Blind Faith

What does it take for a blind man to hike the grueling 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail?



Trevor Thomas was despondent about his sudden blindness, until he heard a speech that changed his life, leading him to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Chris Edwards

(page 1 of 4)

He has come more than two thousand miles, through wind, rain, snow. He is within a hundred miles of the end, and he wants to give up. But that's the problem with the 100-Mile Wilderness. You can't quit. You have nowhere to go. The only way to quit is to continue.

The 100-Mile Wilderness is just that: a long and lonely haul through nothingness that stretches between Monson, Maine, and a campground just fifteen miles from the Appalachian Trail's northern terminus, Mount Katahdin. It is a final test. Just to see what you're made of. It is possibly the toughest part of Maine, which is the toughest state on the path that most hikers simply call the AT. Virginia meanders.

Pennsylvania is rocky. Vermont is muddy. Maine punishes. There, the AT goes over peaks and under boulders and straight up rock faces and nowhere near anyone who can help. The trail does not go over rivers. In the 100-Mile Wilderness, it goes through them.

It's on the third day in the wilderness that a hiker named Zero/Zero has had enough.

His backpack is his lifeline. It contains everything he needs to survive, and yet on this day, it is Zero's liability. The trail demands that he ford a river swollen by what's left of Hurricane Kyle. There is no other way. Zero crosses as gingerly as he can. He is waist deep in forty-two-degree water. His pack is tethered to him with fifty feet of paracord. His extremities are searing with pain from the cold. His knees ache. The current makes it hard for his already tenuous footing to hold on to a slick floor of rocks and pebbles. One of his feet is probably broken.

Something goes wrong. Quickly. Zero slips. His pack comes loose. He ditches it. Fifty feet of rope uncoil in the swollen river. Zero tries to regain his balance, but it is too late. His pack is full of water and heavy in the current. Zero is ripped off his feet and violently tugged along downstream.

He gets lucky. Zero's pack floats into just the right spot and anchors itself between some rocks. The same cord that dragged him down the river is a lifeline once again. It keeps him from ending up at the bottom of a waterfall.

Zero is wet, cold, and shaken. He will lose his footing in two more rivers. In the same day.

If Zero could see, this would not have happened. Zero would never have been on the trail if he could see.

It is October 4, 2004. 9 a.m. Thirty-five-year-old Trevor Thomas is about to join the Navy and become a JAG officer. His mind is ready. His body is prepared. But his eyes are getting fuzzy. He needs glasses. He's sitting in his eye doctor's office. Waiting.

Trevor is not the kind of person who likes to wait. This is a guy who races Porsches for fun. He runs. He scampers up rock faces. He hurtles through forests on mountain bikes. He's just graduated from law school. He's recently moved to Charlotte to stay with his parents while he prepares for his new job. And in a few weeks, he'll be stationed in Greece. But first, he needs glasses.
One look from his optometrist changes that.

"Oh my God," she says. She cannot help. Glasses cannot help. Lasik surgery cannot help. For months, this is the day that Trevor Thomas will say he received his death sentence. He makes trip after trip to specialist after specialist. Nobody can give him an answer. Nobody knows what is wrong with his eyes.

He can pass every part of the Navy physical, except for the eye exam. At first, he memorizes the chart. After a while, he can't fake it anymore. His recruiter says the Navy has no use for a blind officer. Greece is gone.

Trevor's world is closing in. One day, he can see twenty feet in front of him. The next week, he can only see ten feet. Then less. And less.

Every day, Trevor wakes up and asks himself one question: is this going to be the day that I will be blind?

Three months pass. Finally, when it is too late, Trevor learns what is wrong. Doctors call it atypical central serous chorioretinopathy.

His immune system woke up one day and decided it did not like his eyes. It attacked. In the eye, small receptors called cones help you see colors. Rods in your eyes help you make out shapes and contrasts. The disease is eating them both. Doctors try to help. Problem is, nobody knows much about Trevor's disease. It is so rare that it is not studied enough.

Doing nothing is not an option. If Trevor does nothing, he goes blind. If doctors try something, and they're wrong, he goes blind. So they try. They burn holes in his eyes with lasers. That does not work. They try an experimental procedure that involves injecting the colon cancer drug Avastin directly into the eyes. It might control the infection. It is extremely painful. And it does not work.

Trevor can no longer read. He goes from racing Porsches to riding a bus for the disabled. He is angry about his new cane. He cannot dial a telephone. The buttons on his oven baffle him. He can't heat up a pizza.

It's now six months since Trevor Thomas went in to get his glasses. His vision is nearly gone. He doesn't know how he'll get a job. He's afraid to leave his house, especially at night. And he's about to hear the speech that will change his life.

Erik Weihenmayer was thirteen when he went blind from retinoschisis. He went on to become a middle school teacher and a wrestling coach. He skied and paraglided for fun. Then he started to climb mountains.

In 2001, he climbed Mount Everest. Afterward, he traveled the country, telling people how he did it. In 2005, Trevor Thomas was in the audience when Weihenmayer spoke in Charlotte.

"If he could do that, there's no excuse for me," Trevor recalls. "That two-hour speech changed my entire life."

On that day, Trevor became Zero/Zero.

The clouds are gray and hang low on a Friday morning. It looks like it's about to rain. To Zero, this is perfect hiking weather. He sits on a low platform and takes a few last puffs on his cigarette as I approach. It's a nasty habit that he picked back up on the AT. "I threw parties for a living," he says about his former marketing job with Philip Morris, an employer that encouraged him to light up whenever possible. He's already quit once. Now he's trying to do it again. You can't expect to smoke on the Pacific Crest Trail. Especially in the high Sierras. You need all the oxygen you can get.

The Pacific Crest is next on Zero's agenda, and he's keeping his legs fresh. He's hiking along the winding cross-country course at Charlotte's McAlpine Creek Greenway. Zero is still putting in five to ten trail miles a day to prepare. He is powered by the drive to take on another challenge, but he is also proof that often, thru-hikers can't quit cold turkey. "I got a couple of friends who are living in their tents in their backyards," Zero says. "They can't stand to be inside."

It is a chilly October day. Zero is wearing a windbreaker, trail shoes, and shorts. His legs are thin and sinewy. His hair is starting to become that way. His face is weather worn from a half year spent outside, and he's sporting an ever-so-slight goatee, much thinner than the mustache he wore on the trail. Zero is skinny but not gaunt. He doesn't smile much, because he doesn't have the time. He has too much of his trip to describe. Just ask any thru-hiker about the AT. You won't be able to get a word in. Zero swears he wasn't this talkative before he hiked the trail.

Zero's voice is low and confident. He doesn't stumble over words. One thru-hiker who spent time with him in Maine says Zero has an edge to him. Yet he's not rude. He's driven. He's funny. He's a no-nonsense kind of guy. But he isn't happy about his eyes.

Those eyes are hard to ignore. They're hidden away behind sunglasses that wrap around his head. They are always open.

His eyes gave him his name. On the Appalachian Trail, most everybody abandons their real name for a trail name. Zero/Zero seemed fitting for Trevor.

We invite your responses and discussion. Please refrain from personal attacks, profanity, commercial promotion, or non sequiturs.

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