Hiking Pioneers: Bill Irwin and His Journey on the Appalachian Trail
Curated expert Hannah K. explores the life and legacy of Bill Irwin, the first blind person to hike the Appalachian Trail on their own.
In this edition of Hiking Pioneers, we explore the life of Bill Irwin—the first blind person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail on his own.
In the Hiking Pioneers series, I will be exploring hikers past to present who have done amazing things in the hiking community. From pioneers who achieved key milestones and helped establish change to present hikers breaking down barriers and setting goals, I’ll be deep-diving into the life, achievements, and legacy of these truly inspiring outdoorsmen and women.
Bill Irwin was born in 1940 in Alabama and graduated from Samford University with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Chemistry. As an adult, he became a teacher, chemist, and ultimately a founder of Birmingham Clinical Laboratories at the young age of 24.
Irwin was born sighted but at age 28, he lost his left eye due to a false diagnosis of malignant melanoma. He was a heavy drinker and smoker and eight years later, he went completely blind. In 1987 he became sober; his recovery was inspired by his son’s entry into a rehab treatment facility. He turned to Christianity, seeking guidance and stability. His focus on religion encouraged him to turn to the world of hiking as a way to spread how Christianity changed his life for the better.
His Appalachian Trail Experience
In 1990, at the age of 50, Bill and his guide dog Orient started the 2,100-mile trek along the Appalachian Trail. Walking this trail would prove his faith and serve as an act of devotion.
On the trail, Irwin and Orient became known as the “Orient Express,” as Irwin completely relied on his dog to follow the trail—which included high peaks, river crossings, and more. As they journeyed along, Irwin would stop in town and talk to children about religion, giving out more than 500 Bibles. His faith and his desire to share it were driving forces for Irwin on his trek.
His journey would end eight months later at the final point, the top of Mount Katahdin, Maine. Once reaching the final peak at 5,269 feet of elevation, reporters noted how he dropped to his knees and prayed. Although he didn’t intend to gain notoriety, when he shared his story in town when resupplying his food and gear, journalists caught wind of the story and followed his journey.
After his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Irwin co-authored Blind Courage with David McCasland and sold over 100,000 copies. Orient became the inspiration for a children’s book called Orient: Hero Dog Guide of the Appalachian Trail. Since then, many other blind hikers have completed thru-hikes of their own—inspired by Bill Irwin’s courage and his faith.
Years later, after hearing the story many times, Gabe Irwin—the grandson of Bill—hiked his own thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail with his childhood friend Justin Hamilton. During their trek, the pair found their place in the community of AT hikers but chose never to reveal who Gabe’s grandfather was. He didn’t want his grandfather’s legacy to influence his own adventure on the trail. Nevertheless, Gabe mentioned that every time he struggled or wanted to quit, he thought about how much harder the trail must have been for his grandfather. That thought alone helped him finish the trail atop Mount Katahdin, where Bill fell to his knees after completing the trail years prior.
Bill Irwin died in 2014 after a two-year battle with prostate cancer. His story lives on through his memoir and the hiking community members who aspire to follow his steps and push themselves outside of their comfort zones. I encourage us all to do the same.
If you’d like to connect with me about Bill Irwin or need help finding the right gear for your next adventure along the Appalachian Trail, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or the other Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated.