As he walked the length of the Appalachian Trail for eight months in 1990, Bill Irwin estimated that he fell thousands of times. He cracked his ribs and suffered from hypothermia as he climbed mountains and forded rivers. The pads he wore didn’t protect his scabbed knees.
Irwin, then a 50-year-old medical technologist and corporate manager from Burlington, N.C., did not use maps or a compass. He was blind, and he relied solely on his German shepherd guide dog, Orient.
The pair became known as “the Orient Express.”
Irwin was feted as an inspiration to hikers and disabled people when, on Nov. 21, 1990, he became the first blind man to traverse the Appalachian Trail, which stretches more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine.
Admirers across the country watched news reports of him dropping to his knees to pray after ascending 5,269 feet on Mount Katahdin, the northernmost end of the trail. Members of his home church were there to greet him and sang “Amazing Grace.”
For Irwin, who died March 1 at 73, the hike was an act of salvation.
“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.”
Irwin completely lost his sight in 1976. Eight years earlier, doctors had removed his left eye after a misdiagnosis of malignant melanoma. Meanwhile, his drinking became worse and he smoked five packs of cigarettes a day.
His entry into recovery was unintended, sparked by his son Jeff’s entry into a substance-abuse treatment center because of an addition to cocaine.
“To my dismay, I was asked to spend a week there in family therapy sessions with him – without a drink,” he wrote in Guideposts. “I scoffed but I went. I lashed out at counselors and was my usual arrogant self. But by the end of that week it became painfully clear to me that I was an alcoholic, and I had to stop drinking or I’d die.”
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.” He soon decided that the walk on the Appalachian Trail would be a powerful example of living his faith.
On March 8, 1990, the third anniversary of his sobriety, Irwin unceremoniously left from Springer Mountain, Ga., the southern terminus of the trail, in a heavy rain.
Irwin’s first four marriages ended in divorce. In 1996, Irwin married Debra Messler.
They moved to Sebec, Maine, from North Carolina and bought property with a view of Mount Katahdin. He died at a hospital in Dover-Foxcroft. The cause was prostate cancer, his wife said.
Besides his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, to Patricia Armstrong; a daughter from his marriage to Messler; a brother; a sister; and four grandchildren.