Commentary

Shaffer: Blind hiker and trusty Lab cross Tar Heel state

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comJune 3, 2013 

  • Follow Thomas

    To follow Trevor Thomas in his quest to be the first blind man to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, see his Web page www.blindhikertrevorthomas.com or search for his name on Facebook.com.

— In eight months’ time, Trevor Thomas’ eyesight declined from the point of maybe needing contact lenses to total blindness – a surprise delivered by a rare eye disease.

Friends told him he’d never skydive again, never race Porsches, never feel the adrenaline surge he’d get from strapping on a pair of skis.

They were right.

Instead, Thomas hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, only three years after his vision turned to shades of gray. He broke several ribs and two bones in his feet along the way. He cracked his hip and his skull. He stopped counting his falls when he got to 3,000.

But he finished.

This spring, Thomas is tackling the Mountains-to-Sea Trail – 1,000 miles from Clingman’s Dome to Jockey’s Ridge, accompanied only his black Lab, Tennille.

They started in April, the trail still icy, carving a path through the snow. They crossed the Linville River together, Tennille in a life jacket. They found their way to Falls Lake on Friday, guided by an iPhone that reads maps out loud.

At age 44, Thomas has become so accomplished as a long-distance hiker, making his trips thanks to a host of outdoor gear companies, that he can deliver this improbable statement:

If somebody offered him his sight back, he’d think twice about taking it. As a blind man, he’s stood at the 14,000-foot peak of Mount Whitney in California – the tallest mountain in the continental United States.

“This is who I am,” he said. “My experience is more rewarding. I have to work five or 10 times as hard. When I get there, I get to experience what you see with all my other senses. If it’s just started raining, I smell the ozone. Maybe I feel the sun on my face. If you’re above the tree line, you can actually hear how quiet it is.”

Blind since 2005, Thomas moved back to Charlotte after graduating from law school at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail doesn’t stretch the distance of the AT, or reach the heights of the Pacific Crest Trail, which Thomas hiked in 2010.

But it offers unique hurdles.

You need more than one tool in your hiking toolbox. The trail starts in the mountains, where Thomas and Tennille managed to clamber over boulders in Linville Gorge and make 19 river crossings in a day and a half.

But once you move further east, the trail follows rural highways, passing through small towns. Cars whiz past as you hike along the shoulder. Dogs bark from rural lawns. You’ve got to arrange a place to camp in advance, counting on strangers’ kindnesses.

But other than those wrinkles, Thomas relies on skills he slowly honed as a sightless hiker. He taps his carbon fiber pole or clicks his tongue, listening for echoes. Tennille warns him when he’s coming up on a low branch. But the biggest trick with her, as a 2-year-old guide dog, was teaching her not to stop at every rock or root in the wilderness.

“She finds me signs,” Thomas explained. “She can’t follow the blazes because she’s color blind.”

They share space in a Big Agnes tent, where Tennille sleeps in a custom-made bag. So far, Thomas has worn through seven pairs of Ahnu shoes, and he expects to go through 10 by the time he makes the Outer Banks in July. Sometimes, he gets help restocking supplies. Other times, he wanders into a small town, finds the grocery store and enlists a helper for grocery shopping.

Altogether, his pack weighs 54 pounds, complete with special wilderness-blend dog food.

But 600 miles into his quest, Thomas isn’t worried about falling or getting lost. His biggest concerns come from the rising heat and unleashed dogs along the trail. Once he’s east of Falls Lake and in Franklin County, he’ll be walking along the edge of people’s front yards.

So far, the state’s hospitality has thrilled him. People follow his progress on Facebook, drive up alongside and ask, “Aren’t you that guy?” and “Isn’t that Tennille?”

But when he takes that last sandy step, he’ll hear the ocean pounding on the Outer Banks sand, feel the spray on his forehead and notice how the salt air feels different from the breezes of the Smoky Mountains.

Even without seeing, he won’t miss a thing.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service