It's a weird claim to fame, but Warren Doyle Jr. probably holds the record for the fewest socks used while hiking all 2,157.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail: one pair.
Doyle, a 45-year-old American studies professor and director of the Outdoor Education Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., accomplished that odoriferous feat in the spring and summer of 1990, when he made his fifth through-hike from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine. And he has walked the entire trail in bits and pieces four other times. "He's on the trail more than anybody," says Jean Cashin, who represents the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Doyle squeaked by on one pair of his own socks in 1990 by helping himself to stray ones left behind by other hikers. Although this brought with it the indignity of wearing mismatched hosiery, in Doyle's mind it proved an important point: You don't need lots of clothing and fancy gear to conquer the AT. "I want to turn facts into myths and myths into facts," says Doyle, who left his home in Clifton, Va., on April 29 to knock off through-hike number 6, which should be history by Labor Day. "We have to question who's telling us what we need and why are they telling us."
You think top-of-the-line waterproof boots are necessary? Big myth. Doyle wears sneakers that he picks up for a buck a pair at garage sales. They go nicely with his secondhand backpack and five & dime sleeping bag. Think a famished body needs to be refueled with hot meals? Another myth. Doyle doesn't even carry a mess kit, choosing instead to subsist largely on cookies and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Afraid to drink the water on the trail? Shucks, says Doyle, a little giardia never hurt anybody. If a muddy stream is good enough for deer, it's good enough for him.
"He strips things down to the essentials, and then he removes a few of those," says Frank Logue of Rome, Ga., a member of the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, which Doyle founded 12 years ago. "Warren may well be the Abbie Hoffman of the Appalachian Trail."
Doyle doesn't look like a revolutionary—or, for that matter, a marathon hiker. A disobedient shock of thinning hair tops a face that frequently sports a nervous jack-o'-lantern smile. Doyle has a doughy belly, short arms and a rolling gait that evokes visions of a boardwalk cop walking the beat with a chili dog in hand.
But make no mistake: Doyle dearly loves hiking the AT, questioning authority and speaking his mind. The Appalachian Trail came under federal control in 1968 with the passage of the National Trails System Act, which expedited the acquisition of surrounding land. Only 44 miles of the AT remain privately owned, and Doyle is miffed. A lifetime member of the ATC, but also a lifelong prickly individualist, he rails against the government's right of eminent domain. "I don't see why it can't be a matter of a farmer's handshake," says Doyle. "To me the point of the trail is trust."
Doyle doesn't applaud when stretches of the AT are relocated around expanding cities and towns. He considers the jumble of wilderness, history and society to be part of the trail's special charm. Nor does he cotton to the closing of chunks of the trail during forest fires, or to rangers posting signs about unsafe drinking water. Too many rules. Too much meddling with nature, Doyle says.
"I think Warren would like to believe all people are basically good-hearted and would love the trail, and you wouldn't have to manage it," says Brian King, the ATC's director of public relations. "There would be no rules, because people would bring their own rules. But that's not the way it is."
Doyle pleads guilty to being a romantic. One of his favorite poems is Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road, which contains the lines, "You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all/that is here, I believe that much unseen is also here." No wonder Doyle thinks a through-hike on the AT is the wisest possible use of several months' time. Such a venture is not merely a matter of paying overdue attention to the way the sun slants through Virginia pines or the lullaby of rain on a tent roof. It's a chance to shed the constricting skin of routine, to assess a life in progress. It involves committing oneself to a goal and disciplining the mind to overcome discomfort and fatigue and all those PB-&-J sandwiches. In short, Doyle's hikes aren't simply walks in the woods.