The Orient Express

Life on
Purpose book cover

The Orient Express

And each morning, Orient answered the call but it wasn’t as simple an invitation as one might think. Bill wasn’t asking Orient to guide him around the block in his quiet suburban neighborhood of Burlington, N.C. or even to walk with him to a nearby grocery store.

No, when Bill Irwin goes for a walk he goes all the way. From March 8 to November 21, 1990, Bill and Orient trekked the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine, over 14 states, over 2,168 miles and across some of the most treacherous terrain in America. For Irwin, a devout Christian, the trek was a divine calling, one he tried to ignored at first but finally gave in to after seven or eight people independently shared their missions for God with him. As it turned out, hiking the AT was a perfect opportunity for him to share his faith with others, since everybody wanted to know what a blind man and his dog were doing hiking the trail.

The experience was a monumental challenge for both man and beast. “Dogs are sprinters not endurance animals,” says Irwin. “People wonder what their dogs are doing all day while they’re at work. They’re asleep. If people would put a timer on their dog they would find out their dog sleeps from 16 to 20 hours a day. That’s a dog’s nature — to play or work vigorously for a short period of time but for the most part, to sleep. Changing that takes a lot of time.”

Orient, now 6 years old and the recipient of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America’s 1992 Hero Dog Award (Family Pet division), was Irwin’s third guide dog. All the dogs were Shepherds, as Seeing Eye trainers have found that breed adapts well to a busy and versatile lifestyle like Irwin’s.


One of the first challenges which the Orient Express (as Bill and Orient became known on the Trial) had to overcome was Orient’s transition from sprinter to endurance animal — from relaxing for 16 to 20 hours a day to working vigorously for nearly that much time, day in and day out.

“In the beginning, the transition was very painful, not only for Orient but for me too,” remarks Irwin, whose only preparation for the hike was a four day crash course which included a six mile walk on the trail designed to prepare prospective thru-hikers for their arduous adventure.

“In the beginning I had to be prepared to have days that were as short as a couple of hours because of him,” Irwin says. “Dogs won’t exceed their limits like horses or people will. Dogs just quit. There were quite a few days that by 9:00 in the morning he’d quit.” Whenever Orient would pull off the Trail, Irwin would check him over to be sure he wasn’t injured. If Orient would pull off several times in a row, Bill knew the dog was listening to his body telling him to stop. Irwin would then push on to a good campsite and stop for the day.

Irwin’s willingness to work with Orient in this manner made it possible for Orient to make the transition to endurance animal. It also gave Bill the opportunity to notice an interesting difference between the two of them.

“With people there comes a point of no return where you don’t get any stronger from increased exercise and activity,” Irwin points out. “That’s somewhere in New England for a thru-hiker, where the day-to-day beating to death of your body from daylight to dark takes its toll on you and you start getting weaker and weaker rather than stronger.

“But Orient continued to get stronger every day throughout the whole trip, and by the time we got to Maine, where the weather was so bad it was about to kill me, he was in his glory,” Irwin says with a hearty laugh. “He couldn’t understand why I was slowing down and why he couldn’t just take off and go, and he never pulled over anymore.” At the start, Orient weighed in at his ideal weight of 85 pounds. While adjusting to the rigorous schedule of the trail, his weight dropped as low as 59 pounds, despite eating 10,000 calories on trail days and often over 25,000 calories on his off-days, when Irwin would let him free-feed.

The two hikers received new supplies via a mail drop every five days including 20 pounds of Science Diet Performance dog food, which Orient carried in his own backpack. On hiking days, Irwin rationed Orient to four pounds of Science Diet Performance per day, which Irwin measured out with a bowl which held a pound of the dry food when full.

“Actually, he was eating more than 10,000 calories a day, really,” Irwin confesses, “by the time I fed him three or four dog bones. And people kept sneaking him food.”


Meanwhile, Irwin’s typical fare would be a large bowl of oatmeal with lots of butter and sugar in the morning. At lunch, Irwin avoided cooking, instead, he was content to eat dry fruit, bread, candy bars, crackers with peanut butter or cheese. The evening meal often was what he came to call “chief delight”: macaroni and cheese doctered up with spices, chopped onion or whatever Irwin could find to “make it taste different.” Whenever the two travelers took a break from the trail, they would make a beeline to the closest junk food restaurant so Irwin could pig out on “greasy hamburgers and fries,” and anything else he could find that was laden with fat. One of Irwin’s favorite food during these short breaks from “chief delight” was ice cream — as much as he could eat at one sitting.

