Blind hiker Bill Irwin said today will be the best Thanksgiving he's ever had after becoming the first sightless man to walk the entire 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail.
"It's just an indescribable feeling of gratitude," Irwin said. "I feel like I did the best I could at the time, and hopefully the Lord feels the same way."On Wednesday, a crowd of about 70 people fell silent as Irwin reached out and touched a sign marking the campground where he completed the eight-month trek.
After the 50-year-old hiker prayed silently, the crowd broke into cheers, said David McCasland, a free-lance writer who traveled with Irwin during the final two weeks of the hike.
Dozens of friends, reporters and other hikers who joined Irwin for the final 2.4-mile leg Wednesday backed away and let him walk the last tenth of a mile alone.
Eighteen fellow members of the People's Memorial Christian Church in Irwin's hometown who were on hand to see their friend finish his trek sang "Amazing Grace" as he approached the sign marking the end of the epic hike.
Irwin was given a commemorative sculpture and his guide dog Orient received a new harness and a leash.
Irwin, who set out from the southern end of the trail at Springer Mountain, Ga., during September floods, arrived late Wednesday morning on a snow-covered trail at the remote Katahdin Stream campground.
Along the way, the broad-shouldered Irwin's worst injury was a broken rib sustained when he slipped on a stone and his 50-pound pack swung over his head, slamming him onto a rock.
In Maine, Irwin was swept off his feet while crossing the West Branch of the Piscataquis River and was carried nearly 20 yards down the icy stream, McCasland said.
He also was delayed for three days in Maine by a snowstorm that left 28 inches on the ground. The sun shone brightly Wednesday.
A recovering alcoholic, Irwin lost his sight nearly two years ago to a disease that destroys the retina.
The Burlington, N.C., resident decided nearly a year ago to attempt the feat as an affirmation of his faith in God. Sponsors have helped pay his expenses. Irwin was with only his dog for much of the time.
He couldn't see the magnificent vistas or trailside sunsets during his trek, but Irwin said the sounds and smells of the wilderness provided more than enough beauty.