Thomas, his guide dog Tennille and I are watching thru hikers pass by our camp on the Appalachian Trail in the Grayson Highlands of Virginia. Tennille and I are watching. Trevor is listening. Although he can’t see the backpackers walking by Thomas uses sound, smell and vibration to form rudimentary pictures in his mind. I am certain that he perceives what is going on around us as accurately as I do, just differently.
Occasionally a hiker will peel off the trail to visit or ask questions or ohhh and ahhh over Tennille. No one gives any indication they know they’re talking to Zero zero, the blind hiker.
“The dropout rate on the AT is about 90%,” Thomas says while tinkering with a new stove and cook system. “About 4,000 hikers start at Springer Mountain in Georgia. By Damascus, Virginia a third will have called it. At Harpers Ferry half will be gone. Thirty percent will quit in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Maine kills the will of a lot of people. Maybe 400 will reach Mt. Katahdin.”
“Thru hiking is hard,” Thomas says. “It’s a hard life. You’re doing a marathon every day, day after day, for months on end with a pack on your back. Hiking a long trail isn’t about your physical prowess. The trail will get you in shape. It’s not about the gear you’re carrying. It’s about your mind. If you’re not prepared mentally the trail will break you.
“A lot of hikers don’t know why they’re here. Your reason for hiking a trail has to be close to your soul. If you don’t have a good enough reason to be here, a reason close enough to your soul it becomes easy to quit.
I understand this soulless quitting business. I’ve already wanted to quit the AT a hundred times today. Trevor and Tennille do not go a tap tap tapping up the trail. Trevor and Tennille flow over the landscape, up and down the rocky steeps, at a steady three-mile-per-hour pace. It’s all I can do to keep up. I was so tired by the time we made camp I totally blew setting up my tent, snapping a pole and ripping the rainfly in the process.
“That didn’t sound good,” says Trevor of the tent. “You want the blind guy to help.”
Not only does the blind guy help, he pitches the tent perfectly.
Now we’re eating supper.
When I ask Trevor what he’s cooking he replies: “I never know. That’s the good thing about being me. Meal time is always a little like Christmas.”
After supper a light rain drives us into our tents early and we lay in our sleeping bags talking back and forth through the walls while out in the darkening world the wind blows and drops patter. The forecast is for rain. We know it’s coming. Coming yes, and it’ll never stop.
In his first life, the life before becoming Zero zero, Trevor Thomas, now 47, was a successful on the go on the make young guy fresh out of the University of Colorado and already in the marketing game. He worked for Phillip Morris’s Adventure Team. “Some guys were working in the grocery store. I was going all over the country to all the big races and hanging with the Miller Girls.” He laughs. Then he decided to go to law school and that was when he discovered he was going blind. “I thought I just needed new glasses, my whole family has crappy eye history,” he says. But it was something else. “My auto immune system woke up one day, targeted my retinas and killed them.” Within a year of discovering that he had macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease, Thomas was blind.
In the midst of that dark night of the soul, as he struggled with blindness, anger and depression, Thomas grabbed hold of an idea that sparked him back to life. That idea was to complete the 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail. Thomas had always been adventuresome but his passion was for speedy wheelie things, mountain bikes, race cars, snowboards, smokin’ hot boats. Walking was way too tame.
“I’d gone to a sporting goods store to buy a pair of hiking poles,” Thomas says. The hiking poles were to use on sidewalks. “The clerk behind the counter was going on and on about this great adventure he’d had. He’d nearly frozen to death. Nearly starved to death. Nearly got eaten by a bear. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him in his life. He’d walked the Appalachian Trail.
“Alright!” thought Thomas. “I was going to do this. I was going to walk the Appalachian Trail, change my life and get my independence back. And I was not going to quit.”
Erik Weihenmayer, the blind climber of Everest and the Seven Summits and kayaker of the Grand Canyon was giving a talk in Charlotte. Trevor’s friend Joe Jones took him to hear Weihenmayer as his 36th birthday present. Jones was the only friend Trevor had left. In his anger at becoming blind he’d alienated himself from everyone else. “People would call wondering what they could do to help and I’d just tell them to fuck off. I’m blind. There’s nothing you can do. Go away.”
