Jun. 21, 2003
Blind hiker overcomes odds to walk entire Appalachian Trail
By BRENT FRAZEE, The Kansas City Star
COLUMBIA - He hiked over 300 mountains, was almost swept away by rushing rivers, and stumbled and fell countless times.
He trudged through everything from torrential rains to snow and ice, camped in loneliness, and had to conquer the almost daily urge to turn back.
For 258 days on the Appalachian Trail -- a 2,168-mile path that extends from Georgia to Maine -- that was Bill Irwin's life.
Quite a challenge, even for the most-experienced hiker.
An extraordinary challenge for a hiker such as Irwin, who is blind.
"I don't know how many people told me I was crazy when I told them I intended to hike the entire trail with only my seeing-eye dog, Orient," Irwin said last weekend during the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference in Columbia.
"I'll never forget what my instructor told me after I took a five-day course to prepare for the hike. He said, `Bill, I admire your tenacity, but there's no way you can do this.'
"But I wasn't about to give in. No one can take away your seemingly impossible dreams. No one has that right."
Still, Irwin understood the skeptics. Not only was he blind, he was not prepared for such a mission.
He was a self-described "couch potato," an executive in the business world who seldom had time for the outdoors.
And his life was a mess. He was still dealing with the onset of his blindness -- the result of a degenerative disease that surfaced when he was 28 -- he was an alcoholic and a heavy smoker, and he had family problems.
But he was starting to climb out of that abyss. He went into a treatment center to deal with his alcoholism and he was beginning to enjoy life sober.
On a spring day in the mountains of Virginia, his life turned around. While on a camping trip to work on his relationship with his adult son, Billy, he suddenly discovered his surroundings. And he gave thanks to God.
"I was sitting there on a stump and I felt a gentle breeze in my face and the faint smell of honeysuckle," said Irwin, 62, who lives in Sebec, Maine. "I became overwhelmed by this beautiful world we live in and for all the good things that were going on in my life.
"I thanked God for all He had done for me and told Him, `If there's anything I can do to show you how grateful I am, I will do it.' "
A short time later, Irwin got what he considers a sign. Eight friends he had not heard from in years contacted him, all mentioning the intrigue of the Appalachian Trail.
That was enough to persuade Irwin to do the unthinkable -- to uproot his comfortable life and head into an unfamiliar world. To hike the Appalachian Trail, assisted only by his canine companion.
On March 9, 1990, a friend dropped Irwin and his dog off at the trailhead on Springer Mountain in Georgia and Irwin took a large gulp.
The first few steps onto the trail weren't exactly encouraging. Orient was just as unfamiliar with this world as Irwin was. He kept stopping at the slightest obstacle, despite Irwin's encouragement to keep going.
"For both of us, this was on-the-job training," Irwin said. "Rather than acclimating ourselves to the outdoors, we just jumped in."
From the start, the challenges were overwhelming. He fell -- a lot. And Georgia was in the midst of one of its rainiest seasons in decades and there was widespread flooding.
"I remember sitting in my tent one night, soaked and miserable, and just crying," Irwin said.
But as the days went on, Irwin's confidence grew. Orient led the way, following the beaten path and the scent of other hikers.
At junctures in the trail, Irwin was able to feel the engraved signs and guide Orient on which way to go. And where there weren't those signs, other hikers who had passed Irwin left sticks with whittled ends, pointing Irwin in the right direction.
Irwin and Orient hiked sections of the trail with others. But there were many other days when they were alone. They camped along the trail, feeding on provisions they got at mail drops.
Along the way, Irwin had to take several days off to allow Orient to heal his raw paws. And he faced death on more than one occasion, including one time when he was swept down a cold river he was trying to cross.
But he and Orient kept trudging on. And by November, they reached their destination.
A short time later, Irwin learned that of the 1,450 hikers who had set out to hike the Appalachian Trail that year, only 96 had done it.
Today, Irwin looks back as that marathon hike as the signature moment in his life.
The life experiences he picked up -- the values of following a dream, the importance of perseverance, embracing change, ignoring the "What If's" in life, and following God -- are the cornerstones of the motivational talks he gives.
Orient has died, but Irwin still hikes -- for recreation these days, not as a mission.
"I've hiked over 5,000 miles since then," Irwin said. "It's not like a job anymore.
"I really do love the senses I feel when I'm out on the trail. I see, but not the same way you do."
To reach Brent Frazee, outdoors editor for The Star, call (816) 234-4319, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Jun. 21, 2003
Hiker said trail demands mental toughness
By PETE GRATHOFF, The Kansas City Star
Last year, Dave Western changed his name and left his home in Overland Park.
Western was on the move. He wasn't always sure where his next meal would come from. He went days without bathing and at times showered with a hose behind a convenience store.
On the run from the law? Nah, Western was on the run from everyday life.
He hiked the Appalachian Trail.
"We spend so much of our time running around, building our life and making a career -- getting through college, raising our children, building the community -- that I just wanted to spend some time living my life day-to-day," Western said. "Not worry about building it, just live it."
At 2,168 miles, the Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, passing through 14 states. According to the Appalachian Trail Conference, 1,875 thru-hikers left Springer Mountain, Ga., last year; 347 finished the hike.
Western, who took on the moniker "Wakarusa" (after the Wakarusa River) while on the trail, was a "southbounder," leaving from Katahdin, Maine.
Along the way, Western was swarmed by black flies, saw black bears and had a rattlesnake try to bite him (it failed). These are just some of the hazards of spending half a year in the wilderness.
Being on the trail is a risk in itself. Situations can become life-threatening just because the nearest town can be a day's hike away.
"You feel very vulnerable, and a lot of times you don't have money, you're vulnerable to the weather, you don't have a ride," said Western, who was 54 a year ago. "You're sort of in a situation where you feel humble. You appreciate the little things."
Like a bed or a hot meal.
Western, who put his dental practice on hold, carried a sleeping bag and stove in his backpack, part of a 38-pound load he carried every day. While Western spent some nights in one of the many shelters on the trail, most times he camped under the stars. That is, until the temperatures plunged into the 20s toward the end of his journey.
Despite the many potential and actual complications, Western and other hikers kept a positive attitude. That was helped by what he called instances of "trail magic."
There was the time he came across a cooler tied to a tree. It was full of cans of soda. A sign simply said: "For thru-hikers."
In Virginia, Western was hiking with his wife, Pam (who walked part of the trail), and a friend they made on the trail, Phil "One Foot" Sheridan. The trio hitched a ride into a local town and the driver insisted on taking them to McDonald's where he bought them all double orders of lunch.
Back at the truck, the man said, "I was a thru-hiker in 1980 and I've never had the chance to do any trail magic for anybody, so I just wanted to help you guys out."
While Western lost 22 pounds hiking the Appalachian Trail, he said it was more taxing on his psyche.
"It takes mental, not physical, determination -- your faith, your self-reliance, your instinct, your trust and your positive attitude," Western said. "That's the stuff it takes -- the values, the believing in yourself and doing it at your own pace and not listening to what somebody else says."
Jeff "Jesse" James - Owner of Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors
You can always tell who's in 2nd place by who's whining and crying the most. - Old hockey coach.
Dum spiramus tuebimur
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"In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a brave and scarce man, hated and scorned. When the cause succeeds, however, the timid join him... for then it costs nothing to be a patriot." -Mark Twain
I read about this guy. Hey that took some doing.
If at first you succeed..............try not to look surpirsed!!