A remarkable group of hikers is just a few thousand paces away from realizing the dream of a lifetime -- walking the Appalachian Trail. Ranging in age from 25 to 68, they left Georgia in April, sharing a commitment to reach Maine in just 126 days.

Nine of the 13 hikers are from Virginia. Not only are they challenging the numbers -- only about 170 of the 1,200 who start the trail each year complete the 2,150 miles -- they are disproving the belief young and old could never walk the trail together.

The inspiration and guide for this expedition is trail veteran Warren Doyle, director of George Mason University's Outdoor Education Center at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park in Clifton.

"It's a labor of love," said Doyle, 40, who has walked the trail four times alone and three times with groups. "I'm not getting paid, these people aren't getting credit. This is a task-oriented journey. My goal is to help the others complete the trail and achieve their dreams."

Although Doyle had led other groups on the trail, he says this one is special. "The wide range of ages sets this group apart from the others," he said. "But, the level of commitment expected is the same."

And what's more, he said, this expedition has been the smoothest he's led. "It's very inspirational that the young and old can move forward together."

In an effort to "give something back" to the trail, Doyle is pushing a measuring wheel to record the total miles for the Appalachian Trail Conference.

Trekking over rocky paths and through quiet shaded woods, these hikers are enjoying the pleasures of both solitary walking and, when they want it, the camaraderie such a close-knit group offers. Doyle's group walks more miles each day than typical backpackers. By meeting a support van near the trail almost every night, they can carry less weight during the day.

But this method is not without its critics, especially among other backpackers. "They call us slack packers," said Mary Ann Powers, a 37-year-old systems manager from Shelton, Conn. "There isn't any right way to do the trail. We don't carry the weight, but we walk 23 miles a day. The rumors are flying, like we each paid $2,000 or $3,000, and we have all our meals ready for us at the end of the day. It's unbelievable how fast news travels on the trail."

The reality of Doyle's expedition is that each member paid $300 into a pool for gas, repairs, and the $3 a day that the drivers are paid. Any money left over will be split among them. The hikers prepare their own meals.

Doyle is proud of his low-impact camping methods. "Most of our camping is done next to back roads. It's a good example of how a group can travel a long distance with minimum impact."

The group spent two years preparing for the trip, doing several overnight hikes. They had prepared for everything but the reality that many found once out on the trail.

"When is this going to start being hard?" asked Jamie Keeble, 26, of Centreville, Va., about 850 miles into the trip. "Warren made it sound so bad. Maybe he overprepared us. The trip has been wonderful. I feel like I'm on vacation."

"I never thought I would have so much fun," added Powers. "It's like being in a fairy tale."

For Al Sanders, 56, a retired attorney from Springfield, walking with a group and on a fixed schedule is "liberating." He attempted a through hike alone in 1987. "I had done 794 miles of the trail when I got caught in a snowstorm in the Smokies. I spent eight days in a shelter before I could get out. I had to quit."

Dave Rarity, 52, of Arlington, retired from the FBI the day before leaving for the trip. "Part of my coming on this hike is getting rid of competition, selfishness." He's accompanied by his 25-year-old son, Steve, a recent graduate of George Mason. "It's refreshing for both of us," said the elder Rarity. "I'm getting to know my son as a person."

A trademark of Doyle's expeditions is that those who join it make a commitment to walk to Maine. He expects no one to quit except for a disabling injury or a death in the family.

When the group reaches trail's end, planned for Sept. 2, members will join hands atop Mount Katahdin. That moment said Doyle, will yield "the sheer joy of perfected achievement," and prove that "individuals can care as much about others' dreams as their own."