Being bullish on blindness

Students and teachers from The Governor Morehead School for the Blind listen to blind hiker Trevor Thomas.
Students and teachers from The Governor Morehead School for the Blind listen to blind hiker Trevor Thomas describe his hike on the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail.

Whether you’re blind or not, sometimes you just get stuck, said Trevor Thomas.

Thomas’ audience was rapt as he pondered this last week at Falls Lake State Recreation Area. The group of students and teachers from The Governor Morehead School for the Blind couldn’t see the 44-year-old “professional blind hiker” as he calls himself but they listened intently.

“It’s the little things you can’t plan for. How you overcome these makes the difference between success and failure…You’ve got to sit down and solve the problem at hand, literally with what you’ve got available,” Thomas told them.

With summer heat pressing in, Thomas generally tries to start his days early on his 1,000-mile through-hike of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail. But at mile 564.5 at a Falls Lake campground, he made the time to talk to the visually impaired students who sought him out. The visit was important to him, he said.

The teens were interested in his record-breaking hike, of course, but also wanted details of training with his Labrador guide dog Tennille, the affliction that cost him sight eight years ago, and how sighted people along the trail respond to him. The students have recently taken up hiking in the Uwharrie National Forest, but Thomas said it’s all about more than outdoor skill.

As a veteran of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Coast Trail, Thomas was prepared for wilderness challenges on the first half of his hike through the mountains – spring snows, flooded rivers, the threat of hypothermia and loneliness. But his toughest challenges may lie ahead as the MST becomes routed along blistering rural roads between the piedmont and the Outer Banks.

Dealing with the world through blindness and reaching goals becomes a curious mixture of self-reliance and dependency, according to Thomas. He told the students to be resourceful but at the same time, unafraid to ask for help. On his journey, people skills have become just as important as backcountry skills when he enters a rural town alone and can’t find a grocery store for resupplies “and, I can’t rely on myself anymore,” he said. “I’ve had the kindness of random strangers…defining my life for the past five and a half years,” he said.

Thomas uses a stop at Falls Lake State Recreation Area to resupply with the help of a videographer.
Thomas uses a stop at Falls Lake State Recreation Area to resupply with the help of a videographer.

Thomas gradually created a network of ground support: corporate sponsors including Thorlo, a Statesville-based athletic sock company, the state parks system, people familiar with the MST he calls “trail angels,” a friend in Charlotte who transcribes trail details for his talking iPhone, and a two-person film crew periodically documenting.

“Literally, I created a job for myself,” he said. “There was no job posting that said, ‘Looking for a blind hiker to demonstrate our products.’”

“First and foremost, don’t quit,” he told the students. “I’ll steal a line from Steve Jobs: ‘Go out and be bullish.’ Everybody who says I can’t do this, their reality will be disregarded, and I’ll create my own reality.”

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