It's a weird claim to fame, but Warren Doyle Jr. probably holds
the record for the fewest socks used while hiking all 2,157.8
miles of the Appalachian Trail: one pair.
Doyle, a 45-year-old American studies professor and director of
the Outdoor Education Center at George Mason University in
Fairfax, Va., accomplished that odoriferous feat in the spring
and summer of 1990, when he made his fifth through-hike from
Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine. And he has
walked the entire trail in bits and pieces four other times.
"He's on the trail more than anybody," says Jean Cashin, who
represents the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) in Harpers
Doyle squeaked by on one pair of his own socks in 1990 by
helping himself to stray ones left behind by other hikers.
Although this brought with it the indignity of wearing
mismatched hosiery, in Doyle's mind it proved an important
point: You don't need lots of clothing and fancy gear to conquer
the AT. "I want to turn facts into myths and myths into facts,"
says Doyle, who left his home in Clifton, Va., on April 29 to
knock off through-hike number 6, which should be history by
Labor Day. "We have to question who's telling us what we need
and why are they telling us."
You think top-of-the-line waterproof boots are necessary? Big
myth. Doyle wears sneakers that he picks up for a buck a pair at
garage sales. They go nicely with his secondhand backpack and
five & dime sleeping bag. Think a famished body needs to be
refueled with hot meals? Another myth. Doyle doesn't even carry
a mess kit, choosing instead to subsist largely on cookies and
peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Afraid to drink the water on
the trail? Shucks, says Doyle, a little giardia never hurt
anybody. If a muddy stream is good enough for deer, it's good
enough for him.
"He strips things down to the essentials, and then he removes a
few of those," says Frank Logue of Rome, Ga., a member of the
Appalachian Long Distance Hik ers As sociation, which Doyle
founded 12 years ago. "Warren may well be the Abbie Hoffman of
the Appalachian Trail."
Doyle doesn't look like a revolutionary--or, for that matter, a
marathon hiker. A disobedient shock of thinning hair tops a face
that frequently sports a nervous jack-o'-lantern smile. Doyle
has a doughy belly, short arms and a rolling gait that evokes
visions of a boardwalk cop walking the beat with a chili dog in
But make no mistake: Doyle dearly loves hiking the AT,
questioning authority and speaking his mind. The Appalachian
Trail came under federal control in 1968 with the passage of the
National Trails System Act, which expedited the acquisition of
surrounding land. Only 44 miles of the AT remain privately
owned, and Doyle is miffed. A lifetime member of the ATC, but
also a lifelong prickly individualist, he rails against the
government's right of eminent domain. "I don't see why it can't
be a matter of a farmer's handshake," says Doyle. "To me the
point of the trail is trust."
Doyle doesn't applaud when stretches of the AT are relocated
around expanding cities and towns. He considers the jumble of
wilderness, history and society to be part of the trail's
special charm. Nor does he cotton to the closing of chunks of
the trail during forest fires, or to rangers posting signs about
unsafe drinking water. Too many rules. Too much meddling with
nature, Doyle says.
"I think Warren would like to believe all people are basically
good-hearted and would love the trail, and you wouldn't have to
manage it," says Brian King, the ATC's director of public
relations. "There would be no rules, because people would bring
their own rules. But that's not the way it is."
Doyle pleads guilty to being a romantic. One of his favorite
poems is Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road, which contains
the lines, "You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you
are not all/ that is here, I believe that much unseen is also
here." No wonder Doyle thinks a through-hike on the AT is the
wisest possible use of several months' time. Such a venture is
not merely a matter of paying overdue attention to the way the
sun slants through Virginia pines or the lullaby of rain on a
tent roof. It's a chance to shed the constricting skin of
routine, to assess a life in progress. It involves committing
oneself to a goal and disciplining the mind to overcome
discomfort and fatigue and all those PB-&-J sandwiches. In
short, Doyle's hikes aren't simply walks in the woods.
"I'm not spending 127 days away from loved ones for something as
frivolous as recreation," he says. But Doyle's introduction to
the outdoors was just that: He did run-of-the-mill backpacking
in Vermont and New Hampshire while attending Southern
Connecticut State. Then, while he was working one summer as a
volunteer in the mountains of Jamaica and another in the hills
of Appalachia, his slumbering social conscience stirred. In
1973, at 23, Doyle decided he needed a rigorous challenge,
"something that had no material reward, no trophy, no
cheerleaders, nothing like that."
