In a sense, the group had been hiking into a storm since May 1, when they had embarked on the 2010 AT Circle Expedition, a group thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail organized by Warren Doyle. Even back then, they knew that turbulence tended to follow him wherever he went.
Doyle has been a controversial figure on the trail since 1973, when he set the AT's first speed record. Since then, he has laid claim to a number of feats that are either truly impressive or outright bizarre, depending on one's point of view. He claims to have hiked some 34,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail, including nine thru-hikes--and to have completed two of those end-to-end journeys without taking a single shower. He is probably the only hiker to have been arrested on Katahdin for civil disobedience. And just last fall, he and a friend set another "speed record" that entailed hiking up Springer, then jumping in a car and speeding north to the foot of Mt. Katahdin, and trekking to the summit. (Totals: 30 hours; 4.7 miles of hiking; about 1,500 miles of driving).
In 1983, he helped found the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers' Association, but later was thrown off the group's board for reading an inflammatory poem in the raw weeks after 9/11. The trail is so entwined with the fabric of his life that he believes his only son, Forest, was conceived in a trailhead parking lot at Neel's Gap in Georgia.
But what sets Doyle apart from all other quirky thru-hikers is his personal mission to help others complete the AT. Several times a year, he leads something he calls the Appalachian Trail Institute, a five-day seminar for aspiring thru-hikers. There, they absorb practical advice about pack weight and hiking strategies, while pondering such Doylean koans as: "Don't fight the Trail. You have to flow with it."
It seems to work: While just a quarter of would-be thru-hikers make it to Katahdin, Doyle says that 75 percent of his "graduates" (about 500, to date) succeed. "I would not have finished if it weren't for Warren, and I'll always be grateful," wrote one Institute participant on Whiteblaze.net, a popular AT hikers website. "The number one thing I took away is that if you really want to finish, you have to realize that it's mostly a mental challenge."
But in terms of helping others with their thru-hike aspirations, nothing compares to Doyle's AT Circle Expeditions. Every five years, Doyle personally leads an organized group thru-hike--eight since 1975--and on these treks the success rate is close to 100 percent.
There are two main reasons for this astonishing track record. The first and most obvious is that Doyle's Expeditions use van support--which does not endear him to AT purists, who fear the possible commercialization of the trail (for-profit guiding is prohibited, and Doyle collects money only to cover group expenses), or who simply feel that using a van is cheating.
But to Doyle's mind, the van isn't important anyway. What really matters--what makes these hikes so powerfully unique--is the "Circle," a vow his hikers make to complete the trail together. For those who join the Circle, three "expectations" apply. First, everybody must follow every white blaze (AT markers). Second, everyone will start and finish the trail at the same time. Third and most important, everybody who starts must finish. In other words, there is no quitting, except due to a family emergency or "unavoidable injury." Anything short of finishing together, on top of Katahdin, will be considered a failure for all.
Critics decry the use of a van as slackpacking and call the Circle a cult, with Doyle at its center. As a member of the 2000 Expedition puts it, "You know that saying, 'hike your own hike'? Well, when you hike with Warren, you hike his hike." His fans see him differently. "Who else would devote so much time to helping you realize your dream?" asks Cindy Bertothy, 59, from Texas, a member of his latest Expedition.
But Doyle's method raises deeper questions about what, exactly, constitutes a "true" thru-hike. Is it just about completing the 5 million steps between Springer and Katahdin? Or is it about something more--some transcendent sense of self-reliance that is either learned or enhanced along the way? Or do his Circle Expeditions--and their all-for-one, one-for-all pact--offer a more ineffable reward? Could his method teach us all something about working together, and finishing what we start?
To answer these questions--and learn what it's like to hike with a guy who doesn't pack a toothbrush for a four-month trek--I joined Doyle's 2010 AT Circle Expedition for parts of the journey from Georgia to Maine.