Trevor Thomas, Hiking Blind
"Have you seen the blind guy? I heard he’s out here on the trail somewhere." The hiker was asking Trevor Thomas.
"Haven’t seen him," Trevor answered.
“Technically I wasn’t lying,” Thomas tells me, “I haven’t seen me in a long time.”
Truth is, none of the other backpackers Trevor Thomas and I will meet on the Grayson Highlands portion of the Appalachian Trail will see Zero zero, the infamous blind hiker. Thomas is so far outside our perception of what blindness is and where a blind person should be--not out on the Appalachian Trail for God’s sake--the sighted don’t see Thomas's blindness. What they see is a lean muscular guy cruising up the trail wearing a big backpack and a big smile, a wild shock of long hair sticking out from beneath his hat, a sweet black dog trotting on a leash beside him.
That’s the way Thomas prefers it. In the woods he’s just another hiker.
And Tennille, his five-year-old Labrador retriever guide dog, is just another adventure dog. “Out here I feel normal, “ Trevor says. “Out here I’m just like everyone else. Nature is the great equalizer. It treats us all the same.”
But Mr. T is far from being the same as everyone else out here. Walking in an all day rainstorm in the deep Virginia woods with him is more akin to walking with a savant than a blind man. Every so often I’ll yell, “Hey, Trevor, tell me about where we are.” He stops. “There’s a rock wall on our right he’ll say and to the left, a drop off and a valley with hills beyond. Water down there.” He says it’s the wind that tells him this. The air currents. The sound of things distant and far. Everything has a sound Thomas says. “What you see I hear. Every time I come out on the trail my sound vocabulary grows.” The landscape communicates with him in an invisible language of texture, climate, temperature, sounds and vibrations and Thomas with all of his senses, his footfall and hiking pole is listening.
Then there’s Tennille, his constant canine companion. Tennille who can sniff out Gatorade in Costco for Thomas and in the woods finds trails and trail markers, water and sometimes campsites. Tennille stops at obstacles she deems unsafe for which she gets a treat. She knows Thomas’s height and warns him about low hanging branches. Tennille vibrates with awareness, sees all, hears all, smells all. “I’m the big picture guy,” Thomas says. “She does the detail stuff.” Together the pair navigate the trail with astonishing speed. Sometimes I break into a trot just to keep up.
"I wish you could see what the hell you’re walking down," I tell Trevor at one point during a slick foggy rocky ledgy ankle twisting descent. "Actually," he answers "I’m glad I can’t."
Since losing his vision ten years ago Thomas has literally pulled himself up into the light from a dark well of depression and pain. “I know what it’s like being on death row in a self imposed prison,” Thomas says. “There was a door but I couldn’t open it. I’d wake up and just exist. I had nothing to do. No job. No place to go. I couldn’t watch T.V. Couldn’t read a book. I couldn’t even tell time without asking someone.” He was 37 years old and living in a small room in his parent’s basement. “People who were helping me cope with being blind basically told me all the things I couldn’t do. Not what I could do. I was told that when I went outside I was never to leave the sidewalk.”
An adrenaline junkie who mountain biked and raced cars and took crazy lines down mountains on his snowboard Trevor broke all the rules of being blind and “refused to live the way I was existing.”
Long distance hiking saved Thomas’s life. “On the Appalachian Trail I walked into my life,” he says of his solo thru hike in 2008. “If I could do that, if I could walk from Georgia to Maine I could do anything in my life. I could take control again.” Since then he’s walked over 20,000 miles on some of America’s loneliest and toughest long distance trails. Through his speaking, writing, blogging, sponsorships and foundation, Team Farsight, Thomas has created a unique professional niche that allows him to live alone in a house in Charlotte, North Carolina and most importantly, to hike whenever and wherever he wants, aspirations limited only by his imagination.
“I want to know what I can do. How far I can take things,” Thomas says. He does this for himself, but also sees his life as an example to others. Thomas rails against a society that he believes diminishes blind people, sees them as unemployable, teaches them not to adapt to the world but rather how to manipulate the system.
“When I speak to blind people who have already been indoctrinated into the system I may as well be talking Sanskrit,” he says. “The newly blind and kids, these are people I can reach. The funny thing is, when I do talk to the kids at one of my adventure camps the questions they ask, it’s not about bears or mountain lions or rattlesnakes, things they’re afraid of in the woods. They want to know if I live alone, if I have a job, how do I dress myself. I’ll die knowing that I was able to make a difference in these kids lives.”
I met Trevor during his Colorado Trail thru hike last season. A friendship ensued that blossomed into planning a six-week trip on the Collegiate West and John Muir Trails. Every spring Trevor returns to the Appalachian Trail as part of a get ready for the trail shake down. This year he invited me to come along.
PART II. What I learned