Warren Doyle at the Connecticut Forest & Park Association

Appalachia journal

Warren Doyle’s rules for long-distance group hikes

Warren Doyle, age 60, has a crush on Little Debbie, the snack cake girl. His favorite thing to do is to eat a Little Debbie cosmic brownie as he sets out on a cold morning to walk one of his 20- to 30-mile stints. The brownie won’t melt and tastes so good when he is in motion. The memories of those trudges while chomping are so strong that any reminder of Little Debbie snack cakes excites him. “I think the sensation of seeing a Little Debbie truck go by me on the highway—it makes my heart beat faster. I drive a little bit faster,” he said.

Cosmic brownies—flour, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, sugar, dextrose, cocoa, and fluorescent “candy toppers”—are his staff of life. They fuel his college teaching, the mountain adventures he does solo, and his self-styled guided trips of the Appalachian Trail. He seems to operate in a series of energy bursts beyond what most people could stand.

Until 2008, when he began to slow down a bit, a typical weekend road trip for him would be to drive in one stretch to Maine or New Hampshire from Virginia or North Carolina (where he lived more recently) or the mountains of Tennessee (where he just bought a house). Without pausing to sleep, he would then walk dozens of miles in the mountains, then pick up some junk food and drive home after a few hours of rest.

All this joie de vivre brings on a smile. But there is another side of Doyle that has made me shake my head, and last winter I set out to understand it. Along with his fun-loving nature, Doyle is one of the most demanding group leaders most people would ever see in the backcountry. He is also one of the most successful, in that almost no one he leads on long-distance treks gives up. Doyle agreed to try to explain to me his firm rules that, since 1975, have helped fervent disciples from age 19 to 60-something complete seven group hikes of the entire AT, 2,100-plus miles from Georgia to Maine. Spring and summer 2010, he was planning to take an eighth group on the journey. The long distances he can inspire new hikers to achieve are practically unbelievable. He motivates them to do what he has been doing himself in the Sierras and along the Eastern seaboard since the early 1970s. That is, to go all out, covering 20 to 30 miles daily for months, far more than most people think is reasonable.

I MET DOYLE IN CONNECTICUT THROUGH THE COINCIDENCE OF TIMING of one of his super road trips. Last New Year’s Eve, he and his wife, Terry, drove from North Carolina to Connecticut to visit her family. Doyle too has roots in Connecticut, although his father, Warren Doyle Sr., a retired toll taker on the Connecticut Turnpike, died last year. They had already driven up and back the previous week—spending Christmas in the north and racing home to a contra-dance festival. By a few days after New Year’s, he was waiting for me in the library of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association along Route 66 in Middlefield, Connecticut. Doyle was wearing a navy blue fleece jacket, nylon pants, and wingtip shoes. The shoes are his contra-dancing shoes. Family needs had led him to cancel a plan to drive to Maine, climb Katahdin, and sleep on the summit. He didn’t suggest that we go hiking and neither did I. I was taking his cue. Perhaps I fell under the spell of Warren Doyle speaking quietly from behind his giant beard.

A short hike wouldn’t have fit the man, anyway. Doyle does not believe in walking a few miles and then contemplating the vegetation while dinner cooks, as Thoreau did. Doyle believes that pushing hard, to the absolute wall where his physical capabilities stop, transforms anyone willing to try, even flabby milquetoasts, into strong people—strong physically, strong of mind—who know what they believe and who will never again mince words, tell white lies, or follow the wrong impulses.

Doyle himself became such a person, an authentic person he might say, in 1973, when he hiked the AT from Springer Mountain in northwest Georgia to Katahdin in central Maine in 66 days while a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. He had prepared for this with a mistakes-filled end-to-end hike of the Long Trail with a friend in 1972; it proved to him that he could go long distances in the woods. The thru-hike was supposed to be a summer challenge. Doyle was intensely motivated as a student, as he had been in everything he’d done since he was 13 and his older sister died of a sudden brain aneurysm. Until that day, he said he had gone about with an imaginary “M” on his chest: M for mediocrity. But after she died, he did not want to disappoint his parents.

