Thursday, August 17, 2006

Blind Hiker

Here's the first chapter in a book I will order from the library. This is the only blind person ever to hike the entire Appaliachian Trail.

Bill Irwin - A Man Whose Story Will Change Your Life Forever.

Almost the End
The night of November 4,1990, the radio weatherman told listeners to cherish memories of fall, because a cold front was due in that night. Just before I fell asleep, I heard it arrive - and a cold front in Maine is something to be reckoned with.

It was a fitting prelude to the events of the next day.

During the night, sleet began to pelt the tin roof of the lean-to that Dave, Orient - my dog guide - and I were sharing. By morning, every rock and root outside was covered with a layer of ice.

Dave and I were hiking this stretch of the Appalachian Trail together, and I could tell he was worried about the challenges that lay ahead. We'd have to make at least a dozen river crossings in the next few days, and that would be difficult, even for a sighted person.

For me and Orient, it'd be next to impossible. For the thousandth time, I asked myself what a blind man was doing trying to walk twenty-one hundred miles along a trail from Georgia to Maine.

Next morning, I slipped and fell three times just walking the thirty yards to the creek to get water. Any other day on the Trail, I would have been content to wait in the lean-to for the weather to improve. But now, if the weather changed, it would be for the worse. Every day off the Trail was a wasted day now that we were getting so close to the end. And with Dave along for this stretch, I had a pair of eyes besides Orient's to rely on, and someone to talk to about decisions that could be critical along the Trail.

We started our climb over Moxie Bald Mountain in freezing rain that turned to snow as we ascended. A quarter of a mile from the top, we encountered steeply slanted rock faces covered with three inches of snow. There was no way either Orient or I could scale them. We backtracked and took a blue-blazed by-pass that we had decided against earlier that day. I had tried to stick to the white-blazed Trail all the way, taking the blue-blazed Trail only when necessary. I guessed today the blue-blazed Trail was necessary.

We made only 5.3 miles that day and spent the night in the Moxie Bald Lean-to. Next morning, I broke my nocaffeine rule and started the day with a double hot chocolate fortified with a heaping teaspoon of instant coffee. For the first time since March, I had an intense desire just to finish the hike so I could stop hurting and go home.

But God wasn't through with me yet.

Dave and I set out soon after drinking the hot chocolate, with fifteen miles to go to the small town of Monson. With an early start and plenty of luck, we hoped to make it all the way that day.

Two and a half miles later, after we forded the kneedeep outlet of Bald Mountain Pond, my feet turned to ice.

I had to stop to thaw them out. Dave boiled water for hot cocoa, and I spent an hour rubbing my feet, trying to get them warm enough to let me walk without pain.

We reached the confluence of Bald Mountain Stream and the West Branch of the Piscataquis River late in the afternoon. Two days of rain and snow had swollen the waters to a torrent that we could hear from a distance.

The sun and the temperature were both on their way down, so there was no time to waste. We sat on the bank, took off our socks, rolled our long underwear up as far as it would go, and put our boots back on for the crossing. Dave said the river was divided into three branches, each about thirty feet wide. Although the current was swift, they appeared fordable. I sure hoped so, because I could hear the roar of the rapids not far downstream, where three bodies of water joined together.

I took Orient's harness off and told him to find his way across. He was a strong swimmer, so I knew he could make it on his own.

"See you on the other side, boy," I said, and stepped into the icy stream. With arms linked and packs unbuckled in case we had to shed them in a hurry, Dave and I inched our way across the first thirty-foot span of water. We moved slowly, one step at a time, using our hiking sticks for stability and trying to place our boots against a rock on the bottom before taking each step. The water was knee-deep, but we reached a marshy island without incident.

Halfway across the next section, waist-deep in the strong current, Dave suddenly lost his footing and fell into the water. I could hear him sputtering and thrashing, trying to reach the next island. An instant later, I was swept off my feet and carried downstream.

I went completely under, then bobbed up, lurching and clawing through the current, trying to make it across with my pack, but ready to abandon it if I had to. Meanwhile, Dave had reached the shore. I heard him yelling something, but couldn't tell what it was. The next few seconds were pure instinct and adrenaline.

I was making no headway going toward Dave's voice; the current was too strong. In desperation, I went to the bottom of the stream and tried to pull myself along with my hands, because my feet weren't getting any traction.

When I bobbed up for a gasp of air, Dave would keep talking to me, trying to direct me towards the shore, until my head went back under the water. I felt I was slipping further and further downstream each time I came up for air, and the rapids were nearby.

Finally, after a few minutes that seemed like hours, I thought I was close enough to grab Dave's outstretched hand. I reached out but couldn't find it. The bank sloped up steeply, and I knew I couldn't make it up alone. I started slipping under again, thrashing about for Dave's hand, when all of a sudden I hit a branch. I grabbed it, tight!

Most people would call the presence of the branch a coincidence. I call it something else.

Once I grabbed the branch, I was able to find Dave's hand with my free hand, and he helped me up. I was on the island. Not far below, the roar of the rapids chilled me more than the water had.

Orient, who had crossed safely, quickly came alongside me. He was shaking, too, not from the cold, but from fear.

The final section of the stream was waist-deep again, but calm, and we emerged on the other side, numb with cold and badly in need of a campsite. We were amazed and thankful to still have our packs, but there was no time now to change into dry clothes. We had to get moving. I figured we had an hour until dark and less than that before hypothermia would begin to play its strange tricks on our minds. I asked Dave to look for a level place where we could set up the tent.

We struggled up a long ridge for half an hour, then found an open spot in the thick woods. Numb fingers slowed the process of pitching the tent, but minutes before dark, we were inside, with water boiling on the stove. Orient stretched out between us and gave a big sigh.

Still shivering in our sleeping bags, Dave and I talked about the river and wondered how close we had come to being completely swept away. We kept going back over the crossing, describing our reactions and wondering what else we could have done. If our packs had been lost, we would have been miles from help without food or protection from the cold.

We didn't say anything for awhile, then Dave asked, "How are we going to make it the rest of the way?"

I said, "I don't know."

That was the first time I seriously considered ending the hike. By continuing, I was putting not only my life and Orient's in jeopardy, but also that of a friend.

As I lay there thinking, it seemed a century since I had begun this journey. But I knew that it had been only eight months.

Irwin Associates © 2004

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