Sunday, October 31, 1999

Need communication, ingenuity for hiking

Sense of adventure, friends also helpful

Enquirer contributor

        Several months ago, a friend was visiting when the conversation turned to hiking in New England. She had heard about inn-to-inn hikes; I had long ago done a story on New England walking tours. Interest led to dreaming aloud to a spirit of “Build it and they will come.”

        My friend and I are both blind. How would we hike the Appalachian Trail? She invited a longtime cross-country ski guide; I invited my college roommate. Friend asked friend, and by the time of the trip in late October, we had nine women — four of them blind — convening at the first of three historic inns in the heart of Vermont's renowned foliage and fragrant mountain air.

        How do you hike rocky trails when you can't see? It's not a riddle. The answer was easy: Good friends, good boots, and a spirit of adventure.

Key is communication
        New England hiking, those of us from Ohio and Michigan would soon learn, is not a simple matter of traipsing over pine needles and smooth terrain. The trail leading to Little Rock Pond, for instance, had little to do with “little rocks” and far more to do with ubiquitous boulders, roots, stumps, and nary an opportunity for establishing an even gait.

        My friend Christine, who would be guiding me, established what we thought, en route to that first trail, would be a clever shorthand for referencing the terrain. Rocks, she said, would be dubbed “pebbles,” “golf balls,” or “tennis balls” for giving me advance verbal warning for footing.

        Try footballs, beach balls, and inverted baby swimming pools! We clambered over rocks, trudged over roots, climbed cautiously up vertical stony surfaces and along babbling streams. As our group gathered at the Little Rock Pond (only three miles and as many hours into the trail), the innkeeper's packed lunch of peanut butter sandwiches on squished bread and juice box drinks tasted like gourmet fare to nine hungry hikers.

        Knowing that the traditional methods of way-finding (guide dog, white cane) would undoubtedly be inadequate for trail- hiking, I posted a message for information to an Internet list shared by veteran blind cross-country skiers. The response was quick, descriptive, and an essential key to success in this relatively inexperienced hiker's enterprise.

        Traditional “sighted guide” technique, in which a blind person holds the arm of the sighted guide, would not typically work on trails, e-mail responders informed me, since trails are often too narrow for two people to walk abreast. We should try a web loop on the back of the guide's backpack for the blind person to hold or a lightweight hiking stick, held by guide in front, blind hiker behind. We experimented with all methods, and found each to be useful in its own context. Touching the backpack of the person in front of me was especially useful on rocky terrain, since body movements were clearly communicated without many words.

        Words there were, however, in many other regards. Words of wonder as we explored a fallen maple, an uprooted birch, the texture of artist's fungus. There were words of congratulation as each of us slid carefully, boulder to boulder, across a stream or stepped judiciously over a narrow iron bridge.

Anything is possible
        Finally, there were words of friendship and future planning as we gathered in the parlors of historic inns, drinking wine by the fire, and feeling richer for the experience that had brought and bonded us together. Vermont is a lovely state, with abundant evidence of reverence for the environment. The setting provided far more than exercise and fresh air.

        Four of our group of nine happened to have disabilities which no one seemed to notice and, as we climbed one morning to a hilltop cemetery in Wallingford, reading the tombstone legacies of 19th century New Englanders, I knew that this was a perfect place for refreshing one of those rudimentary and sometimes forgotten principles on which my life is built: Anything is possible, with or without disability, with the proper attitude and positive human interaction.

        Some of us couldn't physically “see” the glorious view of mountain and tree, but we could “feel” the expansiveness and grandeur, bask in the stillness and aroma of fall — and each was aware, equally, of how good it is to be alive.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.


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