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Hiking Blind

By Jeff Eason (eason@mountaintimes.com)



Article Published: May. 9, 2013 | Modified: May. 9, 2013
Hiking Blind

Trevor Thomas hikes through Western North Carolina on his journey down the length of the Mountains to Sea Trail.

Photo submitted



Over the past week or so, you've probably heard a few of your friends and family complain about the rain.

But imagine if you were out in the chilly rain for hours at a time. And you were hiking up a wooded trail to Blowing Rock. And you were blind.

Imagine that.

Trevor Thomas is an avid hiker from Charlotte, who also happens to be blind. Last Sunday, he hiked into Blowing Rock during his quest to be the first blind person to hike the length of the new Mountains to Sea Trail, a 935-mile trail that runs from Klingman's Dome in the western end of the state to Jockey's Ridge on the Outer Banks.

Thomas, his hiking companion, Dave Baumgartner, and guide dog Tennille had their most harrowing moment of the hike right outside of Blowing Rock Sunday afternoon.

“We had five miles to go to get to (U.S.) Highway 221 so we could meet our re-supply team,” Thomas said. “It had been raining on us for four days. We were wet and uncomfortable. In those five miles, the temperature went from mid-to-high-50s to 38 degrees in a matter of miles. The wind kicked up, and we found ourselves under an overpass under the Blue Ridge Parkway, trying to keep from freezing to death.

“That's the scariest moment I've had on this trek. If we would've been out there for two or three hours, we would've been in a world of hurt.”

As it was, Thomas said that by the time they got to the Holiday Inn Express in Blowing Rock, he and Baumgartner were feeling slightly hypothermic. The hiking team decided to take Monday off to rest and dry off. While in Blowing Rock, they visited Foggy Rock Eatery and Pub for burgers.

While this is the first time that Thomas has hiked the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), it is not his first such adventure since going blind eight years ago. He hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail in 2008 and the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Manning Park, Canada, in 2010. Both hikes were more than 2,000 miles long.

Thomas was hoping to start his Mountains to Sea Trail trek on April 1, but an unusually cold spring delayed the start of his quest.

“It actually started on the summit of Klingman's Dome in the Smokies,” Thomas said. “On the last weekend of March, they got 18 to 20 inches of snow, and they closed the road to the trail head. I thought it was going to be good karma if I started on April 1, because that would've been the five-year anniversary of when I started the Appalachian Trail. That didn't prove to be the case, because we've been plagued by bad weather ever since.”

Thomas started the hike with Tennille and was joined by Baumgartner a little more than a week ago. He said that he needs a little bit more help than a guide dog can provide in the mountainous stretch of the new trail.

“It's completed, but it will always be a work in progress,” Thomas said of the MST. “They are continually trying to get ease-way, so they can make a better trail out of it. But it is able to be done with the connector trails, the greenway spaces, the road walking and the actual trail itself.

“It provides people with a very good taste of North Carolina. You get your trails in the mountains, then in Raleigh and Durham, you get to experience more of what it's like to live in the Piedmont area, see their greenways and their parks, then you get out toward the coast, and you go through all the little towns, and you get to do some road walking. And you meet the interesting people along the way.”

Thomas didn't discover his love for hiking until he lost his sight eight years ago. Before that, he was devoted to extreme sports.

“My passions before I went blind were for a variety of things,” Thomas said. “I raced Porsches, I did a lot of skydiving, I was into backcountry skiing, and I was really heavy into mountain biking. I really only discovered hiking and climbing after going blind.”

With a penchant for extreme sports, one might think that Thomas lost his sight as a result of an accident. The true story is much stranger.

“I had a strain of something that the specialists at Duke had never seen before,” Thomas said. “Basically, the way they explain it - and they explained it to me so I could explain it to other people - is that your eye is a camera, and the macula in your eye is irreplaceable, and that is the film for your camera.

“For some reason that they could never figure out, my auto-immune system woke up one day and decided that the macula in my eye was a foreign body, so over a period of about eight months, it attacked and killed it.”

Thomas underwent standard and experimental treatments, but nothing was able to stop the degeneration of his sight. These days, a female black Labrador retriever named Tennille serves as his eyes.

“Her forte is greenways and streets,” Thomas said. “That's what she loves, and that's the majority of what she's been trained to do.

“She's the only guide dog in the world that has been trained for city work - curbs, stairs and roads - but also trained in special work for backcountry hiking.”

Thomas takes off Tennille's harness and puts a special backpack on her to let her know that her duties have changed.

“She can associate her backpack with what I need her to do for me in the backcountry, which is to find things that will hurt me, e.g. large rocks, roots that I'm going to trip over, maybe a drop off,” Thomas said. “If she's not distracted, and there are a lot of new smells for her on the trail, she also knows how tall I am. For the most part, she will stop at things that are going to bash me in the head.
“Above and beyond all that, she's a wonderful companion to have.”

Having a dog out on the trail with you does come with one distinctive drawback, however: dog food.
“I am not only carrying food for me, but I am carrying almost all of Tennille's food,” Thomas said. “So, a five-to-six day carry for me is like carrying 10 days' worth of food, because I'm carrying double.

“She has a special food that she eats, and it is very heavy, because it is very high in calories. So, the first few days out of town are horrible. I'd say my pack is in the 45- to 48-pound range. So, we do what all hikers do. We eat ourselves to a happier existence.”

Thomas estimates it will take him approximately 90 days to hike the complete Mountains to Sea Trail. Baumgartner will join him until the end of May, covering about 200 to 300 miles of the MST with Thomas and Tennille.

“Dave flew out from California, because he knew I was getting into a section that for Tennille and myself was going to be too difficult simply because of all the river crossings,” Thomas said. “I was happy that he could be with me through Linville Gorge."

Thomas also has a knack for running into helpful and friendly people on the trail. He calls them “trail angels.”

“I didn't expect to run into too many this time, because the MST is not a really well-known trail,” Thomas said. “But I've already had my share of trail magic, which is really cool. I ran into some people from California, who were car camping in one of the campsites that I had to overnight in. They went to McDonald's and got me cheeseburgers and brought me a Coke. The next morning, they saved me from making a two-mile hike up the side of a mountain to get back to the trail head.”

Thomas has also received help from rangers with N.C. State Parks and the National Park Service. A ranger from the NPS picked up Thomas, Baumgartner and Tennille Tuesday morning at the Holiday Inn and drove them back to the MST, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.

He also receives help from a number of corporate sponsors who outfit him with hiking clothes and gear. Tennille has her own sponsors, as well: Ruffwear, the maker of her backpack, and Buff, a company that makes a high-tech tube of fabric that can be used for many things, including Tennille's bandana.

But it is not all fun and games on the trails for Thomas. He has nearly drowned in rivers, was snowed in at a shelter for two-and-a-half days and suffered a severe tooth infection when a filling fell out in the high altitudes of the Sierra Mountains.

“The oral surgeon who treated me said that if it had abscessed, it would've gone straight to my brain and killed me,” Thomas said.

Still, it is the thrill of the adventure that pushes Thomas to the limits of his abilities.

“Any time you are going into the backcountry for the length of time that I do, things are going to go wrong,” Thomas said. “That's just the nature of the beast.”


Additional Images

Trevor Thomas hikes through Western North Carolina on his journey down the length of the Mountains to Sea Trail.
Photo submitted

Trevor Thomas and his guide dog, Tennille, take a day off of the Mountains to Sea Trail at Blowing Rock's Holiday Inn Express to dry off and recharge their batteries.
Photo by Jeff Eason

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