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What It’s Like to Hike 20,000 Miles Blind: The Incredible Journey of Trevor Thomas

11/6/17 by Emma Walker

Ask any long-distance thru-hiker, and you’ll find that planning a months-long journey through rugged, often remote terrain is a serious undertaking. Thru-hiking, especially with routes of hundreds or thousands of miles, requires intense logistical prep and attention to detail. And that’s before the journey itself even begins. Once you’re on the trail, you’ll have to deal with all kinds of unexpected challenges and setbacks, culminating in what is, for many thru-hikers, the most rewarding trip of a lifetime.

Trevor Thomas knows all that, but he’s got an additional challenge to take into account: Thomas, who has hiked more than 20,000 miles on both iconic and lesser-known trails, is blind.

Thomas, now 47 and living in Charlotte, North Carolina, didn’t always think he’d be a record-setting thru-hiker. As a young man at the University of Colorado-Boulder, he was an adrenaline junkie. Any activity he enjoyed, Thomas says, he pursued with fervor, always taking it to its "logical extreme." He took up not just resort skiing but backcountry skiing, downhill mountain biking, skydiving, even racing Porsches.

Then, when Thomas was 35, his vision began to deteriorate. At first, he thought he just needed glasses, a side effect of aging eyes. But his vision worsened rapidly, and within eight months, he went from having normal eyesight to being completely blind, the effect of an extremely rare eye disease called central serous chorioretinopathy.

Initially, Thomas was devastated. For awhile, he says, he wallowed in his despair. There was no way he’d be able to pursue the law career he’d dreamed of; the trajectory of his life had changed drastically almost overnight. Then, a friend dragged him out of the house to hear a presentation from a blind athlete.

"The last thing I wanted to do at that point was hear another blind guy speak," Thomas remembers. The speaker turned out to be Erik Weihenmayer, an accomplished author and adventurer who’s climbed the Seven Summits (the tallest peaks on each continent, including, of course, Mount Everest)—all without eyesight.

After Weihenmayer’s presentation, Thomas mustered up the courage to approach him. "‘As long as you don’t listen to anything the sighted world tells you,’" Thomas remembers Weihenmayer telling him, “‘You can do whatever you want.’”

Weihenmayer’s advice is backed up by statistics. The unemployment rate for blind people in the United States is astronomically high, between 70 and 90 percent, and Thomas was already experiencing the lessened societal expectations of blind people. He recalls lots of people, including physicians, telling him things he could no longer do. No more of his favorite outdoor activities, no driving—a long list of things he’d never do again. Thomas wasn’t getting any resources or encouragement for things he could do. He was, understandably, frustrated.

"I had two choices," he recalls. “I didn’t want to continue living the way I was living. It was get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Thomas’s adventure camps include the same activities as conventional summer camps, and give kids who are blind opportunities to defy statistics.
    Photo courtesy of Trevor Thomas
Thomas’s adventure camps include the same activities as conventional summer camps, and give kids who are blind opportunities to defy statistics. Photo courtesy of Trevor Thomas

Thomas needed an active pursuit to take up, and a friend suggested hiking. At first, Thomas says, he wasn’t interested. It wasn’t the kind of high-adrenaline sport he’d always relished, but it was something. It wasn’t long before Thomas, as usual, set his sights on the logical extreme: a thru-hike of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.

Thomas’s 2008 thru-hike, which he began just two years after losing his eyesight, was incredibly challenging, and not just for the reasons you might think. At the beginning of his hike, Thomas says, many fellow thru-hikers refused to interact with him, even going to far as to avoid and ignore him on the trail and at campsites. "They didn’t want to be responsible for getting the blind guy killed," Thomas remembers.

Still, for Thomas, "it was a do-or-die thing. Really. I was going to finish it, or I was going to be dead." So he continued along the AT, earning the trail name “Zero/Zero.” Most thru-hikers pick up some kind of nickname along the way, and Thomas’s is a testament to his air of levity. In trail speak, a “zero day” is a day when you don’t advance at all—holed up at camp or doing errands in town, maybe, but not making any progress on the trail. Occasionally, other hikers who didn’t realize Thomas was blind would think the moniker was a reference to a lazy hiker, not just a play on “20/20” vision. Now, Thomas says with a chuckle, he’s had many sighted people approach him on the trail to ask him for directions.

