The Orient Express

Bill Irwin dies at 73; first blind hiker of Appalachian Trail
By Richard Evans

As a former part of the long distance hiking community, I had a chance to meet Bill Irwin, who had the incredible courage and audacity to hike the Appalachian Trail as a blind man in 1990.  As I took up backpacking after breaking my neck in 1991, he was an inspiration to my own goals and dreams.  Mr. Irwin passed away on March 1 as we were electing our provisional bishop.

In this season of Lent, I'm drawn to stories like this, especially since one of the most challenging parts of the Appalachian Trail passes right through the Diocese of Bethlehem.  When we drive through the Lehigh Tunnel on the Turnpike, we are passing directly underneath the Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine.  Many pairs of hiking boots are worn out and replaced in Pennsylvania with hikers often complaining that we Pennsylvanians employ rock sharpeners to slow their progress on the rugged rocky path.

Mr Irwin hiked with his seeing eye dog, Orient, and together they became known as the Orient Express.  I won't recount his entire story.  You can pick up a copy of "Blind Courage" if you'd like to learn more, but I will excerpt a few comments from this article in the Washington Post:

Bill Irwin dies at 73; first blind hiker of Appalachian Trail

“When I was a sighted person I was an alcoholic, a dropout as a husband and father, a guy who lived only for himself,” he later wrote in the publication Guideposts.

“The first clear-eyed thing I had ever done was as a blind man, when I asked God to take charge of my life,” he wrote. “I had never spent much time in his vast outdoors, but after I quit drinking I couldn’t get enough of it. I learned wilderness skills and became the first blind person to ‘thru-hike’ the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I made a point of telling fellow hikers about the God who guides me.”

"He said he became sober in 1987 and developed an intense devotion to Christianity. The first verse he learned was from Corinthians: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

Along the way, Mr. Irwin would stop at grocery stores and laundromats to buy provisions and wash his clothes. He would also talk to local children about God and promise them personalized copies of the Bible if they agreed to read a verse a day.

“By the time I got to Maine I had furnished over 500 Bibles for kids along the way,” Mr. Irwin said.

Can our burdens be any greater than those Bill Irwin overcame?  Blindness comes in many forms but through Christ we can orient ourselves to the Light.

Rich Evans

[Rich Evans is a former Certified Public Accountant and Certified Management Accountant. He is a member of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Mountain Top where he serves on the vestry and finance committee. He is also a member of the Diocesan Council and the Incorporated Trustees. His ministry is helping parishes with their audits.]