Bill Irwin, famous blind AT thru-hiker, dies after battle with cancer
By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Posted March 07, 2014, at 4:05 p.m.
Bill Irwin, the only blind person to have completed the Appalachian Trail with his dog Orient. Bill Irwin, the only blind person to solo hike the entire Appalachian Trail, died on March 1 at age 73, after a two-year battle with cancer. His life story is, without a doubt, an inspiring one — for outdoorsmen, for addicts, for Christians or for anyone cast into darkness, struggling to find their way.
“I think in the age of heroism and how we view it, Bill made me realize that there are real heroes out there, and that these real heroes have their own struggles, just like we do,” said Michael “Clint” Ross, who considers Irwin to be his personal hero.
“But what makes them heroes,” Ross continued, “is the fact that they persevere through it all.”
Irwin wasn’t born blind. An Alabama native, he enjoyed an early career as a medical technologist, chemist, teacher and founder of Birmingham Clinical Laboratories. But things quickly headed south as he fell victim to alcoholism. He struggled through four failed marriages. And at the age of 28, he lost sight in his left eye due to a rare eye disease. By age 36, he was completely blind.
Everything turned around in 1987, when Irwin became a Christian and surrendered his life to God. This spiritual awakening marked the start of a new life and career as a health consultant, speaker, family and marriage counselor and author.
Three years later, he set out to do what most people would say is impossible. At age 50 — without compass, map or GPS — Irwin set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,100-mile hiking trail spanning from Georgia to Maine, with his guide dog, Orient.
Marked with white paint, the AT travels over high peaks and winds through deep woods. It crosses rivers and roads and boulder fields as it traverses 14 states.
“He was on a mission for God — he would call it a Christian mission,” Ross said. “For me, there were two sides to it — the miraculous and the absurd. It is absolutely miraculous that a blind man and his dog could do this alone, and that he lived. But it’s also absurd, meaning why would he do this? Why would anyone do this? And it just became — I just saw him as a true hero. This guy put his life on the line so that he could do something no one else has done and to meet people and encourage them along the way.”
Though it took him eight months, Irwin completed the trail, ending in November of 1990 in Baxter State Park. He recounts the journey in the 1991 book “Blind Courage,” co-authored by David McCasland.
“I’ve hiked the AT three times,” said Phil Pepin, who hiked with Irwin for 10 days during his 1990 AT thru-hike. “I’ve said it so many times; It’s so difficult to hike it with sight, never mind to hike it without sight. But he was just an incredible, totally remarkable man.”
Pepin recalls hiking with Irwin along an especially hairy section in Rangeley, where a hurricane had knocked trees across the trail. It took them a full day to hike just 4 miles.
“Climbing over and around blowdowns, it was just miserable travel,” Pepin said. “Irwin would slip and fall and pick himself right back up. He was wearing shin guards at the time because he’d fallen so much. He had big scars on his knees … I don’t ever recall him muttering a bad word. He wouldn’t. It was just part of the course.”
After completing the trail in 1990, life continued to look up for Irwin, who married his best friend, Debra, in 1996. The couple then moved to Sebec, Maine, where they enjoyed hiking, camping, kayaking, snowshoeing and biking with friends and family.
When Ross reached out to the famous thru-hiker in November 2012, Irwin was in the process of battling prostate cancer. Having read “Blind Courage,” Ross, a filmmaker from Georgia, was interested in creating an independent film about Irwin’s story.
“When the email came through, he was with his pastor and his wife and his pastor’s wife, praying and talking about the next steps for Bill,” Ross said.
Intrigued, Irwin invited Ross to visit him at his home in Sebec. The two men connected, and Ross returned home with Irwin’s blessing to create the film. Over the past year, Ross has been working on the script, gleaning details from Irwin during monthly meetings.
“Bill wanted to hold on more than anything for a filmmaker who was going to make his story as God-centered as possible but true to the story,” Ross said. “We both agreed it’s not like we want to smack people over the head with Jesus and the Bible. We wanted this to be a film about courage and faith, and by the end, it will be obvious where Bill got that from.”
Ross predicts the script for “Blind Courage” the film will be finished in just a few months, then filming will begin, putting it on track for a 2015 release.
“He just had a lot of faith,” Ross said. “Bill inspired me to look at my life and to just keep going — whether it’s on the script, my career, my family — to just keep going and have a good attitude.”
To his last day, Irwin served as director of Free Indeed Ministries, helping those suffering from addictions as he did. When bedridden, he counseled people from his bed. His motto, “Never lose faith and never give up.”
He is survived by his wife, Debra; his four children, Marianne Cash, Billy Irwin, Jeff Irwin and Amanda McCroy; four grandchildren, Gabriel Irwin, Jake Irwin, Madison Cash and Grayson Cash; sister, Midge Irwin “Mary”; brother, Lynn Irwin; niece, Kristi Healy; and many loving cousins and friends.
Irwin requested that upon his death, his body be donated to the University of Tennessee for scientific research and education in the department of anthropology to help others.
“This was Bill’s way,” wrote Debra Irwin in a Facebook post about Irwin’s wishes.