Skywalker Discusses Sixteen-Time Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker, Warren Doyle
“There is nothing Warren likes more than watching a hiker who is vomiting, to then stand up and start hiking again.” I offered this quote from a longtime friend of Warren Doyle’s in my Appalachian Trail narrative, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. I had been taking Warren’s Appalachian Trail Institute class, which helps ready wannabe’ thru-hikers for the long journey ahead. Given that Warren has hiked the entire 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail sixteen times and counting, he presumably would have a lot to offer. He did. I won’t say that it was all the most recommendable advice, but you had to hand it to him–he told us what he was really thinking.
“The trail is about discomfort, rather than comfort,” he repeated on several occasions. “In that respect, it’s the opposite of your daily lives.” That, needless to say, was an understatement. And well worth stating on his part to prepare us for the months ahead we would spend walking in the rain, shivering in tents on the hard ground, fighting bugs and fatigue, and trying to stanch weight loss.
“The two things that knock people off the trail are carrying too much weight and trying to go too fast,” he said. It quickly became obvious that the former–going lightweight–was an utter obsession. “A tarp is a no-brainer,” he opined. Well that was debatable. But yes, it would reduce your weight; and given that I’m 7-feet tall and don’t fit in any one-person tent, I was amenable to such counsel. As for going too fast, the AT is clearly a stamina test, not a speed race.
Overall, Warren’s class clearly helped get me in a proper frame of mind for the ‘root-canal’ that lay ahead. “It’s a matter of how much you want to get there,” he plainly stated. “If the trail is less difficult than you expected that very first week, you will probably complete the journey.” Indeed, participants in his class have a completion rate around 80%, while the trail average for wannabe’ thru-hikers is about 25%.
Of course, those who spend a lot of time on the AT, or immersed in its community, know that Warren is quite the controversial figure. His bete noire, eight-time AT thru-hiker, Baltimore Jack, is more of an insider. Jack’s ‘Billville’ hiking group is highly critical of the iconoclastic, even roguish, ways of Warren on the AT. “It’s like a giant playground out there,” Warren is fond of saying about the 2,180 miles of the AT. Indeed, he is renowned for such tics as insisting that unless you ford the Kennebec River (which has a canoe for hikers with a white blaze on it), then you really haven’t thru-hiked the AT. He is also known to jump off the bridge over the Connecticut River leading into Hanover, N.H. And his antics in restaurants in which he eats off the so-called ‘leftover menu’ (beating busboys to uneaten food) have drawn harsh criticism from Baltimore Jack and others of damaging the image of the hiker community in the eyes of the public (“Next time you’re waiting for two hours in the rain trying to hitch a ride, you’ll know why.”).
But the truth is that the more I have seen of Warren over the years, the more I have become convinced that he simply has a low-boredom threshold. He often takes these seemingly inexplicable actions for the simple purpose of stirring himself and others up. As far as I can tell, while he may be a self-centered individual, he is not a bad person. In fact, he and Baltimore Jack seem more like Shakespearean characters. Maybe that’s to be expected in a community of now millions of people who have hiked extensively on this great national scenic trail. Given the flowery stories and rich community that has developed, Warren and Jack are more of assets to the trail community, than liabilities. For the Appalachian Trail is much more than a mere footpath in the woods.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, and Getting High–the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.