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Madman Walking?

Warren Doyle has hiked the Appalachian Trail 16 times, and he has a no-fee plan guaranteed to help others complete the 2,180-mile trek. The hardest part? Hiking with Warren Doyle.

It’s hard to imagine anyone having a worse first week than Doyle himself. Physically, he appears less prepared than anyone; his round belly strains against the buttons of his khaki-colored hiking shirt. Likewise, the contents of his food bin do not inspire hope: He proudly pulls back the lid to reveal a dozen boxes of Little Debbies Cosmic Brownies. “This way, I don’t have to think about what I eat, and I can concentrate on the beauty of nature,” he explains. Like many things Doyle says, this makes sense in theory.

On the fifth day, I join Doyle on the trail. This itself is strange, because he walks southbound each day, while everyone else hikes north (he has his own car for this purpose). That makes his hike a disjointed, leapfrogging affair, but it also allows him to see every member of the group at least once per day. He needs to spend the morning grading his last batch of papers (from his final semester as a professor of education at Lees-McRae College, in North Carolina), in a local library. We stop first at McDonald’s, where Doyle is a big fan of the dollar menu–and also what he calls the “leftover menu,” food left behind by other diners, even in trash cans. By the time we begin our 17-mile hike, it’s past two.

On the trail, Doyle’s apparent lack of fitness vanishes. He moves with a quickness and grace that are astonishing for a guy of his age, size, and Little Debbies intake. On the downhills, he breaks into a kind of trot, letting gravity pull him down the trail. Indeed, one companion from a past hike recalls Doyle dancing down the infamous rocky descent from Mt. Madison, leaping into the air and clicking his heels together.

As we hike, Doyle explains his history with the AT. He grew up in Connecticut, the son of a toll collector, and is proud of his blue-collar roots. His idyllic and, as he puts it, “mediocre” childhood was shattered at age 14, when his older sister, almost 16, died suddenly of meningitis. He became an A student and a bulwark for his grieving parents. As his wife Terry explains, “Warren decided he was going to do the work of two children, to replace the one they’d lost.”

During college he was a theater major, and spent an eye-opening stint volunteering in a community development project in West Virginia. There he met the Appalachian poet and activist Don West, whose teachings on rural poverty radicalized Doyle. When he went back to grad school at the University of Connecticut, he couldn’t reconcile what he had seen and what he was studying. Like many others faced with real-world conundrums, he decided to work it out on a long hike. “I needed to find out who I really was,” he says.

But while most would have been content with just completing the AT, Doyle decided to put his own stamp on it, by attempting to set a speed record. “I had to make it an achievement,” he says.

In the spring of 1973, he set off from Springer with a heavy backpack and a two-quart canteen. He hiked in blue jeans and built a fire every night, but still averaged more than 30 miles a day. (During the latter half, when his energy flagged, his dad met him and transported his gear–Doyle’s introduction to vehicle support.) He reached the summit of Katahdin just over 66 days after he started. His record made the papers, but the trail-as-racetrack milestone prompted a backlash from the traditional hiking community, including a stinging rebuke from AT founder Benton MacKaye.

Despite the fallout, the experience was so powerful that he decided he had to share it. Two years later, in 1975, he recruited 18 UConn students to hike the AT as a group. It was his inaugural “Circle” experiment, an idea borrowed from West. The Circle made the group’s welfare paramount. “Either we all get there, or none of us gets there,” Doyle says.
It worked. They all completed the hike. “Most of us were very green and had no experience backpacking,” says Don Pelletier, a member of the 1975 group, now an outdoor educator for at-risk youth. “But it changed my life. I think it changed a lot of people’s lives.”

It certainly changed Doyle’s life. The trek formed the basis of his doctoral thesis and laid the foundation for his life’s work. He staged another Circle Expedition two years later, in 1977, and then again in 1980. He took time off to get married, raise kids, and “get a real job” (as a college professor), then organized subsequent Circle hikes every five years, starting in 1990. “This is my calling,” he says. Doyle considers himself a “social change educator,” and the AT his classroom: “People who are able to realize their dreams are happier people. And happier people are less fearful.”

But the very notion of a group hike–especially one kept on a rigid schedule–appalls many conventional thru-hikers, who tend to see themselves as Thoreauvian individualists. “He’s not making their dreams come true. He’s crushing their dreams,” charges Jack Tarlin, who completed seven consecutive annual thru-hikes from 1997 through 2003. “In convincing these poor sheep to participate in a hike that is essentially his, and in convincing them that their only hope for a successful thru-hike is to follow his leadership, what he actually does is prevent these poor souls from finding out what they’re capable of achieving on their own.”

Achievement, of course, can be measured in various ways. Over the years, Doyle’s hikers have completed the trail while suffering ailments from severe food poisoning to fractured bones. Miraculously, the Circle has only been “broken” once, in 1977, when a female hiker stopped in Vermont, suffering from severe blisters. “Her feet were like raw meat,” says Don Pelletier.
She eventually completed the trail on her own, but Doyle still regards the episode as a personal betrayal. “I had no idea there was anything wrong,” he says. “It’s like you’re married for 30 years with no problems, and all of a sudden your wife leaves a note on the pillow that says, ‘Honey, it’s not working out.'”

Which is why he reacted so harshly to Jimmy’s arrival. Could this unknown hiker be a weak link?

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