Blind hiker blazes trails
By Penny Zibula | Staff Writer
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part report.
CROATAN FOREST – Long-distance hiker, Trevor Thomas, and I sat across from each other under the trees at the Oyster Point Campground. With my voice recorder on the picnic table between us, this was a case of the blind interviewing the blind.
Local newspapers and TV stations had taken the opportunity to tell the story of this soft-spoken, insightful athlete and motivational speaker, as he and his black Labrador Retriever guide dog, Tennille, passed through the New Bern area during the final leg of the approximately 1,000 mile Mountains to Sea Trail through North Carolina.
Now it was the County Compass’ turn. And, I could relate.
When 2005 began, Thomas, then 35, was a law school graduate and self-described adrenaline junkie, who raced Porsches, jumped out of airplanes and went backcountry skiing.
“If it was deemed crazy,” he recalled, “I would do it.”
But later that year, he found himself struggling through an eight-month process that would inevitably leave him totally blind.
“My auto immune system woke up one day, and decided that the maculae were a foreign body,” he explained, “I went from thinking that I needed glasses – maybe contact lenses – to I lost my sight.”
As is common with severe losses, Thomas experienced feelings of anger, denial, and the other stages of grieving. For the first few months, he remembered being depressed, not knowing what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Then came Thomas’ ‘ah-ha’ moment. A friend told him that he was taking him to see a speaker who was blind. Thomas was less than enthused, expecting some kind of “poor, pitiful me” presentation. But he went, because his friend insisted, and was also bigger than he was.
The speaker was Erik Weihenmayer, a blind mountain climber who had scaled numerous peaks, including Mount Everest. After the presentation, Thomas had an opportunity to speak with Weihenmayer, and the acceptance and encouragement he received was a life-changing experience.
“Erik gave me permission to be foolish,” Thomas said. “I decided the next day that I was going to go out and get my life back.”
Since Thomas could no longer participate in running independently – “I kept running into parked cars” – Thomas turned his attention to hiking. During one of his lessons in traveling with a white cane, he persuaded his reluctant instructor to go into a sporting goods store to purchase a pair of trekking poles, which are ski poles for hikers. While he was in the store, Thomas couldn’t help but overhear someone talking about having hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The man told of encountering bears, and nearly freezing to death.
By the time Thomas left the store, he had decided that he was going to hike the 2,200 mile trail — a decision that changed his life forever.
“I convinced myself,” he recalled, “that if I could simply figure out a way to do that, I’d get my life back.”
Thomas set out approximately 16 months after losing his sight, and the successful completion of that hike was the beginning of a new career and a new life.
Since then, Thomas has climbed challenging peaks and hiked backcountry trails, including the over 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail. In 2012, Thomas trained with Tennille at the San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Although he had applied to several guide dog training centers, GDB was the only one willing to train a dog for him that could safely guide him down backcountry trails, as well as city streets.
Now he and Tennille,– with Jef Judin, who is filming a documentary for sock manufacturer, Tholo, one of Thomas’s sponsors, — are nearing the completion of his latest accomplishment, which will end at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, on the Outer Banks on Saturday, June 22nd.
(Continued next week.)
Readers may contact Penny Zibula by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.