The University of Connecticut education department had, he said, hoped he would become their youngest PhD graduate. At age 23, he had received a grant to do his dissertation on elementary students in northern Vermont. But his study plans disintegrated when he discovered long-distance hiking. He wanted to do more out-of-the-realm adventures, this time as a leader. When he returned to UConn after his AT hike, he told his professors that he had changed his mind about his dissertation topic. He didn’t want to study elementary students in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He wanted to take a group of college students on a 2,100-mile hike and write about how it changed them. His department, he said, called him in to say he had disgraced them. He lost his grant. He did go on to lead another AT hike in 1975 with a group of UConn students, and he wrote his dissertation, “An Outdoor Challenge Experience and the Affective Development of College Students” (1981).

What the now Dr. Doyle had done was become a grassroots rebel guide. After he completed his first long hike, “It was a relief. I also felt that I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody else anymore in my life. Especially to society’s expectations.” His brand of speed is the tortoise’s. He moves at about 2 miles an hour, but he starts before sunrise and keeps going until about 9 P.M. on most days. He can cover 30 miles in one day at 2 miles an hour by walking in this way, and he knows that others who have the desire can do this, too.

For the rest of his adult life, he has lived in these bursts of energy and love of hiking. As a college teacher, first at George Mason University near Washington, D.C., and more recently at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, he has incorporated the eastern mountains into many of his courses. He ran an outdoor center while at George Mason, and today he invites students of his “Appalachian Trail Institute” to his house near the trail in Tennessee.

He and his first wife separated in 1989 and were divorced in 1995, but he has been a hands-on father. His daughter, Heather, is a dancer in Washington, D.C. He calls her work “industrial dance.” His son, Forest, is working toward a master’s degree in library science. He took his children hiking. “My son finished the trail at 14 on one of the expeditions. The jury’s still out on whether that was a blessing or a curse.” He said he told them when they were little that they should not feel obligated to do as much hiking as he did, although his goal was to make them comfortable in the outdoors. Forest went with him on one of his “Damascus by dawn” hikes and got farther than his father. Doyle remembered buying Forest a can of an herbal energy drink called Dr. Enough.

His second wife, Terry, is a community college teacher. They met at a contra-dance in Saratoga Springs, New York, and have been married for seven years. When Doyle gives out a cell phone number, he gives Terry Doyle’s number. That’s because he doesn’t carry a cell phone.

Doyle can grate on people.  Anyone who knows him says one either loves him or hates him. Those who love him point to a kind of magic he gives off. Somehow, this round-profiled, soft-spoken, waterfall-sliding, sled-riding teacher gives off an activist’s skepticism of society’s rules (like group camping restrictions in national parks, for instance). He scoffs at signs saying it’s dangerous to ford the Kennebec River in Maine, and on a rare day off, he likes to “movie stealth”—pay for one movie at a multiplex but continue sneaking into movies all day. One of his hiking protégées, Ray Kepler, told the story of Doyle eating food people had left behind at a restaurant; when Kepler teased him that he wasn’t being a good role model, Doyle said, “I’ll show you what a good role model is,” and lay down and started rolling around on the restaurant floor.

Doyle said he believes that the official maintainers of the AT, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, don’t love him because he is a bit of an outlaw. A bathtub he submerged in a stream in Virginia in the 1980s, for instance, later was removed. Doyle criticized such fastidiousness within earshot of a major interstate highway. But overall, ATC spokesman Brian King said, Doyle has inspired hikers, even if his reach today isn’t as broad as that of those who have written books. “Before there were so many books and now Internet forums, his was the only concentrated thru-hiking ‘classroom’ out there,” King wrote in an email, “and he does love the trail. Aside from the institute, I don’t see how the expeditions would work—that many people together for that period on a set schedule—if the participants didn’t want to follow his lead.”

