Bill Irwin reminisces on how thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail with his dog, Orient, changed his life.

Close your eyes. Now, take 3,817,440 steps over rocks, stumps, through mud, across icy mountain streams, up and down steep mountain paths, while weathering conditions of sweltering heat, torrential rain, sleet, snow, swirling winds. Expose yourself to heat stroke, dehydration, hypothermia, hunger and wild animals.

Do it — it will change your life.

If you don’t believe it, ask Bill Irwin, the only blind man to ever walk the entire Appalachian Trail.

On March 8, 1990, Bill took the first of well over 3 million steps on the AT in Dahlonega, Ga. He took his last step, eight and a half months later on November 21, in Katahdin Stream Camp Ground in Baxter State Park, Maine — the two steps were separated by over 2168 miles of some of

the roughest terrain in North America. Each step was in the shadow of Bill’s Seeing Eye® Dog, Orient, who led Bill along the Trail.

Three years after beginning his mission for God, Bill continues to share his A. T. experience with anyone who will listen. That’s a lot of people from all walks of life, from school and church groups across the country to CEO’s and corporate executives at Fortune 500 companies. Bill’s experiences on the AT and the hundreds of fellow hikers and people he met along the trail changed his life — dramatically.

“90 percent of what I’m up to now comes from my time on the AT,” Bill admitted recently. “I’m now considered an experienced backpacker. Before I didn’t even know where the AT was.”

Since trekking up and down some of the steepest mountains in the world, Bill has become an author, counselor, motivational speaker and public figure. His first novel, Blind Courage, published by W.R.S. Publishing of Waco, Texas, hit the bookshelves in August of ’92 , and has done well with over 20,000 copies sold to date. Prior to the book’s release to the public, Bill was asked by WRS Publishing to participate at the American Booksellers Convention in Anaheim, California.

The highlight of the week for Bill was on the last day, his book signing session. During the convention, many authors are given 30-minute time slots so people in the book business can acquire autographed copies. Bill’s biggest fear was that no one would be there for his book even though his publisher was giving it away.

He needn’t have worried. When he arrived, he found a line of people doubled back for several hundred feet waiting to get an autographed copy of his book.

Bill has also begun his counseling practice in his hometown of Burlington, NC. Prior to his thru-hike, Bill had returned to college for a degree in counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was able to use the hike as an internship for his studies since trekking the A. T. was a perfect opportunity to meet hundreds of people who were going through important transitions in their lives. Despite a hectic schedule of public speaking, consulting and book promotion, Bill reserves two days a week for counseling.

Bill’s approach to his new life is simple. “My M. O. is to show up for work and do what comes along.” In the mountains, he learned to accept what the mountains had to offer. It was one of the mountains’ most valuable lessons.

“Every morning I would tell myself, ‘You’re a mountain climber. What that means is that all day long you’re going to climb up and down mountains, and if you don’t like that you need to go home.'”

Although he now wears multiple hats and often must plan trips for speaking engagements and book promotions six months into the future, he continues to simply “show up for work.”

A great deal of Bill’s “work” has been sharing the lessons of the Appalachian Trail with groups ranging from fundraising for Christian organizations such as Young Life in El Paso, Texas to Goodwill Industries, to a division of American Express.

With his corporate training, Bill often works with sales people in helping them to overcome apparently insurmountable challenges. In the case of American Express, the division had been directed by management to achieve a 40 percent increase in sales for the coming year. Bill’s job — show the sales force what a real challenge was like.

“When I left they were supposed to have the idea that the 40 percent was nothing,” Bill said with a chuckle. Apparently, they got the message. “I checked a couple of weeks ago. It looks like they’re right on target to get that 40 percent increase. This time last year everyone of those sales people said that was impossible.” Bill adds, “If I had something to do with that it makes it all worthwhile.”

A typical week for Bill might look something like this:

MONDAY: Work on the next edition of The Orient Express, the newsletter which Bill started while on the Trail and which has grown to over 3000 subscribers.

At the same time, get ready for a promotional trip to Germany, where Blind Courage is being translated and sold.

Finish article for hometown newspaper and send it in.

TUESDAY AND WEDNESDAY: Reserved for his counseling practice.

THURSDAY: Keynote speaker for the N. C. Independent Foresters Association.

FRIDAY: Work with allied churches in developing new program for alcoholics and homeless people. Put the final touches on the newsletter. Pack for out of town travel over the weekend speaking engagements.

Perhaps a more profound change than Bill’s torrid schedule has been his outlook on life since the A. T..

“I have a renewed faith in the human race,” Bill says. “I have found people to be warm and friendly. People will behave in the way you expect them to. If you expect them to be warm and friendly, then they will be that way.”

Bill has found this to be true everywhere he travels, including New York city, an area viewed by many Southerners to be filled with difficult people. “I love New York. People there are so nice and friendly. I expect that and I’m as southern as I can be. My attitude towards people has it come true.”

Another valuable lesson Bill learned while trekking the mountains came from his constant canine companion, Orient. Orient recently turned six and in1992 won the “Hero Dog Award” from the German Shepherd Club of America. “Orient’s whole life has been centered around doing what I wanted of him,” says Bill. Extrapolating this insight to his own life, Bill realized that “every human being is doing their very best to get their needs met.” Consequently, Bill has become much more tolerant of other people.

“I used to take life out on the people closest to me.” Bill says. For example, “It would be easy to push Orient around if I was having a bad day but that would be abusive.” Bill realized while on the A. T. that Orient’s and his life were inextricably woven together. For the two of them were to survive the wilderness, it required a level of partnership beyond anything either of them had experienced before.

Bill’s lessons of tolerance and acceptance have resulted in his being able to lead a very busy life without the high degree of stress most people would experience.

One of the changes which Bill is most appreciative of is his relationship with the Appalachian Trial. “I’ve become an unofficial spokesperson for the A. T.,” Bill says. “I hope to always stay in close touch with the Appalachian Trial Conference and the many friends I met on the Trail.”

What does the future have in store for the Orient Express? The possibilities are limitless. Bill hints that there may be another book in him and that one day Dave McCasland and he may collaborate again. (They wrote Blind Courage together.)

There may also be a trip to England in Bill’s future. Blind Courage is being translated into the King’s English but for Bill to visit England may require him taking on the challenge of changing England’s “archaic quarantine laws.” As they currently stand, Orient would be excluded from accompanying Bill without a lengthy quarantine. This may be one of Bill’s next mountains to climb.

Bill’s simple plan is to “live one day at a time” and to trust God to show him what is next. It’s a plan that has provided Bill with an extraordinary life. It’s a plan that works.