On special occasions, Irwin would mix up an extra helping of oatmeal or “chief delight” as a treat for Orient. Now off the trail, Orient never gets people-food unless a well-meaning acquaintance slips it to him without Irwin’s knowing it.


As Irwin points out in his autobiography, Blind Courage, a daily concern of a blind hiker is staying on the Trail. Although the trail is well marked with 2-by-6-inch blazes every few hundred feet, the markers weren’t much help at first. At the start of the, the Orient Express wandered off the trail frequently, often finding themselves in someone’s front yard or next to a highway. On these occasions, Irwin would retrace his steps or stop and ask for directions to the Trail.

What did help was the body odor of other hikers. Because of Orient’s keen sense of smell, it was easy for him to detect the butyric acid found in human perspiration. Says Irwin in his book, “On the long stretches when no one could take showers, I could almost follow the smell myself!”

Soon, Orient became so well versed at reading the trail and following scent that other hikers began relying on him. Irwin remembered one incident when the television crew of the ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings was taping a segment of Irwin’s walk. Orient was following the scent of a group of other thru-hikers who missed a turn of the Trail, taking a second trail which dead ended about a hundred yards later. Orient followed their scent, also missing the turn. When Bill, Orient and the TV crew came upon the disoriented hikers, Bill asked them what were they waiting for. Their reply, “We’re waiting for Orient to come along and lead us back to the AT,” which he did, backtracking until he found the correct trail.

On the rare occasion when Orient ended up following the scent of hikers who wandered off the trial, Irwin could easily detect the error when he would begin getting slapped in the face with uncleared branches since the AT paths are kept cleared for a 4 foot width and 8 foot height.

By the time they reached Pennsylvania, it became increasingly apparent to Bill and other hikers that Orient was able to identify the trail by the markers. According to John Russell, a good friend and business associate of Bill’s, “When the trail takes a sharp turn, they put one blaze on top of another so it’s a double blaze, and when Orient saw that he would start looking around to see which way the trail went.”


It was in Pennsylvania that Orient confronted the section of the AT most difficult for him. As Irwin writes in Blind Courage, “The rocks in Pennsylvania had the reputation for being the sharpest along the AT. Some people accused the local residents of sharpening them during the winter and gleefully awaiting the next season’s crop of hikers.”

The leather shoes Bill brought for Orient turned out to be too hot and cumbersome for the trail and even though Orient’s feet had toughened up significantly since the start of the journey, they weren’t ready for the Pennsylvania rocks.

“By the time we got to Duncannon, which is about a fourth of the way through the state of Pennsylvania, Orient had cut his feet to the point where it was hard for him to walk, so we took a week off for his feet to heal,” Says Irwin, adding, “My biggest fear, if I had one, was that Orient would get hurt and I would have to stop.”

So the two travelers took the advice of a veterinarian Orient visited in Duncannon and took a break from the trail. While Irwin recuperated beside the swimming pool at the home of a family who insisted he stay with them, Orient slept at least 18 hours a day.

Besides the 5 day break in Duncannon for Orient’s feet to heal, Irwin took a day or two off the trail about once a month to catch up on administrative details of the hike such as returning phone calls to the press, answering mail or arranging for food drops. He would usually stay in a motel. Otherwise, he seldom stopped — he even continued the trek after he fell and cracked a rib.

While on the trail, Orient was checked regularly by veterinarians who would hear about the Orient Express from the news media and would trek out to meet the two and examine Orient. Between “house calls” and trips to vets’ offices along the way, Irwin estimates Orient was checked at least 25 times. He was examined once at the end of the trip to head off a demonstration by an animal rights group who had heard that Orient was being abused. A veterinarian who had worked with Seeing Eye traveled over 300 miles to examine Orient, then held a press conference to proclaim him the healthiest dog he had ever seen. The demonstration never occurred.

The closeness of these two is well illustrated by one of Bill’s anecdotes taken from “Blind Courage”: “One afternoon, I had eaten a whole package of beef jerky, and was halfway through a second, when my host, Tim Boyer, walked over and asked what I was eating. I offered him some jerky and handed him the package. He laughed, gave it back and informed me that the label said “Doggie Treats.” They had been sent to me by two hikers known as The Blister Sisters, and I thought they were pretty good!

