bill Irwin- the first blind man to hike the entire Appalachian Trail as one continuous thru-hike

…….(Bill Irwin died this past March. In honor of him, I have retyped my story that appeared in The Walking Magazine many years ago, so that you might know of this amazing human being too. There will be another story being posted soon about a weekend hike where Bill taught another friend and amazing human being, Bob Barker, to hike with a seeing eye dog. Bob had MS and hiked the entire AT three times on crutches with a full heavy pack , beginning at the age of 63! These posted stories are a prelude to a story that will come out in AT Journeys magazine about what Bill Irwin did with the rest of his life after his epic AT hike. )

Imagine walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail while carrying a 35-55 pound pack, over rocks and roots and mountains, finding your water, shelter, not to mention your way, with your eyes closed! That’s what Bill Irwin, 50 year old family counselor from Burlington, North Carolina accomplished with  his seeing-eye dog, Orient back in 1990.

He did it without seeing the trail in front of him, without seeing the white blazes that mark the way, the signs at intersections, the boulders he had to climb over, the cliffs at his side, the fords across rivers, the fallen trees in his path, the snakes, the bears, the water sources, and the roads into town to re-supply. Yet he and Orient, managed to complete in one stretch, what so few sighted people are physically and mentally able to do…hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.

How could he possibly do it? Bill’s data was on cassette tapes, where the shelters and springs are located, routes into town to re-supply and mileage inbetween.  On the trail, Orient found the right way to go by smelling hikers that have gone before, even weeks before. Long distance hikers don’t get many opportunities to shower so their scent is a strong one.

“I’ve been lost a lot more in the company of other hikers than when Orient and I are alone,” Bill admits. “People get to talking, keep their heads down and miss a turn blaze. After awhile, Orient just learned to look for and read blazes himself.”

In Georgia, Bill used to test the ground and lock his ankles before putting any weight down, but the pair couldn’t make any time. Now he just plods along. “My ankles have twisted so many times that the ligaments are all stretched out. It only hurts for a minute or two.”

Seeing Eye dogs are trained to guide their owners through city streets and are taught to alert them of a step two inches and higher. This really slowed them down so wit practice, Orient learned by trial and error what height he could get away with and what height Bill couldn’t tolerate. Orient amazingly reads the terrain on the trail and communicates back to Bill.

“He’s got a terrific span of vision,” Bill praises. “and knows exactly how tall I am. He always clears my head by about six inches, when a tree is blown down across the trail.”

Orient will stop and it will be up to Bill to discover what the problem is. Bill takes his ski pole that he uses as a hiking staff and swings it in a scooping motion from the ground up, until it catches on the obstacle. The pole hitting the object alerts Orient that Bill has discovered it.

I’ve watched the pair rock hop across a stream when we hiked together in PA. Bill places his size 214 feet right where you would put them had you seen the stepping stones. How? He feels the movement of his dog’s body through his harness and leash. When Orient takes a big step, Bill knows he must take a bi step too.

Bill falls down a lot. In Georgia, he was falling forty times a day. He wears knee pads, always has wounds healing on his legs, broke a rib on a fall, and smashed a finger so baldy my husband Todd had to drill a hole into the nail to relieve the built-up pressure of the blood and pus. When he falls, he feels grateful he wasn’t hurt. When he’s hurt, he’s grateful he wasn’t hurt worse! As an any long distance hiker knows, your success is more dependent on your psychological ability to withstand the hardships of the trail. It is your good attitude, you burning passion, more so than your strong muscles that keep the miles clicking by.

“Attitude is the key to my world,” Bill says. “Accept the sun, accept the rain, accept the cold, accept the Appalachian Trail.”

A sense of humor helps too. He told me of the town stop where he received a care package and woofed down a package of “beef jerky.” It wasn’t until he thanked the sender of the tasty treat did he learn it was doggie chews for Orient for he couldn’t read the package! “They were great!” he exclaimed.

When I asked him about writing in the registers, the notebooks left in the shelters along the trail where hikers sign in and communicate with one another and make it possible to find you should an emergency arise, he replied, “I can feel the previous entry on the page and know where to start. I must remember everything that I’ve written so I don’t repeat myself! Oh, I can write everything! I just can’t read it!”

It’s important to Bill to find joy wherever he can for his trip has been one of extreme hardship and fatigue. Dealing with pain has not been the most difficult part of Bill’s hike. Exhaustion was. Besides the physical rigors of wlaking15 miles a day, up and down mountains with weight on your back, it took so much concentration for Bill to execute the trail. He could rarely relax, except on ascents where he used rock climbing techniques, his hands to feel depressions in the rocks while keeping his body low and close. Orient cannot climb so Bill must lift him over his head. One place in the Whites of New Hampshire, there was a 25-foot drop in the trail, over a rock slab. All the saplings for hand holds were pulled out so Bill had to rely on a crack to wedge his hand into while Orient occupied the other hand. While he was teetering, full pack on, trying to throw Orient up, his hand began to slip!

The slippery, narrow bog  bridges in Vermont dunked them in the oozing mud more than once, completely submerging Orient.  Because Bill took so long to complete his hike (8 months to Thanksgiving) the season got much later than most thru-hikers experiences, and the weather turned nasty and cold. He had to contend with temps in their teens, 100 MPH gusting winds on open, exposed summits, and a blizzard of 28 inches. After the snow reached a height of 8 inches, Orient could not longer find the trail, so they sought emergency shelter in a ranger’s cabin on a mountain top in Maine. Four days they waited until help arrived.

“Every day for two hours in the morning and for two hours in the afternoon, Orient and I would go out in search of the spring, the privy, and firewood. We were down to our last piece when two thru-hikers finally found me. Never did find the privy or the spring and had to melt snow for water all that time.”

Because of the tremendous wet fall New England experienced, streams were swollen to the size of rivers. Bill had to cross them on his hands and knees like a dog, completely submerged in the 33 degree water except for his head, for he could not remain upright on the slippery rocks and strong current.  And once he and Orient were swept twenty yards downstream. “Terrible weather to be swimming in!” he laughs afterwards.

You may be wondering WHY? Why did he keep going? Did he really get any pleasure out of the hiking? After all, he couldn’t even see any of the country he was traveling through.

Bill is quick to tell anyone that he does indeed see, he just sees differently than sighted people. “I perceive with all of my senses combined,” he explains. “I take in all the messages my nose, ears, and skin are sending me and try to create the scene in my head. When I ask hikers what it looked like, I get a double shot! But they never ask me what I saw!”

Bill can smell the damp dew in the morning, the warm sun baking the earth. He searches for flowers that fill the air with their sweetness and feel show they’re put together so he can identify them. He can feel the openness of a southern Appalachian bald, and the closeness of a New England balsam forest.  All these things filled Bill Irwin’s hike with beauty and to him, made the Appalachian Trail very, very beautiful.

But what about those last month sinew England in the fast approaching winter? Why did he keep going then?

“I was very, very tired,” he admits. “Tired of being cold and wet. Tired of being away from home. A few times at the end, I always bit it.”

Bill was out there for the greater goal besides merely reaching Mount Katahdin. He was walking the AT as an affirmation of his faith in God. “I wanted to show what s possible, even for a blind man, when God is leading you.”

Still, nobody can make a person continue, not even God. It takes a lot of personal courage and extraordinary perseverance to do what Bill Irwin has done. He has given new light to the words “difficult” and “impossible” for many people. This very warm, humble, charismatic man though, will never take credit for any of his accomplishments. “I just showed up for work,” he said, “God did the rest.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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