Stronger than his minor league outlaw side is his spiritual dynamism. Those who see that in him respond to his request that they commit—commit everything they have to walking farther than they are sure they can do. On his trips, Doyle schedules periodic ceremonies of sorts in which anyone in the group can “join the circle.” Joining the circle means more than hiking along with the support van. It means committing to finishing the whole AT, no matter what, barring death and serious emergency at home. It means committing to being a part of Warren Doyle’s circle, his schedule, and his route. He drives that message home, but, as they slog to make it, he’s not often underfoot. During the day, his protégées might not see him at all; frequently Doyle is hiking a double hike of what the rest are doing. That is, he will cover the 20 or so miles they’re doing and also turn around and walk it in the other direction, trudging into camp at 9 P.M. He leads, therefore, by setting rules and by example.

IT MIGHT CATCH ON AS A HOW-TO MOVEMENT: Transformation is available to anyone who puts one foot in front of the other, at 2 miles per hour, in all conditions, on the leader’s schedule. Doyle does not think so. He is getting tired of hiking; this year’s group hike of the AT was to be his last, not only because he’s a little older now, although his ample girth still defies his endurance. He said he doesn’t find the same community on trails as he once did. He used to like 100 percent of the people he met on the trails. Now he likes about 60 percent. Doyle often expresses his level of commitment and enthusiasm in percentages, and he asks others to do the same. A week after I saw him, he would send out an email to the group asking each to rate his or her “percentage” likelihood they would still set out in April.

Not only is he planning to retire from leading disciples on epic mountain adventures. He said he has not left a legacy except in the particular individuals he trained and led on the trips. He said he does not believe that anyone could take his place. Which suggests that what he has people do will never become more than something for a few rare men and women. “It’ll never be, again,” he said.

Then he quoted Edward Abbey, “The expectations will never be the same. ‘Obey little, resist much.’” I asked him when the outdoor guru Abbey said or wrote that, and he didn’t know. It turns out that Walt Whitman said, “Resist much, obey little,” and Abbey invoked this line so often that his followers have always associated it with him.

One thing long-distance walkers in Doyle’s groups must do, however, is to obey his rules. He calls them expectations. There are three firm ones.
The first expectation is that everyone will walk the entire distance from Georgia to Maine without deviating off the marked route of the AT. Skipping sections or taking shortcuts—“there’s enough of that in regular life. Corporate bailouts.” On a Doyle expedition, there are no alternate routes.

The second expectation is that everyone will start and finish at the same time. Doyle makes the schedule, and everyone agrees to follow that schedule. Every day is planned, where they will start, where their support van will meet them with their gear and food at night. The eighth and last group hike out this year will be gone for 127 days, or just under four months. He already knew before they left for the first day that on Day 96, the expedition would take its first rest day, in Hanover, New Hampshire. While the others rested, Doyle would go to the Dartmouth library to plan his fall classes. Doyle is an assistant professor of education at Lees-McRae. Why such a rush? It’s a practical matter. He said that his first groups in 1975 were all UConn students who could take only the summer off. Most who hike the entire AT take longer than four months, and just as likely five or six. But this year he, like many of his group, still did not have that luxury. He knew he would have to get back to work in early September. Four months is all they can take. For working people, it’s four months away from a paying job, four months’ worth of health insurance, four months’ mortgage payments, and so forth.

I don’t even think to ask him why they don’t consider logging fewer miles, why they don’t make up their own route, why it always has to be the federally designated AT and why they would not invent their own challenges. I’m under his spell, remember?

THE THIRD EXPECTATION IS THAT NO ONE WILL QUIT. EVERYONE WHO STARTS WILL FINISH.  Amazingly, only one person has ever broken this rule on a Doyle adventure. Walkers from their 20s to their 60s have stuck with the program. “One of the younger people said, ‘It takes all of us to succeed and it takes one of us to fail,’” Doyle said.

