Winter was cold and bitter across the country, including in the (normally milder) South. With the warm breezes of March blowing in, people were filing outdoors to romp in the sun’s rays. I was among them, led by my guide, Little Joe (aka Joey), my husband, and a friend of ours named Joey. We usually hike trails in the relative closeness of our house during the winter; but it was just too cold to do that much this year. We needed the escape for our minds and the movement for our stiff bodies. We found the Hitichi Trail in our Georgia county, Monroe, to fit the bill perfectly. It is long, curvy, and up and down enough to be a good work out, but not too strenuous or scary for one such as myself. It also has beautiful views of creeks, as you wind your way to the Ocmulgee River and along the river for a few miles.
I get asked a lot why I like to go hiking when I can’t see or hear. This question shows that people really don’t understand those of us who are physically different. I usually say I can see just fine, my reference to lessons learned from my Great-grandmother (see December 2013’s HM article: Christmas Lessons), and it is fun. That statement is true, but I seldom have the time or the ability to express myself well enough. So, since I enjoyed myself that day so much after the long break, I thought I would try to explain here with a little detail.
Hiking and backpacking were activities I did frequently before I realized I was losing my sight. What I missed in hearing, I made up for in catching details with my eyes. Though I was losing peripheral vision slowly, I was compensating by scanning and having clear central vision. I actually didn’t miss much and often caught more than my “normal sensory-enabled” friends. I didn’t get asked the question then.
Now without much sight, I enjoy hiking still because I love feeling my body move in ways much different than in the house, back yard, or shopping. I feel muscles flexing, joints taking on the extra burden of bending, and stretching of limbs. I feel bones lifting and supporting against heavier pressures than normal. It feels challenging and good and thrilling all at once. I feel my heart pumping harder, and my breathing getting deep and labored in ways I don’t get even with my usual exercise routines. My emotions run the gamut of peaceful, relaxed, apprehensive, occasional gasp of fleeting terror, accomplished joy of overcoming, joy in laughter when I find myself sitting on my butt in the “agony of defeat”, and the overwhelming good kind of tired after finishing the trek and learning new skills in mobility and navigation independently. Sounds like a lot of things to feel, right? It is, and they are felt all at once. It is stimulation and intensity that I seldom get in the everyday.
I smell the pine, the oak, and the hickory swimming together in sweet and pungent mixes. I smell the rich black soil, the intense mineral moistness of the unique Georgia red clay. Mixed with all of that is the combined smell of fresh leaves dropped from the pines after an ice storm with the earthy, rotting decay of leaves added over the years of continual change. Add the smell of mud and brown creek water with its hint of sourness from being almost stagnant around the edges brimming with algae, which leads me to the freshness of fast moving water of the river. Again, sweetness of stimulation that is miles ahead in satisfaction of the naturally scented soaps and candles that I love to have at home to bring in the smells of the outdoors.
I get the tickle of arm hair as the warm breeze moves through the trees. I feel the sharp, pointed brushes of pine needles and bumps of the new buds on the trees at the edge of the trail as I stride past. I feel the roughness of pine cones and cold slick of smooth rocks and papery frailty of bark slivers that Joey, our human friend, brings me to hold in my hands to add dimension to my experience. You rarely get these sensations inside.
So, you see I have strong reasons why I like to hike. But, the next question I usually get asked is how can I? I have developed techniques over time, with trial and error, but most of that was just my pure determination to be able to hike as unassisted as possible. I am just built that way. It isn’t necessary to enjoy a good hike. I started on well-developed paths of asphalt and wood much like my favorite student, ShaynePatrick who is DeafBlind, is learning to use now. There are plenty of those in places, and some even have rope lines for trailing and hand rails on bridges to allow unassisted exploring. This can be plenty for many people to benefit from good exercise and fresh air for peaceful relaxation.
For other trails that need more guidance, you can connect dowels with some rope to provide a flexible, tactile sensing method of the sighted guide in front. Some use their blind cane for orientation and tactile navigation, but I have switched to two hiking sticks because they are still light and tactile, but sturdier than my cane and allow me to explore a little more strenuous terrain. I use one at the typical hip height for support and traction. I use the other at my Orientation and Mobility (O&M) length (which is mid-breast bone height) to allow me to use my typical O&M skills for tactilely sensing the edges of the trail, obstacles, and type of terrain while I have distance to prepare my feet for stepping. I can also use it for added stability for traversing hills and ravines.
Staying on the trail is very important, but believe me, over time, I can easily tell the difference in feel when the stick hits the packed earth and leaves of the trail and the softer, denser material off the trail edge. If a trail widens out a lot it can be harder to know which direction to go, but with patience and caution in finding trees and rocks and roots that might be in the way, I can usually find the correct destination on my own with a little time. Of course, I have found myself stuck seemingly on all sides like a game character at the edge of a video game, too. (Yes, I can still play a few video games, too.) Therefore, I might need the gentle touch of my sighted guides to lead me to a better part of the trail to get me back on track again. Little Joe sometimes insists in helping me, though most of the time on wilder treks I like to let him enjoy sniffing and relaxing while I hold his leash as he heels. At times, though, my Joey will jump slightly ahead of me if he senses that I am struggling to find the way.
If you want, you can watch two short videos of me on the Hititchi Trail as I find my way unassisted.
I enjoy the challenge in thinking my way through the woods. I also enjoy the smells and sensations along with the health benefits of mind, body, and soul that come from hiking. I am still not doing my former terrain difficulty levels, but I will keep trying. In time, I would love to go back to backpacking again, including the Appalachian Trail. It won’t be the same, but it will be a whole new world to explore in different ways. Yes, different but not less exciting or enjoyable.
Have these questions been answered to your satisfaction? I love hiking because I have two other senses to enjoy the world and a body that loves the intensity of movement and benefits from the exercise. I can also do it safely with tools, skillful techniques, and sighted helpers with two and four legs. There are plenty of places to allow for the benefits and enjoyment at various health and physical levels, so don’t let the lack of senses or motivation deprive you of the adventure.