Blind Faith

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


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After that, Zero doesn't hike alone for a week.

Most of the time, Zero travels with others. It's faster and safer, but it's still brutal. One hiker called Blue Butterfly, who found him alone at the Mount Collins shelter, also gets him lost in the Smokies. (After she regained her bearings, she admitted that she hadn't seen a sign or a blaze in four hours. Zero replied with an emphatic "What?!") He gets stitches in his head after running into a tree near Hot Springs, North Carolina. Remember his foot? A doctor says it's likely broken from a spiral fracture. One of his metatarsals has slightly twisted apart. Every step comes with a varying degree of pain. Zero presses on. He doesn't tell anybody about his injuries, least of all his family or friends. They're already worried about him. He doesn't want to make it worse.

There is some serenity. Zero and another thru-hiker called Tailgunner make it to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, by July 22. He stops to pose for a picture at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. "After a lazy morning, planning a tubing expedition for this afternoon before hopping to D.C.," reads their entry in the registry. Zero catches a flight back to Charlotte to see family. It's not uncommon for thru-hikers to take breaks.

Five days later, he's back on the trail. He hikes with anyone who will take him. Day hikers. Section hikers. Boy Scouts. He's desperately trying to move quickly. He doesn't want to end up like Bill Irwin—the last person on the trail.

The trails begin to change character. Before West Virginia, the constant up and down of North Carolina and Tennessee has been replaced by the gentle undulations of Virginia. Climbing legs morph into cruising legs.

The next test comes after Harpers Ferry. The true mountains return. The pace becomes harder and the pace slows. The trail has a reputation for being poorly maintained in Pennsylvania. Rocks are constant. Zero calls them ankle breakers. New Jersey and New York are a welcome respite. In Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the trail begins to wind over brutal peaks where the weather can change in a matter of minutes. One day, it's soggy. The next day, it's brutally windy. In some spots, the trail darts above and below the tree line, and the weather changes from comfortable to life threatening in an instant.

He injures his hip falling down Mount Greylock in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. He loses his balance and nearly pitches into a crevasse in New Hampshire. Later, in Maine, he'll bruise five ribs during a tumble down Saddleback Mountain. Falling becomes part of the routine.

Maine is also where Zero has to tackle the toughest mile on the trail, the Mahoosuc Notch. By this time, most hikers, along with family and friends back home, have stopped telling him that he's going to get himself killed. Instead, they've started telling him he can make it. But the Notch is not easy. It's something thru-hikers talk about for hundreds of miles before, and for most it lives up to the reputation. A notch is a Maine-ism for a spot between two mountains, and in this spot, boulders are strewn about as if some deity had forgotten to clean up after playtime. Hikers call it a jungle gym for adults.

Zero doesn't ask for help. A thru-hiker named Jarrod "So-Crates" Doll offers. He's already heard of Zero.

So-Crates notices Zero's legs. They look wobbly. He's constantly feeling out a safe place to put his feet. Zero falls twice. His knees and legs take a beating. Sometimes he slides down rocks slicked by the rain.

Zero and dozens of other hikers at the bottom sit ten miles from the end of the trail. They're blocked from summiting. And they're running out of time.

In this spot, the trail isn't so much a trail as it is a suggestion. White blazes are painted on the sides of rocks that you need to climb over, duck under, and squeeze between. In one spot, hikers have to take off their packs and push them through. In many other parts, they have to jump from rock to rock.

Zero recalls one jump clearly. It's only three feet across, a hop for the sighted but a leap of faith for someone who can't see the other side. His companions tell him to get to the edge, jump, and grab. "I did it and I misjudged the distance. So, I grabbed with one arm, I'm hanging, and my fingers are slipping off and the dude that was in front of me froze. And at that point I was convinced I was going to fall 200 feet straight down."

His companions react quickly. One grabs his hand and pulls him to safety.

Most trail miles go by in twelve to fifteen minutes. This one takes more than two hours.

More challenges come. It takes seven long days to make it through the aforementioned 100-Mile Wilderness. Zero's nerves and resolve are frayed. He falls into rivers. His knees hurt so badly that he decides to sit and slide down the side of one mountain, because his joints can't hold him up. He'll fall seventy-eight times in one day. He goes in wanting only to survive. He comes out glad only that he did.

Zero has come more than 2,000 miles to the edge of Baxter State Park, which contains his prize: Katahdin. What happens next nearly becomes the most frustrating part of the trip.

Katahdin is a rock that juts nearly a mile into the air. In the Abenaki language, it means "preeminent mountain." Henry David Thoreau climbed it in 1847. Sort of. He never made it to the top (blame the fog), got lost (again, blame the fog), and sprained an ankle. He wrote a book about the experience, Ktaadn, describing the mountain as "a vast aggregation of loose rocks, as if some time it had rained rocks, and they lay as they fell on the mountain sides, nowhere fairly at rest, but leaning on each other, all rocking stones, with cavities between, but scarcely any soil or smoother shelf." It is a fitting, rugged, and exhausting end to a rugged and exhausting trail.

But there's a problem. It's sunny, but Katahdin is closed. It's been closed for a week. Somewhere above Zero, snow and ice are swirling around in the howling wind. Rangers call these Class IV days; they react by closing down all approaches at the trailheads. The AT's northern terminus lies at the highest point in Maine. The peak is exposed. There is no cover. Katahdin shuts down for days, even weeks at a time, starting in September. It closes completely for the winter after October 15. If you don't make it by then, you don't make it. If you try it anyway, rangers can confiscate your equipment, throw you in jail, and ban you from the park and your prize. It is October 7. Zero and dozens of other hikers at the bottom sit ten miles from the end of the trail. They're blocked from summiting. And they're running out of time.

