Despite the mandatory preparation trips, it's not clear that this group is even going to make it to North Carolina, much less Maine. Take Hazel: Tall and blonde and pretty, but a good bit overweight, she seems hopelessly out of shape.
But after four days and 51 miles, many of them in pouring rain, it becomes clear that her soft exterior masks an inner toughness. At 49, she's a former competitive jet-ski racer who once rafted the Grand Canyon with a broken ankle wrapped in duct tape. But then she got divorced four years ago, and she's been in a rut ever since. She became less active, gained weight, and lost her zest for life. "I used to run marathons and stay in shape," she says wistfully. "This is kind of like an extreme makeover for me. I even took a 'before' picture." She credits Doyle's preparation regime for getting her here at all. "You really learn to strip it all down," she says. "Not only your pack, but your mind."
Doyle's hiking philosophy is unique, to say the least. Lesson one: It's better to "hike smart" than to hike fast. As summarized in his AT "book"--which consists of a single online page--hiking smart boils down to common sense merged with an aggressive thriftiness: The less gear you carry, the lighter your pack will be, thus making your hike easier and reducing your chance of a trip-ending injury. Comfort is unnecessary: You can do without extra underwear, hot meals, a tent. Doyle himself is content to sleep in a rolled-up poncho, even in driving rain. He hikes in Walmart sneakers, and uses an old ski pole that he bought for $1 at a yard sale. He disdains water treatment or filtering of any kind, drinking directly from springs, streams, and puddles--and even brags about getting giardia. ("It helps with my constipation.")
He regards my CamelBak bladder and water-filter system with special scorn. "Your pack weight will be directly proportional to the sum of your fears," he likes to say.
The most important element, though, is attitude: "Expect the worst. If after one week on the trail you can say that it is easier than you expected, then you will probably finish your journey."