Over the last decade, I have hiked more than 20,000 miles on some of the most iconic trails in the U.S. But I have never seen a sunrise in the San Juan Mountains, never watched the ponies in Virginia’s Grayson Highlands or witnessed the breathtaking snow-packed peaks in the Sierras. I can’t see the forest, the blazes that guide my way or even the trails that I hike.
To navigate, I trace the letters of trail signs with my fingers, feel the path through the soles of my shoes and calculate mileage by keeping track of my cadence and time. I often hike alone with my guide dog, Tennille, as my only companion. And although I’m totally blind, I can’t imagine ever stopping or doing anything else.
Most people want to know why I would want to thru-hike solo, since I’m not able to enjoy the views. But in my opinion, I don’t think any thru-hiker would go through months of physical, mental and emotional hardship simply for the views. We each embark on a thru-hike to discover something about ourselves. Through deprivation and hardship comes clarity, understanding and growth. Essentially, a thru-hike is a quest, and like most, I do it to step outside my comfort zone and push the barriers of what is considered possible for a blind person to achieve.
I’m sure that hiking, and life in general, would be a lot easier if I could see. But every mountain I climb is a victory and every time I successfully find my camp it’s an accomplishment. And when I sit safely in my tent at the end of each day, I savor these moments, knowing that I have to do more planning, work harder and exert more energy and effort to get the same results as someone with sight. It is this added struggle that makes me appreciate even the small victories and accomplishments that others might take for granted.
Sure, there are times when I wonder what the view is like from the summit. But, honestly, I wouldn’t change anything. Society perceives the world mostly through visual images, leaving it with a one dimensional memory of an event. But since I am unable to see, I rely on all of my remaining senses. I concentrate on how things sound, how they feel, and how things smell to develop my own picture of where I have been and where I am going.
After many years on the trail, I believe I have finally learned how to hear and sense what others see. And although my memories are not pictures in the normal sense of the word, they are multidimensional and very robust.
John Muir once wrote, “We hike to see, and to see what it is that we see.” So the next time you are standing on a summit, or watching a storm develop on the horizon, take a moment to close your eyes, listen to the sounds, take in the smells, and feel your environment. Then ask yourself … Would you still hike if you were unable to see?