Warren Doyle and the life-changing magic of the Appalachian Trail

Meet the man who’s logged more than 38,000 miles on the AT and hiked the entire trail a total of 18 times—the informal record.
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Warren Doyle

Photography by Kevin Garrett

I am lost in the wilderness. Not “lost” in the desperate sense. My phone still shows 5G in case I need to drop a pin, and two bars if I want to make a call. (Does this thing have a compass, too?) And I know where I am: somewhere on a wooded ridgeline in the Cherokee National Forest near Shady Valley, Tennessee, not far from the North Carolina and Virginia borders. I’ve been snaking north from Cross Mountain toward Low Gap on a 6.5-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. But it’s early December, and layers of leaves have obscured the footpath. Unsure which way to turn, I scan tree trunks and rock faces for the signature Appalachian Trail (AT) blaze. Approximately 165,000 of these six-inch- tall white blazes mark the 2,190-plus miles of the AT between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Mount Katahdin, Maine. Right now, I need just one to point me toward the trailhead where I’m supposed to meet Warren Doyle.

Doyle has perhaps seen more white blazes than any other human in history, having logged more than 38,000 miles on the AT and hiked the entire trail a total of 18 times—the informal record (no governing body keeps official stats). He has also led 10 groups on the same journey. But perhaps most impressive, Doyle founded the Appalachian Trail Institute (ATI), an intensive five-day retreat during which he preps hikers who hope to thru-hike the AT themselves. He says that 75 percent of Institute graduates go on to complete the trail, compared to the overall 20 to 25 percent of the 3,000 people who attempt it every year.

“I appreciate how he focused on the emotional and mental aspect of the hike rather than the physical and getting all the best gear,” says Jennifer Pharr Davis, an ATI graduate who went on to become a long-distance hiker, speaker, author, and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. “He told everyone at the workshop that hiking the Appalachian Trail will change your life. It changed mine.”

It absolutely changed Doyle’s life. Perhaps that’s why I’m out here in the damp Appalachian chill, shuffling through leaf-covered stone amid a silence so heavy it breaks your heart. It was Doyle’s idea that I spend part of our day together out here alone. Maybe he knew the best way to know him was to meet the trail that has shaped him and come to define him.

After about 10 minutes scanning trees, I spot the faded white blaze on the trunk of a white oak and get back on track toward the trailhead where Doyle awaits.

The first time I ever saw the iconic white blaze was not on the trail, but hours before I set out on my solo hike. I had walked into a McDonald’s in Mountain City, Tennessee, a quiet town just a few miles west of the AT. Embroidered on a dark gray ballcap, the blaze led me to a scraggly bearded man with mud-crusted hiking boots sitting in a corner booth. “Welcome to the most egalitarian restaurant in the world,” Doyle said.

Doyle has perhaps seen more white blazes than any other human in history, having logged more than 38,000 miles on the AT and hiked the entire trail a total of 18 times—the informal record.

Photography by Kevin Garrett

This eatery and its many golden-arched siblings are Doyle’s offices, where he partakes of the inexpensive food, coffee, and free Wi-Fi. A retired college professor, Doyle took a vow of “practical poverty,” choosing to lead a low-budget lifestyle—from his cluttered 1993 Ford Tempo with a cracked windshield to his routine of shopping almost entirely at Dollar General (“the most egalitarian store in the world”). His 72-year-old body appears far from starving—full and strong from miles of walking as well as dancing, his favorite pastime. Any lingering doubt about the viability of such an existence is dispelled by a sly grin and narrowed blue eyes that combine to make you suspect Doyle knows something you don’t.

Doyle grew up in rural Fairfield County, Connecticut. But as a child, he watched as housing developments and corporate head-quarters slowly encroached, transforming his working-class home into middle-class suburbia. He saw the gravel road that ran by his childhood home paved over. “I told my mom, ‘When they put a yellow line down the center of this road and add streetlights, I’m out of here,’” he says.

One of his escapes as a teenager was the Appalachian Trail a few miles away. “It was just there,” he says. “I was awe-struck—and still am awestruck—by the mountains. It was more spiritual than recreational. Here was this quiet, simple place where you could just think to your heart’s content.” As a commuter student at Southern Connecticut State College, Doyle would go out on the AT for week-long backpacking treks at the start and end of each school year.

In his junior year of college, he began volunteering in the mountains of Jamaica, where he witnessed abject poverty. Returning stateside a few months later, he worked on a community development project in rural West Virginia, where he was astonished to see similarly meager living conditions here at home. He also met Appalachian poet and civil-rights and labor activist Don West, whose radical politics further colored Doyle’s perspective.

