"I'm not spending 127 days away from loved ones for something as frivolous as recreation," he says. But Doyle's introduction to the outdoors was just that: He did run-of-the-mill backpacking in Vermont and New Hampshire while attending Southern Connecticut State. Then, while he was working one summer as a volunteer in the mountains of Jamaica and another in the hills of Appalachia, his slumbering social conscience stirred. In 1973, at 23, Doyle decided he needed a rigorous challenge, "something that had no material reward, no trophy, no cheerleaders, nothing like that."
He settled on doing a solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail and completed the trip from Georgia to Maine in the then record time of 66 days, dropping 32 pounds along the way. Doyle was in graduate school at Southern Connecticut State at the time, pursuing a doctorate in education. Upon his return he did day hikes on the Connecticut portion of the AT with friends, among them his wife, Ginger, and out of those forays sprang the notion of writing his dissertation on the interaction of a group of hikers navigating the entire trail.
In 1975 Doyle led—and he uses the term loosely—a party of 19 hikers from Georgia to Maine. Although group pilgrimages were virtually unheard of on the AT, everyone made it.
Doyle had discovered what amounted to his calling. Rather than change the world, he would try to change how people look at it, and the trail would be his tool. He led group hikes in 1977, '80 and '90, and this summer 14 people, ranging from college students to senior citizens, are following him along the undulating path to New England.
"Warren really is a philosopher-educator and is using the trail as a metaphor," says Tom Steinmann, a Nashville producer who made a film of Doyle's 1990 excursion. "I don't know how many [hikes] he has to do to feel there's a completion to this process, but I could see him doing this for the rest of his life. Because it's really not just the through-hike. It's the center point of everything that he's about."
On Doyle's four group hikes that are already in the books, 56 of 59 people gutted it out from beginning to end. That is an astounding success rate, considering that 1,500 to 2,000 hikers set out to do the full AT each year, and only about 200 finish.
"He knows every little nook and cranny along the trail that could make it more enjoyable," says Jamie Keeble, a Virginia schoolteacher who was on the 1990 trek. "Every swimming hole, all-you-can-eat restaurant and ice cream stop."
Doyle preps his hikers with a series of grueling three-day outings, some held two years before departure day. He passes along practical tips, from the wisdom of a slow-but-steady pace to his rule-of-thumb weather prognosis (expect 20% of the days to be rainy, 20% dry, 20% hot, 20% cold, and 20% made-to-order lovely).
But the crux of Doyle's AT survival credo is a Three Musketeerish sense of interdependence. Everybody puts in $300 to cover general expenses and camping fees. More important, 12 times en route to Maine, Doyle and company link hands and pronounce their commitment to the cause: They'll hike every step of the Appalachian Trail; they'll adhere to a strict schedule that averages 17 miles a day; arid, come hail or high water, they'll make it to Katahdin as a team.
Doyle, who forgoes such amenities as sunglasses, suntan lotion, pocket knife and underwear, doesn't demand that his compatriots travel as lightly as he does. In order to squeeze the trip into 127 days and to give group members the advantage of toting day packs, a support van hauls their main supplies. That luxury offends some AT purists, as does Doyle's touchy-feely, we-are-the-world hiking philosophy. But those who have trudged the AT alongside Doyle swear by him and his circle.