When teaching goes wrong

When I was reading Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis, I learned about the Appalachian Trail Institute and Warren Doyle.

Warren Doyle is a legend among AT hikers. He has done 9 thru-hikes and 9 completed section hikes of the AT, along with many other trails. He is retired from hiking now and has started a “school” to help potential hikers along the way… the Appalachian Trail Institute.

Located at the Appalachian Folk School in Mountain City, TN, the ATI is part classroom and part hiking diagnostics, according to its website.

As soon as I found out about it, I told my partner TiAna and we decided that it was the perfect thing for us. We sent in our applications and deposits within a week of learning about the ATI.

Our session started July 8 at noon. Dale, my amazing boyfriend, drove us to Tennessee and then disappeared for the week to give us space to learn. He had an amazing trip to DC to visit his friend Steve… maybe more about that later.

The session was to run from Monday through Friday with three hikes. Day one, there were ten of us eager beavers ready to soak up knowledge from Warren. Our first assignment was to go around the room and tell how long we have been dreaming of the AT and why we wanted to hike it. There were some pretty amazing reasons given and we seemed off to a good start.

From Warren’s initial email, I had expected a “character” and he didn’t disappoint in that. Perhaps he was too much of a character and not enough of a teacher.

Right out of the gate, he told us he was an “agitator” and he proved that to be true.

He said he had no clue why anyone from Texas or Florida would try the AT (there were four of us from Houston). Several occasions he mentioned his disdain for the military, calling them “institutionalized bullies” and “killers” (we had three ex military and one father of a marine in our group). He deemed all people with tattoos, ear gauges and strange hair colors as “weirdos” and “sketchy scary folks” (he was describing TiAna to a tee. At least two more of us had tats and my hair is a fading purple). It went downhill from there.

Day two had us hiking 6.5 miles. Out of the ten of us, only one had ever hiked any portion of the AT. Now I will admit I was not ready for mountains. That 6.5 miles took me 7 hours. I worked HARD for that 6.5 miles. Now, everyone else finished in 3.5 hours… except Ray, who saw me struggling and hung back with me the whole way. I have a LOT of work to do to be ready. However, I’m proud to say I did all 6.5 miles without giving my pack away to someone else to carry, and even turned down an offer to turn back. I might be turtle slow, but I’m damned stubborn and tenacious.

By the morning of day three, Warren had driven off four of us. Guess which ones? three of them were ex-military and the fourth was from Texas. It wasn’t just his comments about the military or Texans… the first day or two he barely gave us any information we could use, he refused to answer questions about things we really wanted / needed to know, and he didn’t accompany us on these hikes. He just set us loose in the woods and waited for us to return.

That day he also told TiAna that she wasn’t good enough, even though with no experience she kept up with the pack and finished in 3.5 hours. We had a hard time deciding if he didn’t like her because she was a tattooed weirdo, or because she was black. But day three was the end for her. She participated in the hike that day, but then contacted the other two ladies from Texas who had left and bummed a ride home.

Day four starts with Warren in a fine mood. Now that almost everyone he deemed “unworthy ” had left (just me hanging in), he started giving us real solid information and talking to us like we had brains. He did have favorites in class… one who hiked like a goddess and one who kissed his ass. But he was at least being pleasant to the rest of us. Unfortunately, I had gotten my fill of him by now too. Dale drove in a day early from DC and picked me up to take me away from there.

So, I can’t tell you what day five was like. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. I can tell you that I made some really good friends in that group that I hope I can celebrate finishing the trail with next year. (Even though Warren blamed everyone leaving on bad “group dynamics.”) We gelled as a group, mostly over our dislike of him. Hell, the class is over and we are all still talking. Just not to him.

I can’t say I didn’t learn anything. There were some good lessons in this week. I learned I need to work hard to be ready. I learned that having a friend when you are having a rough time helps everything (thanks Ray!!), I learned exactly what kind of teacher I don’t want to be, and I learned a little about the terrain of the trail from Warren.

I also learned lessons about treating people with respect. No one in the group was rude to Warren, no one was confrontational (at least not until day four), we all came there with respect to learn from a “trail god.” This god has feet of clay, though.

What I didn’t learn could fill volumes, however. I didn’t learn anything about essential gear. I didn’t learn how to improve my hiking from being observed, I didn’t learn psychological tricks and tips to get me over that next mountain. I didn’t learn much of what I went there hoping for. Neither did anyone else from the group.

I am disappointed. I went ready to come home and sing the praises of this school to anyone who would listen. I would have been his biggest fan if he hadn’t proved to be so damned unpleasant and unfriendly. In good conscience, I can’t recommend the ATI to anyone wanting to hike the AT. I can’t recommend Warren to anyone who doesn’t have a thick skin and a healthy healthy self-esteem… because you won’t have either when you leave.


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