Young Doyle’s struggle to find his path in a world rife with injustice was going to require more than a week in the mountains to process. In the spring of 1973, 23-year-old Doyle set out for Springer Mountain with the aim of hiking the entire AT with nothing but a heavy pack, a two-quart canteen, and the growing weight of his social conscience. “I had a lot of questions,” he says. “I decided to go on a walkabout and discover who I was and who I wanted to be. I was going to use this challenging journey to tell me. Because unlike everything human-made, the trail knows no discrimination or prejudice, it doesn’t care if I’m Black or White, Jewish or Christian, if I went to Yale or what my family name is. It wasn’t going to grant me any favors.”

The AT snakes through 14 states, from rocky alpine ridges to thick sub-alpine forests, crossing rivers, valleys, and peaks as high as 6,643 feet (Clingman’s Dome in North Carolina). Over the past century of its existence, portions of the AT have been variously rerouted, relocated, eroded, flooded, landscaped, neglected, overtaken by nature, and reclaimed by humans. And depending on the season, the trail exposes hikers to just about every weather extreme nature can inflict: intense heat, bitter cold, gale-force winds, sleet, lightning, flash floods, and unabated sunlight.

AT trail map

Illustration by Scott Jessup

You could give the AT a personality, alternately comforting and demanding, compassionate and unyielding. But in the end, the way a hiker views the trail tends to be a reflection of themselves—what they bring along on their journey and what they decide to take on and jettison along the way.

Embarking on his maiden AT thru-hike in 1973, Doyle saw the trail as a rite of passage, a life-affirming journey into the wilderness. But the young striver in him also viewed it as a personal challenge. He set out to establish the record speed for completion, and so he did, averaging more than 30 miles a day to reach the summit of Katahdin in just over 66 days. But along the way, he was humbled by the tremendous freedom he experienced—not just the freedom from having to fight societal injustice, but freedom from having to be part of society at all. “There are fewer rules and regulations out there, and what regulations there are, you can disobey them if you feel they don’t apply to you,” he says.

“My mantra became, ‘If you can’t beat them, don’t join them.’ I stopped trying to change the world. It can make you an unhappy, cynical, and bitter person. I can’t change the world, but I don’t have to join it.”

But that didn’t mean Doyle intended to go it alone. Eager to share his experience and perspective, he led a group of 19 UConn students on a thru-hike of the AT in 1975. It was the birth of what he called “The Circle,” an all-for-one, one-for-all band of inexperienced hikers who vow to complete the epic journey together or not at all. That first expedition they did, all 19 of them, in 109 days. Doyle wrote his dissertation about the experience and would go on to lead nine more group expeditions between 1977 and 2017. Now he is pretty much done with those expeditions, but the Appalachian Trail Institute, which he launched in 1989, continues to this day. Held five times a year at the Appalachian Folk School in Mountain City— an aging farmhouse backed by scattered outbuildings and barracks—the ATI is a sort of boot camp for serious hikers who feel they’re ready to undertake the entire AT (and instructor Doyle has never hesitated to tell a student when he disagrees).

“My mantra became, ‘If you can’t beat them, don’t join them.’ I stopped trying to change the world. It can make you an unhappy, cynical, and bitter person. I can’t change the world, but I don’t have to join it.”

Photography by Kevin Garrett

The knowledge he shares comes from his many personal journeys on the AT and his efforts to winnow down his gear more and more with each excursion. On one trip, Doyle made the entire trek with a single pair of socks. He drinks from the streams and creeks like the other wildlife. He has been known to wear garage-sale sneakers, carry a secondhand backpack, lean on used ski poles, and sleep in a cheap sleeping bag. He has subsisted on cookies, Little Debbie snack cakes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Doyle’s ATI graduates often cite his warning that the gear isn’t the only thing weighing a hiker down. “You carry your fear, and fear is weight,” says Jennifer Pharr Davis. “On the trail, it means that if you’re scared of being hungry, you probably carry too much food. Afraid of danger? You probably have too many things for protection. Scared of the cold? You’re carrying too much clothing. It’s a great concept in life as well as on the trail.”

At 72, Doyle is still physically capable, but his thru-hiking days may be behind him. In recent years, he has noticed the society he’s long avoided starting to invade his sacred trail in alarming numbers. Between 1936 and 1969, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recorded 59 hikers who completed the entire trail. In 2018 alone, 6,532 people set out to thru-hike and 1,128 succeeded. And across all 14 states, recreational use of the trail skyrocketed during the pandemic—bringing in new generations of green hikers.