Word spreads that the fallout from Hurricane Kyle may keep the mountain closed through the fifteenth. Panic starts to ensue. Campground space is almost gone as more hikers roll in. It's slim pickings for hotel rooms. Zero and his hiking buddies start to hatch a plan to climb illegally. Cooler heads prevail.

The mountain has been locked up tight for a week when, on October 8, the weather breaks just enough for rangers to open one trail to the top. Hikers scamper up in scores. It is all they need.

People take pictures in front of a famous wooden sign marking the trail's end. It's a beautiful view. Zero takes in the sound. From that height, he can hear the vast openness. He can hear hawks and catch bits of conversations going on miles away. There is none of the noise he'll hear when he returns to Charlotte in a week.

The bad weather of previous days turns out to be a blessing. It gave Zero the chance to catch up with companions who got ahead of him on the trail. It's a family reunion of sorts.

The sixty-three thru-hikers on the summit start taking stock of what they've done. They're no longer talking about gear. They're wondering what happened to the people who aren't there.

As the picture taking begins in earnest, Zero fills his pockets with rocks. In his world, pebbles from Katahdin are a reminder of what he's done. He can feel their jagged edges. It's the only picture he can see.

We've been walking around on the McAlpine Creek Greenway for nearly two hours when we stop. Already I've let him run into the same small tree branch twice ("I didn't perceive that," he chortles). At least once we had come to a trail junction where I didn't know where to go next.

"All right," he says, "I've been talking. I don't know where I am."

"Well, there's kind of a little workout thing over there," I say, referring to a sit-up platform and chin-up bar.

"Oh, OK," he says. "Let's go this way."

It's official. A blind guy just gave me directions.

It took him six months and two days to walk from Georgia to Maine. He walked for months on a broken foot (he still hasn't been to the doctor to know for sure). He encountered at least thirty bears. He fell close to 1,500 times.

He admits that he played the blind card a few times on the trail. He was the only hiker he knew who never had a problem hitching a ride. All he had to do was whip out his red-and-white cane. People would give him a ride because they just couldn't believe it.

Sometimes, motel managers would go out of their way to give him a room on the first floor. "I'd just hiked a thousand miles," he says with a small chuckle. "They were worried I'd fall down stairs."

Mostly, though, his stories are about people he's encountered along the way. He says he met close to 600 people on the trail, and tries to stay in touch with around 150 of them. His tales focus on others. Once, he says, he ran into other thru-hikers who had a friend who had just become blind. They urged him to talk with her on the phone. He explained to her what he was doing. Weeks later, he heard that his words got that woman out of her house. She started to accept her blindness, instead of wallowing in disbelief.

Zero is a name dropper. He talks about Prometheus and Blue Butterfly, Alohawk and Superman, D and Bundy. Erik Weihenmayer just sent him a congratulatory e-mail. He talks about "trail angels," people who leave behind food for hikers along the way. He marvels about people who gave him rides into town. He sighs about hiking companions who he's desperately trying to find. It's hard when you don't know their real names. He hiked with one man for more than 300 miles before they realized that they were both named Trevor.

Most of his stories sound rehearsed, although not forced. It comes from people asking him about the same things over and over. After a while, he's learned to separate a good anecdote from trail tedium. After all, in his sighted life, he was a marketer, a sales manager, and a law student. He knows what makes for a good story.

We sit down. And things change.

It is time for Zero to talk about Trevor.

"Blindness brought me to the trail," he says, then draws a deep breath. "What I walked away from the trail with was a new respect for humanity.

"When you get on the trail, you don't concentrate on the material things in life. You concentrate on the experiences, whether, say, you met somebody new today. Maybe you went an entire day without falling. There were a couple of places that we just sat on the side of a mountain and took in nothing. I mean, everything was just quiet, maybe a sunrise or sunset that you could experience."

How does a blind man experience a sunrise?

"When the sun comes up," he explains, "you feel the warmth on your face."

He is reorganizing his life. Simplifying it. Things that don't serve more than one purpose are gone. After months of eating only what's available, a trip to the grocery store is overwhelming. "Getting in a car is terrifying," he says. It goes way too fast.

Trevor still has a lot of work to do. He's figuring out how to turn his experience into a book. He's meeting with a man in his church who's just lost his sight. He figures his story will help. And of course, the Pacific Crest Trail looms in the distance. He might go back out into the Shenandoahs and catch up with some friends who are hiking south toward Springer Mountain. He wants to try out his cold-weather gear.

At thirty-nine, Trevor isn't giving up his goal of becoming an attorney, either. Right now, he's studying to pass the North Carolina bar exam, and eventually wants to become a disability lawyer.

Still, what's left of his peripheral vision keeps slipping away. The little help it afforded him on the AT may be gone by the time he gets to the PCT.

He says he felt disabled, but no longer.

"Then, once you embrace it, then it just becomes a part of you. Like having blue eyes or brown hair. I just happen to be…blind. And now the big thing people ask me is, ‘OK, if somebody walked up and they had the cure, if you had a 100 percent chance of having your vision back, would you do it?' "

He pauses.

"Honestly, I'm not sure. I've gotten so accustomed to this way of life and I appreciate things in so many different ways than I used to.

"More challenging? Yeah. Less rewarding? No."

He gets up. He picks up his trekking poles, finds the trail, and sets off on the greenway.

He can't see what's ahead. He doesn't need to.

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