What does it take for a blind man to hike the grueling 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail?
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Zero isn't so much hiking as he is hitchhiking. He follows. When there is nobody to follow, he sits and waits. In the Great Smoky Mountains, he waits for three days. This is at the shelter on Mount Collins, a three-sided stone building with a chain-link fence on the fourth to keep bears out. It's about a mile down a side trail, and just a few miles from Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the AT.
The weather has turned sour. Zero's friends are nowhere to be found. He had hurt his foot at Fontana Dam, where the trail enters the national park. Zero had limped back to civilization with a section hiker, who took him to the emergency room. His friends had gone ahead. When the weather turned bad, Zero's friends went in to Gatlinburg for a few zero days, trail talk for a few days of rest.
Zero had returned to the trail and followed some hikers to the shelter, where he decided to wait, alone, for his friends to catch up. The temperature drops to eighteen degrees. It starts to rain. Then it turns to sleet. Then hail. Then the ice and snow arrive.
Nobody comes the first day. The second day, the only people who come by are a Danish couple on a day hike. Zero stays put. "It was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of my life," Zero says about those days. He can't find any wood. He can't find a water source, which is a mile away from the shelter.
Finally, on the third day, another group of thru-hikers arrives. They say they'll get him to Newfound Gap, a mountain pass where U.S. 441 crosses from North Carolina into Tennessee. This was Zero's first real test on the trail. He didn't panic. He passed. He starts to realize that he can make it.
It takes weeks to get what hikers refer to as trail legs, legs that can take the constant pounding, brutal climbs, steep declines, and long distances. Muscles struggle to get used to the weight of a backpack that can weigh close to fifty pounds.
On the lower part of the trail, everybody wants to talk about gear. Where did you get it? Does it fit right? What kind of pack do you have? Do you like it? Zero's gear is just like everybody else's, with the exception of a device called a SPOT. Every night, Zero pushes a button. The SPOT sends out a message to a global positioning satellite that details his exact location. Nervous family and friends use it to keep track of his location. They use it as a nightly reminder that Zero is OK. When he took up hiking, they thought it would be therapeutic. They just didn't think he would find his therapy on the Appalachian Trail.
On the trail, any therapy is quickly replaced by a constant search for the basics of survival. Food. Shelter. Water. In North Carolina, it's not easy to find something to drink. A drought has dried up many water sources. At one point, Zero is carrying five to six liters of water in his pack. Water is heavy. And weight is the enemy. Zero brought a CD player and a book on tape. He mails them home at his first chance. They are too heavy. And they're not essential. Zero's only eating utensil is a spork.
Most are concerned about eating enough food. Diet is not a huge consideration; calories are calories, whether they come from ramen noodles, candy bars, or powdered milk (Zero will still lose thirty pounds before he's through). The only rule: the more the better.
All hikers prepare, but most have only completed a few overnight hikes. Most have never gone more than fifty miles at a time. Nearly all are woefully inexperienced. Their planning doesn't help them realize the true scope of what they're undertaking. But everybody else on the trail has one advantage: they can see where they are going.
Word starts to get out about Zero. Gossip spreads along the trail. People write about meeting him in shelter logs, ubiquitous, spiral-bound notebooks that people use to leave records about themselves on the trail. NOBOs (north bounders) start to hear about him from SOBOs (south bounders). Around once a week, most hikers take zero days in one of the many towns that dot the trail. They wash clothes. Take a shower. Enjoy a meal. Sleep in a bed. Many update their progress on trailjournals.com, a public diary for hikers. They also read up on how others are doing. "I cannot imagine hiking blind. WOW! Other hikers said that he falls a lot," wrote a hiker named Zephyr. "He is blind and hiking the trail, truly amazing," wrote Campfire, a thru-hiker who met Zero at a shelter near Hot Springs, North Carolina. "There [were] about twenty hikers there, most being of the partying sort so three of them got drunk and let the blind guy give them a Mohawk. Only on the trail…"
At first, Zero was a curiosity. A novelty. People sought him out and asked him the same questions. What's it like being blind? How are you doing this? Some people were excited to hike with him, because he was the blind guy. Some hikers were not sure what to do, or how to help. Others were helpful, but not necessarily in the right ways. "Most people would go out of their way to say if there was a stick on the trail, a tiny stick, they would stop, pick it up, move it off the trail, kick it out of the way," Zero remembers, "and then five feet later they'd let me run into a tree."
It takes nearly 300 miles before Zero becomes confident enough to hike alone. He gives it a try on a section of trail outside Pearisburg, Virginia. The trail is less rugged and more accommodating through the Shenandoahs. There are not as many rocky, rough, or grueling sections. He uses his feet as feelers. If it feels tamped down, it must be trail. If it is squishy, it must be something else. He can't see blazes, but he can use signs to keep him on track. Most signs in this area are wooden, and engraved with words, mileage figures, and arrows. Zero traces each letter with his finger. At one point, between Troutdale and Catawba, Virginia, Zero covers sixty miles.
At another spot, Zero hears a voice. "Stop! Don't go any further," it says. It asks what he's doing. Hiking, Zero replies. "If you hike and go more than ten feet straight, you're going to die," that voice says. It was another hiker, warning Zero that he's about to walk off a cliff.