But none of that bothers Doyle nearly as much as what he views as the accompanying increase in government regulation. True to his anti-establishment politics, Doyle has always bristled against the rules. In 1979, he was arrested for climbing Mount Katahdin (which was against the law at that time) and spent a night in jail rather than pay a $25 fine. In the 1990s, the Conservancy had to remove a bathtub Doyle had placed in a Virginia stream. And the ruling bodies and other prominent self-appointed guardians of the AT have frequently chided him for his unorthodox methods, such as leading groups to ford rivers and other practices they deem unsafe. Doyle has always prided himself on questioning any officer or ranger who tries to impinge on his freedom. “I won’t challenge their legal authority,” he says. “But I challenge their moral authority. I engage them in a conversation. And many times, I’ve changed their minds.”

Today, Doyle spends more time organizing and calling contra dances, a folk dance in which couples (often strangers) line up across from one another and follow the caller’s instructions. “It’s a contradiction to his appearance, as he eats too much McDonald’s, but he’s one of the most physically adept and graceful humans I’ve ever met—the trail is still a dance,” says Pharr Davis. “But through sharing the dance and the trail, I think Warren is searching for what most of us are searching for: positive connection. Connection to outdoors and to the trail community. He feels the community connection more powerfully when dancing and smiling and looking in people’s eyes.”

Doyle feels the community connection more powerfully when dancing and smiling and looking in people’s eyes.”

Photography by Kevin Garrett

Before he sent me off by myself to get lost in the woods, Doyle walked about a mile with me from the Cross Mountain trailhead. The path starts out across an open hilltop field, fenced in on both sides by a farmer who built special wooden steps to keep livestock in while letting hikers through. As we reached the top of the hill, through the leafless tree line, we could see the shadowy Iron Mountains. Fences or no, Doyle still refers to the view as the “Geography of Hope.” He still sees freedom in the landscapes of the trail.

Along the way, we encountered several hikers and runners, and Doyle made a point to speak with every one of them, ask where they’re from and what brought them there. One of the first was a runner in black leggings and a bright red jacket. He wore glasses and the look of dejection. Doyle stopped, leaned on his ski pole, and asked him what was wrong.

“I’m getting over a respiratory disease I had for like a month,” said the runner. “So, I’m feeling pretty rough.” He explained how he wanted to get back in shape to venture farther out on the trail. “You ever do the whole thing?”

“I have,” said Doyle.

“I’d love to do something like that.”

“Well,” said Doyle. “The trail will always be here for you.”

WARREN DOYLE’S QUOTABLE QUOTES (INTERPRETED)

“It’s less painful to be a smart hiker than a strong hiker.” — You have more chance of injuring yourself if you are packing too much or trying to go too fast. Bring only what you truly need, take your time, and watch your step.

“Fear is weight.” — When it comes to lightening your load, you’ll need to confront your deepest fears about the AT and make both mental and physical adjustments. The less you fear the cold or hunger, the fewer layers or provisions you’ll need to carry.

“Concentrate more on thoughts than things.” — In general, hikers spend too much time preparing physically and materially and not enough time steeling their minds and emotions for the long, arduous, and soul-stirring journey.

“Whys are more important than hows or whats.” — Ask yourself why you are out doing this thing that is often slow and uncomfortable. Are you trying to prove something to yourself or others? Or is it for the love of the experience? (If your answer is “experience,” you’re on the right track.)

“If you get to your desired destination, you’ll have your journey as well.” — Too often, hikers try to rationalize that their hike is about the journey, giving them an excuse to quit before they reach their intended end point. No matter the goal you set for yourself, focus on achieving it and the rest of the experience will fall into place.

BEST SOUTHERN HIKES ON THE AT
The southern half of the Appalachian Trail offers scenic and historic trails for hikers of every skill level and disposition. Here are our picks for the day hiker, the weekend warrior, and the long-distance trailblazer.

ONE DAY
West Virginia—The state has only four miles of AT, but this brief section is chock-full of history. The trail passes through Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, site of John Brown’s abolitionist rebellion and home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters and visitor center. There’s so much to see and learn, you’ll want a full day to cover those four miles.

ONE WEEKEND
Great Smoky Mountains National Park—More than 71 miles of AT take you through the most breathtaking bends and coves of Tennessee and North Carolina. Pick a stretch from: 1) Fontana Dam to the Rocky Top overlook; 2) Rocky Top to the stone fire tower atop Mount Cammerer; or 3) the tower to Clingman’s Dome, which at 6,643 feet is the highest point on the entire trail.

ONE WEEK
Georgia—If you have time and want to get a real taste of the AT, why not start at the beginning, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia? From the southernmost white blaze at Springer Mountain, you can walk amid the pine-filled forest of Three Forks Valley to the beautiful cascades of Long Creek Falls. By the time you’ve trekked to the state line, you should have a decent idea whether you want to someday go farther.

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This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Southbound.

 

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