Blind Faith

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


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He moves quickly. He is sure of himself. He uses his poles like a downhill skier: gently tapping ahead of him in rhythm, feeling out any obstacle that could snag his foot and bring him down. 

Zero can go this fast because he's walked this greenway many times before. He can go this fast because I am here. Zero mimics the cadence of my steps. When I move more quickly, so does he. When I veer left, he follows. He is locked on to the direction and timing of my every move. His ears are his eyes.

Feet blister. Spines strain. Muscles ache. After every bend, over every hill, and past every town, there is just more trail. Every day, they wake up, eat, break camp, and hike. It is work.

This is how Zero hiked over mountain after mountain, mile after mile, without seeing any of it. I look ahead and see a pond. I see bends in the gravelly path under our feet. I see leaves blowing slightly under a gloomy sky. I see nature. And I see where I am going.

This is what Zero sees. "In the middle of my vision, nothing," he says. "It's just gray."

His peripheral vision is not completely gone. He describes the few parts of his vision that still work as an overexposed picture. The colors are overblown and everything is stretched. Zero thinks for a second. "You ever see Star Trek, when the Klingons cloak their ships and the ship's not there anymore, and it's kinda like this wavy thing?" he asks. "That's what it's like. So, it's kind of a very bizarre way to perceive the world."

Most times, Zero can tell when something moves. He can't tell what is moving, or how big it is, or if it's a threat. Through sight alone, he can't tell if it's a person, a car, or a bear.

If it does not move and if it does not make a sound, Zero cannot perceive it. This is what forced him to give up running. He would run into parked cars, and at least once knocked over an elderly woman.

Hiking turns out to be a perfect fit. There are no cars to run into on the trail. He starts walking Charlotte's greenways with his mobility instructor. After a while, he does it himself. Now he has this greenway memorized, down to the step.

At a fork in the path, Zero stops. "I know we're at a trail juncture," he says, then pivots. "We want to go this way."

The Appalachian Trail can be a solitary place, even though as many as 4 million people visit some part of the trail each year. Many come for the day. Far fewer attempt to thru-hike the entire 2,175-mile stretch from Georgia to Maine. Fewer complete it. This year, 1,250 hikers set out from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, fully expecting to make it to Katahdin. One hundred dropped out within the first thirty miles. Another 100 quit before making it to Fontana Dam, North Carolina, where the trail crosses into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (which keeps these statistics). It is also the trail's emotional midpoint, and only half of the 1,250 thru-hikers made it this far. Katahdin is still more than 1,100 miles away from Harpers Ferry.

By October 15, when Katahdin closes for the winter, only about one in six of the people who left Springer Mountain will make their way up to the mile-high summit.

In between the two mountains lies a path roughly eighteen inches wide, marked every so often with two-inch-by-six-inch white blazes, painted on nearby trees and rocks. There are more than 160,000 white blazes on the AT.

Most people hike from south to north to make the most of the changing seasons. Most people still will not make it.

Some cannot take the physical demands of walking more than a dozen miles, day after day, with close to fifty pounds on their backs. Feet blister. Spines strain. Muscles ache. Others cannot mentally handle what appears to be an infinite trip through an endless green tunnel. After every bend, over every hill, and past every town, there is just more trail.

Some show up for the adventure. Others come to escape their jobs. Nearly all find out that hiking the trail is a new occupation. Every day, they wake up, eat, break camp, and hike. It is work.

At least five blind people have completed the trail. Bill Irwin was the first. People on the AT still talk about him at length. He and his guide dog, Orient, thru-hiked the AT in 1990. He fell close to five thousand times. He was the last thru-hiker to finish that year. It punished his legs, his knees, and his mind. He did it to beat alcoholism and he did it for God. His church kept him supplied and nourished. "I don't miss the pain, the loneliness, the hardships, the cold, the heat of the A.T.," he wrote in his book, Blind Courage. "I never enjoyed the hiking part. It was something I felt compelled to do."

Trevor Thomas felt compelled to do it by himself. But he would need help. And that would turn out to be the trail's greatest reward.

It's April 6, 2008, and Kevin "Noah John" Rondeau has just made the grueling eight-mile hike up from Amicola Falls on a path that winds up over the top of Springer Mountain, Georgia. That's just the approach trail to the AT. Nothing actually counts until you pass a small metal monument that's bolted into the rock at the summit.

A little more than a mile later, Noah John comes to a parking lot. Many thru-hikers actually start here, hike the shorter distance up Springer, then hike back down. Noah hears a voice. "Yep, going to Maine," it says. OK, buddy, Noah John says to himself, we'll see about that.

The same voice is now addressing him. "Can you do me a favor?" it asks. "Can I follow you to the next shelter? I am blind." This should be interesting, thinks Noah John.

That voice is Zero's. He was supposed to be hiking with a friend, who had to cancel on him at the last minute. Zero's sister begrudgingly dropped him off at the parking lot. It took a lot of convincing to get her to take him this far. If he quits, she's making him take the bus back to Charlotte.

So Zero and his sister wait in the parking lot, where Zero has been asking all day for somebody, anybody to follow to the top of Springer. No one was willing until Noah John came along.

For the first six days, Noah John and Zero are a team. They push each other up mountains and down into hollows. Zero does not want to be a liability. So he keeps up. Noah John figures he has to go fast, because he doesn't want to slow Zero down. Besides, who wants to get the reputation that they were outhiked by a blind guy?

Zero and Noah John stick together for nearly seventy miles. They are just shy of the North Carolina border. At Hiawassee, Georgia, Noah John has to press on, because he has to finish before he starts grad school. They part. "My first week on the AT this April was one of the more spectacular and inspirational experiences of my life," Noah would write later. "I owe it to complete luck of circumstance, and Z." 

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

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