Doyle said the reason everyone who starts finishes, and all of them go the entire way together, without deviating from the route, is that he has weeded out those who wouldn’t or couldn’t do it well before the first day. Over two and a half to three years preceding each group expedition, Doyle requires that they complete preparation hikes of 17- to 20-mile days. A typical practice walk in the months leading to the actual adventure would consist of three days of 20-plus miles each carrying loaded backpacks. That, he notes, is more difficult than the actual long-distance hike, when they will be carrying day packs and hiking to meet a van each night. Five months before setting out for the 2010 expedition, eighteen or nineteen people were still “in the circle.”

Doyle insists he is no drill sergeant. The key to success is preparation. “The whole purpose of the preparation hike is so you don’t have to deal with that. I’ve been doing 17- to 20-mile preparation hikes over two and a half to three years. This particular one is 17 days of preparation spread over two years. That’s why we’ve had 100 percent completion rates. Colin Fletcher said, ‘There is nothing like time to determine if your dream is still a realistic one.’”

When Doyle returned to North Carolina in mid-January, he planned to send out an email to his group. He would ask “how they’re changing or moving closer or moving away.” He said he knew ahead of time what many of the responses would be. “What I’ll find is there will be a few people who will say they’re dropping out. One woman lost her job. We have four people in their 50s counting on leaves of absence.” Others might decide they aren’t up to the mileage or simply feel it’s all too much. Doyle’s two years’ preparation time weeded out those with doubts so that he would not have to deal with those kinds of backwoods showdowns hike leaders know well: Someone loses it, maybe starts crying, says this was a mistake, says he’s getting out. Doyle’s circles stay intact because they include only those who were tough enough to put up with, for example, a three-day, 67-mile practice hike over rocks in Pennsylvania—the last practice hike this group went through.

He doesn’t cheerlead them, although he said he has taken that approach with urban children he’s taken on day hikes, which is to him a much-different challenge. No, he says really unsympathetic–sounding things to his long-distance groups as they get in shape.

When someone’s having a really bad day on the trail during a practice trip, what does he say? “I don’t say anything. If someone is having a bad day, I’ll usually say at the end of the hike: ‘This isn’t as bad as it is going to be.’ I don’t paint a rosy picture. I’ll say, ‘We didn’t have any rain,’ or ‘When we actually hike this, it will be hot, with bugs.’”

Ray Kepler, a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia, hiked with Doyle in 1990. He corroborated the story that Doyle doesn’t sugarcoat: “He once said, ‘One third of the days are going to be hot, one third will be rainy, and one third will be nice. You will hurt, you will be in pain.” Kepler said the practice hikes were some of the hardest days of his life. “But you knew what was coming,” he said. “He’s just very honest about what to expect. He taught us what to expect and how to avoid getting into situations that would put us in pain and discomfort.”

Only one of the three expectations does Doyle think another leader could duplicate: the first one, which he rates at a 50-percent chance that another leader will get a group to follow the marked route from Georgia to Maine. The second expectation, he said, another person has a 25-percent chance of carrying through. The third, unlikely. As he inspires them to be individuals, he also believes that no one can replace him.

This isn’t recreation, he said. This is social change. Doyle would seem like a military boot-camp instructor or a politician except that he is more like a classic 1960s hippie, one with high standards and an achievement streak. What he is, without a doubt, is a teacher. He had a mentor named Don West at the Center for Appalachian Studies who taught him that change comes at the grassroots level. This is what Doyle preaches to his students in the woods and in the classroom. Some of his most devoted followers appreciate his spunk. “My hiking is a political statement,” he said. “Oh, yes. This is the way life should be and this is the way life can be. When people go on this, when they come back, they’re awake. When people come back and they’ve had this beautiful experience, the old have helped the young, and they hear the Harvard [president] saying women are inferior to men because of their brain size . . . and they hear the president of the United States say these three nations are an axis of evil, they’ll say ‘No.’”