“I gave Orient the ones I hadn’t eaten and apologized for stealing his food.” Irwin and Orient became very close while on the Trail, since their survival depended upon each other. “I became aware that if I didn’t pay attention to Orient’s welfare, I wouldn’t make it. I had to become attuned to his physical needs,” Irwin said, also pointing out that Orient was also very dependent on his master to feed and care for him. As a result, the two are almost inseparable today. “Orient seldom lets me out of his sight,” Irwin said. “He gets anxious and whines if I’m separated from him for any length of time.”

Another difficult part of the trek for Bill and Orient occurred in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where the team ran up against shear rock facings, many 100 or more feet high.

Of course, Bill and Orient weren’t the only ones on the AT. Besides other thru-hikers, there were also weekend hikers and those spending their vacations hiking a portion of the trail. Almost all of them were more experienced than Bill and Orient.

“They (the experienced hikers) were amazed at me since it was my first backpacking experience. Most of the other people had at least been a Boy Scout of something. I was really green and had the most to learn.” Explains Irwin. “They were very helpful. It wasn’t like they resented me not knowing. There was a wonderful camaraderie on the trail, unusual in life.”

Of the 1450 people who started the AT in 1990 intending to go the entire distance, only 120 of them made it. Dogs are generally not allowed on the AT, making the Orient Express exceptional in yet another way. About 95% of the thru-hikers walked in the same south to north direction that the Orient Express followed since it gave them a longer hiking season. As Irwin explained, the weather in the south is warm enough that hikers can start just about anytime they want, even as early as January or February. Up north, it isn’t warm enough until mid-June and even then you have to contend with the flooding from the winter thaw. Starting from the north is further complicated by black flies which can make July almost unbearable in certain regions. “Most of the thru-hikers were there because they were at a place in life where they needed to take a break and make decisions and they chose the Appalachian Trail to do that.”

Along with tackling the AT as an opportunity to share his Christian beliefs with a lot of people, Irwin was also able to using the trip as an internship towards a degree in counseling he was working on from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Having the right attitude about why he was on the trail had a lot to do with the Orient Express being one of the 120 who completed what they set out to do. Says Irwin, “Most of the people that quit, quit because it wasn’t fun anymore. What that tells me is that they started out with unrealistic expectations of a job being fun because it’s not fun and if you start out thinking it’ll be fun, you won’t be able to maintain that motivation.

“I never had that problem because it was never fun for me from the first step. Nothing about it seemed fun to me. It was strictly a job. I never had thoughts of quitting either. “Every morning I would tell myself, ‘You’re a mountain climber. What that means is that all day long today you’re going to climb up and down mountains and if you don’t like that you need to go home.’ So I had to do a lot of talking to myself.”

It was this attitude, coupled with Bill’s strong religious convictions which allowed the Orient Express to not stop despite dangers which ranged from heat stroke and dehydration at the start of the trip to frost bite and hypothermia by its end.


How has life changed for Bill and Orient since completing their “impossible mission” in November of 1990? The AT experience has taught Irwin to trust that his faith in God will direct his life. “My M.O. is still to show up for work and do whatever comes along.” Says Irwin, pointing out that although he still plans his activities, much of it six months or more in advance, he is more relaxed and accepting of life. “I live one day at a time.”

This year, that has meant a lot of traveling for the Orient Express, mostly for speaking engagements ranging from such diverse activities as fund raising for Christian organizations like Young Life of El Paso, Texas to corporate motivational speaking to sales people in how to overcome business challenges for such companies as American Express.

When asked if there were any new “impossible missions” on the horizon for the Orient Express, Bill replied, “I get invitations to do crazy things all the time — bungee jump off the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, but I’m not a thrill seeker. The Appalachian Trail was no thrill for me. It was an act of obedience and I don’t think I have to do anything else because I did that.”

For Irwin and Orient, hiking is no longer just a job, but has become a favorite pastime. Although most of their treks are now limited to long weekends, Bill does hope to return to the north in ’94 and complete the Long Trail, possibly with a group of Boy Scouts he can teach about hiking and life along the way. “One of Orient’s biggest thrills to this day is when I get his backpack out and he realizes we’re going hiking again,” says Irwin as he reaches down and scratches Orient behind the ear.

by W. Bradford Swift