Gabe Irwin, grandson of the famous blind hiker Bill Irwin, completed the Appalachian Trail on Sunday, Sept. 8, reaching the trail’s northern end atop Katahdin. The long journey brought to life the family story he’s heard since he was a child, and opened his eyes to the enormity of his grandfather’s accomplishment.
“Even as someone who has hiked before, I didn’t realize how hard it would be,” said Gabe Irwin, 23, in a phone interview a day after he completed the trail. “I’d get to the top of a mountain and remember [my grandfather] and think about how much harder it must have been, which is certainly a motivation but also gave me a whole new respect for what he did.”
In 1990, Bill Irwin became the first blind person to hike the entire AT, a 2,190-mile hiking path that stretches from Georgia to Maine. During the trek, he relied solely on his German shepherd dog, Orient, for navigation.
The pair, known as “The Orient Express,” are trail legends.
This family story led Gabe Irwin of Boone, N.C., to dream about hiking the AT when he was just a kid. It was his answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I don’t think I could really grasp how long Georgia to Maine was [when I was a kid] or what spending almost half a year in the woods would really be like,” Gabe Irwin said. “But it’s one of the only goals that I clearly had since I was little.”
On April 7, 2019, it was time to live that dream. Joined by his childhood friend, Justin Hamilton, Gabe Irwin set out on the trail, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia.
He had prepared by tackling shorter trails, including the 567-mile Colorado Trail, yet right away, the AT presented him with challenges.
“The worst it got was literally the first night,” Gabe Irwin said. “I was so sore. We hiked too much and I was carrying way too much stuff, well into the 50 pound range.”
That first night on the trail, it rained and his tent leaked. The thought of hiking and camping in the woods for the next five months seemed like it would be “pretty rough,” but Gabe Irwin didn’t consider quitting. Instead, he thought of his grandfather.
A medical technologist and corporate manager from Burlington, N.C., Bill Irwin was 50 years old when he hiked the AT. He estimated that he fell thousands of times, racking up dozens of minor injuries. But he kept going, even though the trek took him about eight months.
“Going home to my family [without completing the trail] — It would have been a little embarrassing,” Gabe Irwin said with a laugh.
As he and his friend continued on the trail, things got easier and they found their place in the AT community.
As is tradition among long-distance hikers, the two adopted trail names. Gabe Irwin became “Muscles Marinara” and Hamilton became “Amish Built.” The stories behind these names are long and convoluted, as is often the case with trail names.
As Muscles Marinara, Gabe Irwin could have easily hiked the trail without anyone knowing of his connection with the famous Bill Irwin. He admits that he was worried about being “that guy that talks about his grandfather hiking the trail.” But over time, he began opening up to the hikers he met along the way, taking pride in his grandfather’s legacy.
“Most people just appreciated that being a big part of my motivation for being out there,” Gabe Irwin said. “Most people who were out there had heard of him before. He’s the niche kind of famous, I guess, within that community.”
Passing through 14 states, the AT follows the Appalachian Mountain Range, climbing up and over hundreds of mountains. In places where the trail became especially arduous or technical, Gabe Irwin would often think of his grandfather.
“It’s almost impossible to wrap my head around how a blind person could navigate his way with a dog,” he said. “It still baffles me.”
“A few times when it got kind of dark at night and I wasn’t hiking with my headlamp, I’d shut one eye and squint a bunch and think, ‘This might have been what it was kind of like, what he dealt with every day.’”
Bill Irwin died in 2014 at age 73, after a two-year battle with cancer, but his story lives on in his book, “Blind Courage,” first published in 1991. And it clearly lives on through his descendents.
When asked if he would write about his own experience of the trail, Gabe Irwin humbly replied that he isn’t sure that he’d have much to write.
“My grandfather’s motivations were very different [from mine.] He was very religious, so it was like a pilgrimage, a display of faith,” he said. “It was a big turning point in his life, whereas for me, I wanted to do it because of the seed he planted, but I didn’t have those motivations … I have simpler reasons for wanting to do it. I just wanted to be outside and follow in his footsteps.”