Like any good teacher, he makes his lessons and his adventures memorable. The long-distance groups create “the circle.” He has scrambled to the top and sledded down the highest points in the six New England states and New York State in a few days’ time. He calls that challenge the “winter wipeout.” He has many times completed or attempted a 64-mile hike into Damascus, Virginia, a small town through which the AT routes near the North Carolina border. He calls this long trudge, with no stopping to sleep, “Damascus by dawn.”

“He feels so strongly that it’s important to commit to things,” said Charles Dona, who as an undergraduate at George Mason University met Doyle and signed up for his 1990 group hike of the AT. “His success rate is tremendous. You’re not carrying heavy backpacks, but you’ve got that emotional burden: If it’s raining, or I don’t feel like hiking, you don’t have the option. People say, ‘Why would you want to do it? You have no flexibility.’ It can be very regimented if you look at it that way. But I chose to look at it as a freeing.”

The one weakness Doyle freely admits to is that he loves to eat and that he lacks discipline in that area. He eats one or two Little Debbie cosmic brownies at a time when he’s hiking. He also survives on beef jerky, gorp, pop tarts, and, when in town, restaurant food. “That’s my one lack of discipline. I don’t, quote, eat the way you’re supposed to. I have a stupid rationalization: Oh, I’ll lose weight.” He loses about 35 pounds during a long-distance AT hike. “I say, well, you know, if I’m carrying this much weight above my knees I can lose weight and my legs won’t know. It’s pure rationalization.” He has no weakness, though, for disciplining his emotional side. He said, “The greatest gift the trail has given me is it made me lose my emotional fat, the dense mechanism that keeps us from expressing our true emotions.”

The year I first saw Doyle, when I was a thru-hiker taking a day off in Damascus, he had just abandoned one of his “Damascus by dawn” attempts. I went up to talk to him outside a church-run hostel behind the town diner. He was standing in his grimy T-shirt, smiling widely, saying, “Well, I had to abandon it. I had the dry heaves at Vandeventer Shelter.” That was a dozen miles out of town. He had just hiked about 48 miles and gotten sick, and he was beaming.

When I first called Doyle to work on this article, he insisted to me that he had not been in Damascus that year, that he couldn’t have met me because he had not gone to what later evolved into a yearly hikers’ festival in that town through which the AT is routed near the North Carolina border. We debated this for a few minutes before I realized that I did not have to win an argument. I was, after all, a former AT thru-hiker who had nothing to prove to anyone, who doesn’t care about winning, wasn’t that so? But, strangely enough, we got into this a bit. I told him that I knew it had to be 1987 because I had been working 12-hour days the year before I saw him, and the following year, I was pregnant and had not traveled south of New Jersey. I had been to Damascus exactly once in my life. Also, I was telling him things about himself that he knew I didn’t dream up. I told him he’d had the dry heaves at Vandeventer Shelter and had had to abandon his “Damascus by dawn” attempt. As he began to concede that he must have met me in Damascus, as he sat talking with me in early January, he did not say, “You’re right. I was mistaken.” He just said, “Oh—the dry heaves! The dry heaves. The dry heaves.” He remembered. And that was enough for me.


About This Article

While planning the summer/fall 2010 issue of Appalachia I realized that Warren Doyle, on whom I’d first lain eyes when I was an exhausted thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, would provide a twist on the issue’s theme of motivating young people. I therefore assigned myself the third of three articles on the question of how to inspire the next generation of adventurers.

Doyle is no cheerleader when he leads long-distance treks. His style is part what you might call jab-jab-jab, almost military in the way he demands commitment. But it’s also part inspiration. He’s a soldier/guru/junk food lover. Definitely unique. This article appeared in Appalachia magazine number 230, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Subscribe to Appalachia here.

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