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Blind Charlotte hiker’s ‘senses’ guide him on unprecedented trip

Jack Horan
Correspondent

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DANBURY, N.C. He began the trek on Clingmans Dome on April 6, trudging through up to two feet of snow and enduring temperatures as low as 10 degrees.

The Charlotte man and his female black Lab have forded rain-swollen rivers, crossed the summit of 6,684-foot-high Mount Mitchell and camped in damp fields. They’re on an extraordinary quest to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a 950-mile ramble from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks.

If Trevor Thomas, 44, ascends the dunes in Jockey’s Ridge State Park in early July, he will become the 38th person to complete North Carolina’s longest trail.

But Thomas never will have seen it. He’s totally blind. He sees no outlines, no shapes, only shades of charcoal.

No one leads him. He’s doing the rugged excursion mostly by himself. He’s navigating through remote forests and back roads, shouldering a backpack that weighs up to 56 pounds, and tethered by leash to Tennille, his trained guide dog and 24/7 companion.

The self-described adrenaline junkie, sponsored athlete and motivational speaker is always pushing his boundaries. To stay on course, Thomas relies on Tennille, his iPhone and his senses of hearing, smell and touch. He also utilizes echolocation, a little-known human ability to locate objects with reflected sounds. It’s the technique bats and dolphins use to locate prey and navigate.

Thomas clicks his tongue or taps his trekking pole and listens for echoes that form a mental outline of objects. “I can tell you there’s a tree there, a car there, the side of a cliff,” he said at Hanging Rock State Park north of Winston-Salem.

He picked the Mountains-to-Sea Trail for its challenge, even with its inherent risks and difficult logistics.

“I wanted to showcase what North Carolina had to offer,” Thomas said. “This trail also has all the elements of what I was looking for to be able test myself to the limit of my abilities and also be able to incorporate Tennille into the equation.”

Blind since 2005, Thomas hiked the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail in 2008 by himself. He did the 2,654-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2010 with hiking partners, becoming the only blind person to complete that trail, and has hiked an array of shorter trails.

“I don’t want to be stagnant. I’ve already proved that I can hike. I already proved that I can hike solo. I wanted to choose my route. I wanted to make the decisions that always in the past had been made for me.”

On this day, hikers Dave Baumgartner of Duarte, Calif., and Steven Mierisch of Clemmons, N.C., accompanied Thomas. Baumgartner came for four weeks to help Thomas cross often-swift mountain rivers and streams. It was a prudent move. Spring rains turned several into torrents.

Baumgartner made it clear he’s not Thomas’s guide. “He takes the lead. He makes all the decisions. I’m the follower,” Baumgartner said. They know each other from the Pacific Crest Trail.

Mierisch wanted to meet Thomas.

“I had no idea a blind person could hike that distance. It’s just impressive and inspiring to me,” said Mierisch, president of the Sauratown Trails Association.

‘Blood, broken bones, sweat’

Thomas grew up in Indiana and Colorado, worked in Charlotte 1993-1995, and in 2000 moved to Las Vegas, where he graduated from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas law school. He returned to Charlotte in 2005 to visit parents Mark and Judith Thomas, became blind and stayed on.

He lost his sight from a rare eye disease called atypical central serous chorioretinopathy. He said it’s irreversible. It ended the promise of a legal career and his penchant for racing Porsches, skydiving and backcountry skiing.Understandably depressed, he was inspired to take up hiking after hearing a talk by accomplished mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, who in 2001 became the only blind person to summit Mount Everest.

Thomas said preparation is the key to his success and planned the hike for a year and a half. He got Tennille from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., in 2012. Thomas and Tennille trained on Charlotte greenways.

For Thomas and Tennille, the trail is not entirely a walk in the woods. While 550 miles traverse footpaths, 400 miles follow rural highways, mainly in the Piedmont. By late Monday, Thomas was north of Hillsborough, 100 miles east of Hanging Rock Park.

They average 14-16 miles a day. He stops when she poops out. The 2-year, 9-month old Lab wears a pannier holding her water bowl, grooming brush and booties for walking on pavement. He carries her food. At night, she curls up in her own sleeping bag.

How does “Zero/Zero” (for zero vision), keep on track without stumbling, falling or bumping into trees? Answer: He did all that at first. On the Appalachian Trail, he fell 3,000 times before he stopped counting and broke four ribs, two bones in his left foot and cracked his left hip and skull.

“I paid for my confidence with a lot of blood, broken bones and sweat,” Thomas said. “You have to concentrate on every single one of your other senses. I think it gives me a richer, more valuable experience of being out here. I feel things with my feet that other people overlook. … The best thing about it is, nature doesn’t care if you’re smart, doesn’t care if you’re stupid, doesn’t care if you’re in shape or out of shape, and it sure doesn’t care that, quote, unquote, ‘society says I’m disabled.’ ”

Blindness didn’t deter another long-distance hiker, Bill Irwin of Monson, Maine. In 1990, Irwin, who then lived in Burlington, followed his guide dog Orient to become the first blind person to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Protection from Tennille

Here’s how Thomas finds his way. A friend, Laine Walter of Charlotte, emails him mileages, campgrounds and water sources for each trail section. His phone converts the email into audio so he can hear the route. As he walks, he keeps a mental odometer of his mileage. He keeps an ear cocked for the gurgle of streams to gauge how far he’s come. Tennille has been trained to find trail signs. She’ll stop and block his body if she sees an obstruction such as a log. If Thomas isn’t certain of his location, he’ll back up and return to a known landmark. He hasn’t gotten lost.

He can’t count on others for directions, meeting only 13 hikers in 418 miles. “I went the first two weeks and didn’t run into a soul,” he said.

Walter acts as a one-woman quartermaster corps, driving food and gear to him weekly. He also gets logistical help from his parents, sister Elizabeth Thomas of Charlotte and brother David Thomas of Kannapolis.

The Charlottean hopes his trek will inspire the blind, particularly children, to aspire to greater independence. “I think it’s a goal of all the blind people I know to assert your independence whenever you can. Of course, if I fail, then I’m going to say I pushed the limits a little bit too far. So far it’s working. We’re very proud of where we are up to this point.”

Thomas said any potential dangers are no greater for him than for sighted hikers. “Anything can happen between here and there,” he said wryly. “We could stop at a Dairy Queen and get a Blizzard. And I could trip over the little parking thing and put my head through the window.”

Horan: jhoran33@hotmail.com
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