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Inspiring Hiker Captivates College Crowd

By Heather M. Perchinski, Intern, Office of College Information & Community Relations

Imagine hiking the Appalachian Trail, 2,160 miles of the most beautiful vistas and mountains this country has to offer. Envision starting that journey in one of the worst floods Georgia has ever seen. Now imagine you are blind.

This is exactly what Bill Irwin did in 1990, when he and his seeing-eye dog, “Orient,” started a “life-changing journey.” It took 258 days to complete and inspired thousands.

Irwin is the first, and only, blind person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. The trail begins in Maine and ends in Georgia, covering 14 states and many miles of rough terrain.

Irwin had never backpacked before his trip in 1990. Many experienced hikers said there was no way he would ever complete the trek. There were times, Irwin believes, he should have died from hypothermia. He endured harsh weather, bears, numerous injuries to himself and to his dog and countless other hardships. At one point, they had to stop for a week so that the cuts to “Orient’s” feet could heal.

He told his inspirational story to a captivated audience Thursday at Penn’s Inn in the Bush Campus Center at Pennsylvania College of Technology as part of the Spring 2001 Lecture Series.

Irwin was a very successful man who owned his own business. He also was living with a potentially dangerous secret: He was an alcoholic. A day did not go by that he did not have a drink or smoke five packs of cigarettes. He had been married and divorced four times. His three children all were coping with their own addictions.

At the age of 28, Irwin lost his sight to an unknown eye disease, plunging him into a deep depression. In 1987, his son called him from a doctor’s office and asked for his help. Irwin entered his son in a nearby rehabilitation clinic immediately, not knowing this event would change his life forever.

While his son was in rehab, Irwin began looking at his own life with a new perspective. He “surrendered” himself to his addictions and turned his life around. He immediately stopped drinking, and ,within two months, stopped smoking. He calls it a “miracle.”

Things just started getting better from then on, he says. It no longer mattered that he could not see. Life was worth living, for the first time in his life. He re-established the relationships that were most important to him. He also established a relationship with God.

He calls his journey a spiritual one and says God called him to it. He feels that, without God’s help, he would never have survived the Appalachian Trail or his addictions.

Eleven years after his historic trek on the Appalachian Trail, he still travels the country as a motivational speaker. He is the author of the book “Blind Courage,” which tells of his amazing adventure on the Appalachian Trail.

He says that he tells his story because he wants people to know that life is just like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Quitting was not an option, even when his whole body hurt every minute of every day. The most difficult part of the wilderness adventure, Irwin says, was “the4 inches between my ears.” He had to constantly be his own motivator and talk himself out of quitting.

Irwin believes that his belief in God and a good sense of humor are really how he survived the Appalachian Trail. He shares this secret to conquering the Appalachian Trail with his audience: “When the pain of life becomes so intense that you cannot bear it, stop yourself and tell yourself your funniest story.”

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