We convene at Three Forks, at the base of Springer Mountain, at two in the afternoon on the first of May. The 12 hikers greet each other like long-lost family. They've already formed strong bonds during several arduous "preparation hikes"--three-day, 60-mile backpacking trips. Out of 24 hopefuls who attended the first prep hike, the process yielded the dozen committed souls who showed up today (nobody was turned away). We move to a small clearing in the rhododendrons as a light rain begins to fall.
Doyle begins by handing out the expedition schedule, which everyone already knows by heart: The group will hike the trail in 127 days, averaging 15 to 20 miles daily. Most nights, they'll meet the van at a road crossing, and camp there. He notes with approval that we have set up our tents in view of several "No Camping" signs; he's not much for following rules.
"If all goes well," he continues, "I can assure you that on September 4, we will end our relationship on a high point, on top of Katahdin. When do you get to end a relationship at its highest point? Think about marriages, think about jobs."
If all goes well. It's an appropriate caveat, given the schedule Doyle has laid out. The average thru-hiker takes about six months to complete the AT; Doyle's group is doing it two months faster. (The grueling pace--with zero scheduled rest days for the first 1,600 miles--refutes any suggestion that Doyle's method is "easy.") Moreover, the typical thru-hiker is in his or her 20s, while the average age of this crew is 55. Doyle himself is 60. The oldest member is James, 66, a laconic retiree from a small town in South Carolina, who looks like Ted Turner gone feral. The youngest (apart from Terry, Doyle's 35-year-old wife) is Jessica, 38, an ex-journalist who attempted to hike the trail on her own a few years ago. She made it to Vermont before boredom and fatigue caused her to stop and go home to Boston. She's back to finish the job. "I knew if I did it on my own, I'd be out there for six months," she says. Her trail name is "Pokey," because she likes to sleep late.
The others are an eclectic bunch, and most of them don't have trail names yet. There's Duane, a 45-year-old pharmacist who happens to hail from the same small town as James--but had never met him; Carol, a kindly retired nurse in her 60s who lives not far from Springer; Dave, 61, a musician and orchestra director from Philadelphia, who knows Doyle through contra-dancing (a type of folk dancing, Doyle's other passion); Eddie, a long-haired free spirit from Florida and also a contra-dancer; Greg and Lauren, from northern Virginia, the only married couple; a quiet, bespectacled woman named Debbie, from upstate New York; and Cindy and Hazel, two wisecracking cousins from Texas.
For everyone, the hike represents the result of more than a year of planning: Vacation days have been hoarded, jobs have been quit or put on hold, and spouses have been at least somewhat appeased. Even so, they're at an age when they can't be gone indefinitely. Doyle's compressed, four-month schedule--and near-guarantee of completion--makes the impossible seem possible.
There's only one problem to deal with before starting, and his name is Jimmy. Hazel and Cindy's 58-year-old cousin and best friend, Jimmy decided to join the Expedition too late to make the last preparation hike. Doyle is clearly not pleased that he has shown up today. "Every decision I make will have one goal in mind," he says. "An unbroken circle on top of Katahdin."
Jimmy--untested, unknown, with thinning blond hair, a pink face, and a comfortable belly--is a potential wrench in the works. "I don't want to have to deal with beginners!" Doyle barks. Does Jimmy have anything to say for himself?
He does. "I didn't mean to crash y'all's party or nothing," he begins, in a sheepish drawl. "But I've been hearing about this hike from my cousins for the last two years. And there was no way I could have gone. Then all of a sudden my situation changed--and then there was no way I wasn't gonna come."
Doyle decrees that Jimmy will have to carry all of his gear in a backpack for the first 13 days of the hike, to make up for the preparation hikes that he missed. After that, if he's still with the group--emphasis on "if"--he will be entitled to use the van, where the other hikers have stashed their gear. Jimmy nods, accepting Doyle's judgment.
Later, Jimmy tells me, "To come on this hike I would have had to get divorced, sell my house, and quit my job. As it turned out, all three of those things did happen." His divorce was final last Friday. "So here I am."