“I can’t really describe it…exhilarating,” he said.
With his Labrador guide dog, Thomas became the first blind hiker to complete a nonstop traverse of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail and only the eighth person to accomplish it. Man and dog logged 935.4 miles in 78 days by their reckoning, having dealt with snow atop Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, followed by torrential rains, storm-felled trees, swollen rivers, ticks and mosquitos, aggressive yard dogs, heavy traffic, searing heat and uncertainties about where they’d sleep and how they’d get provisioned. Thomas wore through seven pairs of shoes and at times much of his patience.
Despite his high spirits throughout the trip, he said, “I’m ready for this to be over,” as he quick-marched across the state park heading for the dune. At the same time, the veteran of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Coast Trail and several mountain summits is already planning his next adventure to hike the Pyrenees in Spain.
Besides the 40 pounds of clothing, camping gear and dog food in his pack, Thomas found that over the course of the hike, he ended up carrying much more on his shoulders. He had corporate sponsors, of course. The principal one was the Thorlo athletic sock company in Statesville (and even Tennille used several brands of doggie gear). But he also for a time became a de facto spokesman for the blind and by extension, disabled people tackling challenges in the outdoors. He also worked to raise funds for Guide Dogs for the Blind in Charlotte, the organization that brought him Tennille. Near Raleigh, he took time out to talk to a group of students and teachers at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind and gave an interview to a blind journalist who writes from that perspective in Pamlico County.
Thomas gave more than a dozen TV and print media interviews and became an outstanding ambassador for the Mountains-to-Sea State
Trail. Not many people are aware that the MST is an authorized unit of the state parks system, the same formal status granted to a state park or state recreation area. Thomas took every opportunity to remind people and journalists that the trail belongs to everyone as part of the state parks system. He had high praise for the volunteers who are building it, for his “trail angels” that acted as guides, and for his adopted state that supports the trail. He seemed truly touched when presented with a resolution from Gov. Pat McCrory recognizing his achievement (with a copy in Braille).
“If I can bring attention to the trail by doing this, that’s just great,” he told Debo Cox, superintendent of Jockey’s Ridge.
There’s something about the idea of a mountains-to-sea route stretching nearly 1,000 miles that has resonated with people in North Carolina since the idea arose in the mid-1970s. Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail rarely has difficulty recruiting volunteers for trail-building efforts; whether novice or experienced, hikers across the state seem captivated by the idea of just being a part of it. Thomas’ accomplishment only adds to this MST mystique.