Nor did Thomas want to hear what Weihenmayer had to say. “I didn’t know who he was or what he’d done. The last thing I wanted to do was to hear another blind guy talk about how hard things are,” Thomas recalls. Jones didn’t tell Trevor where he was taking him until they were already in the lecture hall. Instead of being put off by Weihenmayer, Thomas was inspired. The two became friends. “Listen,” Weihenmayer told Thomas. “We’re not freaks. We just can’t see is all.”
Weihenmayer gave Thomas the courage to be foolish, to take a risk, to follow his Appalachian Trail dream. “Meeting Erik was a cathartic moment in my life. What are the odds that he would show up to speak in my hometown at the very moment I needed to hear him? If I had not gone and talked to him my life would be completely different. I had no role model. No mentor. If you ask me I just got extremely lucky dude.”
Walking the Appalachian Trail wasn’t a goal his family or anyone else who knew him supported. A blind guy walking two thousand miles up a wild trail through the wild woods? Come on. Get real. Impossible.
“My parents didn’t give me any encouragement. They thought I was running away from my blindness. They were worried. I could die out there. They thought I’d not only lost my sight, I’d lost my mind.” He smiles. “Hell they thought I should be committed.”
Thomas was not to be stopped. “I wasn’t hiking away from blindness I was hiking to deal with it.”
He began practicing pitching a tent in his parent’s backyard. “All I knew was that I needed to do this. Had to do this. I needed to go further than I had ever been before and I had to do it alone. I didn’t give myself a chance of making it. Such a crazy thing. I couldn’t even really wrap my head around it. The craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
On April 6, 2008 Trevor’s sister, Liz, drove him to Springer Mountain, Georgia and he began walking towards Maine. “Don’t get killed,” she admonished him. Walking the AT is a hard enough feat for experienced hikers, much less for a blind man who was basically clueless about the ambition of his undertaking. His family expected him to call for a ride home after a few days. “After I’d walked a thousand miles I finally got a care package from home,” he recalls. “I guess my parents had to accept that I wasn’t coming back. A couple of years ago I learned that my mom had become so distraught when my Spot locator beacon stopped moving for a few days she was hospitalized.
“I was scared,” Thomas says. “But I was more fearful of what awaited me at home. I didn’t have a death wish but I was so beaten down I would rather be dead then go back to the way my life was. If I was going down I was going down swinging.”
For two thousand two hundred miles Thomas felt and fell his way up the trail, through snowstorms and rainstorms and even a typhoon, through terrible wind and pounding hail, through mosquitos, flies, gnats, chiggers and ticks and no-see-ums, feeling and reading trail signs with his fingers until they bled. He broke some ribs. He crawled on all fours. He nearly got swept off his feet in rain-swollen creeks and rivers. Sometimes his pace was less than a mile an hour.
“I did the AT one step and one more step at a time. I didn’t worry about finishing the trail, I worried about making it to tomorrow and when tomorrow came I worried about making it to the next day.”
Once Thomas was stranded for three days alone in a shelter during a storm and had to find his way to the creek for water. Motivated by a strong thirst Thomas took some cord, tied it to the shelter then walked toward the sound of water until the cord became taunt. There he would build a cairn. Then he would go back, untie the cord, find the cairn and start the process over.
“The trail provided when I needed it most,” he says. “I never expected trail magic. But it showed up all over the place. Little acts of serendipity People picked me up on the trail and did my laundry. Every day I found that one person who could help me find my way. “
Sometimes he hiked with acquaintances he made on the trail, people who helped and watched out for him but mostly Thomas walked alone: “Most thru hikers are loners.”
After six months of being on the trail Thomas finally stood on the summit of Mt. Kathadin, the first and only blind person to ever thru hike the Appalachian Trail. “I realized in that moment” he says, “that I had accomplished what I set out to do, I had finished the trail, but my life had just reached a starting point.”