July 11, 2016 | By Chuck Carlson
On May 10, somewhere deep on the Appalachian Trail, Tom Poirier celebrated 30 years of sobriety all by himself.
"I couldn't celebrate it with anyone," he recalled, smiling wistfully.
"Then one guy came along on the trail and I told him, and he said, ‘Cool.'"
"That was it," he said.
For the 1969 Albion alumnus, it was perhaps the perfect irony that on that momentous spring day he found himself acknowledging the vanquishing of one challenge in the place where he was attempting to embrace another.
For Poirier, trekking the Appalachian Trail had found a place in his psyche for decades, an opportunity that haunted and dared him.
It began in the summer of 1968 when, as a student at Albion majoring in biology, he did research work in Bar Harbor, Maine.
One weekend, he went camping with colleagues at Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, which runs some 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia.
"I bought a map of the trail at the time," Poirier said. "That was my prize. It was a small, hard-bound book and I bought it at a gift shop. I still have it. That planted the seed."
But the seed lay dormant for years as Poirier went to dental school, at the University of Detroit Mercy, and then established his own dental practices, first in Westland and then in Saline, over the next 44 years.
And while thoughts of hiking the trail never left him, other issues moved to the forefront, including a battle with alcohol that saw him declare a truce on May 10, 1986.
He retired in 2014, and when an Albion fraternity brother, Jim Rogers, '69, informed him last year that he was going to hike the trail, the old feelings stirred again. Poirier decided it was time to take up the challenge.
The two men trained for months and planned to hike 550 miles from Damascus, Va., just north of the North Carolina border, to Harper's Ferry, W. Va. They began their trek May 1, but on the third day heavy rain made the rugged trail slick and Rogers slipped, injuring his leg. He tried to continue but the injury proved too severe and he had to drop out.
"It was a very challenging trail," Poirier said. "It proved to be a lot more difficult than I anticipated."
But Poirier continued, admitting that he struggled the first two weeks as he tried to find his "trail legs."
"But the third week I clicked over that barrier and started doing 15-16 miles a day," he said. "I was having a good time."
It was everything, and nothing, like he expected. Indeed, the Appalachian Trail is only a trail in name. There are some verdant, tame paths made for easy walking, but Poirier said the trail could turn grueling almost at a moment's notice.
"You'd be walking the trail and suddenly you'd see boulders for hundreds of yards," he said.
He encountered rain and snow and wind and determined hikers who blew past him as though he were standing still. But he also met wonderful people, sharing food and stories, often in the evening while staying in a tent or in one of the many community shelters along the way.
And he talked about "trail magic," those times he'd descend from a rigorous climb to find that someone had set up a cooler and grill where hot dogs and burgers cooked.
"It was quite a community of people," he said.
But by the fourth week, Poirier decided he'd had enough.
"I decided I missed my family and I wanted to go home," he said.
On May 30, Memorial Day, Poirier left the Appalachian Trail in Catawba, Va., near Roanoke. He had walked 210 miles.
For Poirier, the challenge was met if not necessarily conquered and that may be enough.
"Recovering alcoholics are a weird group," he said. "We're always looking for accolades. We figure we're broken people and it takes something like this to show that we're not."
He hasn't necessarily ruled out making another attempt but he'd take it slower this time and perhaps not set such a dramatic goal.
"Absolutely it was worth it," he said. "I'd recommend it to anybody who is serious about hiking. But it's not a walk in the woods."
The Spring-Summer 2016 edition of Io Triumphe! magazine includes more alumni experiences with trails as well as coverage of the planned Albion River Trail extension. Read more