Thomas finished the long, arduous journey in six months (of the one in four hikers who finish the entire AT, the average hiker takes between five and seven months) and, simultaneously, became the first blind person ever to complete a solo, unassisted thru-hike of the trail. The adventure had been an attempt at personal redemption, but once he finished it, Thomas knew there was more hiking in his future.

Thomas had paid his own way for the journey, but with an average cost of around $3,000 for such trips, it’s financially and logistically tough to keep funding long-distance hikes. When he started planning another thru-hike—this time of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail—he got an out-of-the-blue call from a potential sponsor, a shoe company, and that gave him an idea. Maybe if he could get his next trip sponsored, he thought, he could just keep hiking.

Enter Marmot. He cold-called the company, explained his background, and asked if they’d be interested in helping him make the journey to finish the PCT. By the end of the call, Marmot was on board, and has continued to sponsor Thomas and his efforts ever since.

Not long after his successful six-month PCT hike in 2010, Thomas started considering other options. He began an attempted thru-hike of the 486-mile Colorado Trail, employing a "sweep"—a hiker who would follow him, so if he got into trouble, he could stay put and help would come. But the sweep never showed up. Thomas hiked as far as he could on his own, unprepared to be on the trail completely alone, he soon had to end the trip. Once again, he was reminded that he didn’t want to be dependent on other people.

Refusing to be deterred, Thomas started calling organizations that trained guide dogs. Each time he explained what he was looking for—a guide dog that could help him navigate on the trail—he was turned down. Some people simply told him it couldn’t be done, and others told Thomas he shouldn’t be out there, either.

The last place on Thomas’s list was Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit based in San Rafael, California, that trains guide dogs. He called them up, shared his story, and waited for them to tell him not to even bother applying. Instead, he recalls, the admissions officer thought for a moment, then told him that while something like this had never been done, they wanted to give it a try. Thomas waited a year and a half for his new partner to be trained.

Thomas and Tennille on their thru-hike of the Colorado Trail in 2015.
    Photo courtesy of Trevor Thomas
Thomas and Tennille on their thru-hike of the Colorado Trail in 2015. Photo courtesy of Trevor Thomas

These days, Tennille, a black lab, is Thomas’s constant companion. According to Thomas, she’s the only pup in the world trained to do all the same in-town tasks as a guide dog, but can also help him navigate in the backcountry. And, says Thomas, "she can go back and forth seamlessly between her roles." Together, they’ve covered more than 6,000 miles.

Thomas’ list of firsts is a long one: the AT, PCT, Tahoe Rim Trail, Mountains to Sea Trail, and, yes, he did eventually complete the Colorado Trail. He continues to set lofty goals for himself, but he’s also committed to making waves in the blind community. That’s why, in 2013, he started the Team FarSight Foundation, named for the crew who helped make his PCT thru-hike possible.

The FarSight Foundation runs camps for kids who are blind, and, in Thomas’ signature style, it’s no-holds-barred. The camps, which are free to kids and their families thanks to sponsorship from companies like Marmot, cover activities you might find at a conventional summer camp: rock climbing, high-ropes courses, whitewater rafting. Programming is driven by the kids and their interests, giving the young adventurers the confidence they need to follow Thomas’ example and defy the odds.

"[Blind people] need to be given the tools necessary to compete in a world not designed for them," Thomas writes on the FarSight Foundation website.

In the summer of 2017, Thomas will take on the addition of the Tahoe Rim Trail to Reno, making him the first person—not the first blind person; the first person, period—to complete it. Accompanied by Tennille, he plans to begin hiking the third week in August, and you can follow their journey via his website and regular posts on social media.

Thomas’s 2017 thru-hiking plans align perfectly with the philosophy he brings to his adventure camps. "I want them to be prepared to compete in the world," he says of the kids who attend, “not in the world for the blind.”

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.