He settled on doing a solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail
and completed the trip from Georgia to Maine in the then record
time of 66 days, dropping 32 pounds along the way. Doyle was in
graduate school at Southern Connecticut State at the time,
pursuing a doctorate in education. Upon his return he did day
hikes on the Connecticut portion of the AT with friends, among
them his wife, Ginger, and out of those forays sprang the notion
of writing his dissertation on the interaction of a group of
hikers navigating the entire trail.
In 1975 Doyle led--and he uses the term loosely--a party of 19
hikers from Georgia to Maine. Although group pilgrimages were
virtually unheard of on the AT, everyone made it.
Doyle had discovered what amounted to his calling. Rather than
change the world, he would try to change how people look at it,
and the trail would be his tool. He led group hikes in 1977, '80
and '90, and this summer 14 people, ranging from college
students to senior citizens, are following him along the
undulating path to New England.
"Warren really is a philosopher-educator and is using the trail
as a metaphor," says Tom Steinmann, a Nashville producer who
made a film of Doyle's 1990 excursion. "I don't know how many
[hikes] he has to do to feel there's a completion to this
process, but I could see him doing this for the rest of his
life. Because it's really not just the through-hike. It's the
center point of everything that he's about."
On Doyle's four group hikes that are already in the books, 56 of
59 people gutted it out from beginning to end. That is an
astounding success rate, considering that 1,500 to 2,000 hikers
set out to do the full AT each year, and only about 200 finish.
"He knows every little nook and cranny along the trail that
could make it more enjoyable," says Jamie Keeble, a Virginia
schoolteacher who was on the 1990 trek. "Every swimming hole,
all-you-can-eat restaurant and ice cream stop."
Doyle preps his hikers with a series of grueling three-day
outings, some held two years before departure day. He passes
along practical tips, from the wisdom of a slow-but-steady pace
to his rule-of-thumb weather prognosis (expect 20% of the days
to be rainy, 20% dry, 20% hot, 20% cold, and 20% made-to-order
But the crux of Doyle's AT survival credo is a Three
Musketeerish sense of interdependence. Everybody puts in $300
to cover general expenses and camping fees. More important, 12
times en route to Maine, Doyle and company link hands and
pronounce their commitment to the cause: They'll hike every step
of the Appalachian Trail; they'll adhere to a strict schedule
that averages 17 miles a day; and, come hail or high water,
they'll make it to Katahdin as a team.
Doyle, who forgoes such amenities as sunglasses, suntan lotion,
pocket knife and underwear, doesn't demand that his compatriots
travel as lightly as he does. In order to squeeze the trip into
127 days and to give group members the advantage of toting day
packs, a support van hauls their main supplies. That luxury
offends some AT purists, as does Doyle's touchy-feely,
we-are-the-world hiking philosophy. But those who have trudged
the AT alongside Doyle swear by him and his circle.
Four months of enduring bug bites and blisters, of savoring
fresh blueberries and the blush of setting suns can leave a
lasting imprint on one's soul. "One of the things that it did
was awaken something in me: my connection with nature, the
community spirit,'' says Keeble. ''It did magnify to me how much
I really need people in my life.''
Keeble has felt AT euphoria once. Doyle is addicted. The trail
is in his blood. He keeps returning to it to get rejuvenated. He
aches for his two children this summer, but the trail beckons.
As always, he draws strength from his sore-footed friends and
rejoices at seeing the arc of a rainbow and hearing a loon's
wail. He will blubber like a new Miss America when at last he
stands again atop misty Mount Katahdin. And, as always, nothing
on the AT is exactly the same. "Every time I go out there I
learn more," says Doyle, "because I'm different every time I go."
He and his wife have split now. He is a little older and
creakier. His red trail beard shows streaks of gray. No
question, the Warren Doyle treading the Appalachian Trail this
summer is a changed man. This time he even packed three pairs of
Tom Dunkel, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a frequent
contributor to Sports Illustrated.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN T. ACERBI Doyle is a true minimalist, right down to his socks. [Warren Doyle Jr.]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN T. ACERBI Doyle's followers gain a new perspective on the world. [hikers on Appalachian Trail]