Trevor Thomas went blind at age 36. He responded by hiking 18,000 miles.
By Jake Abrahamson
To make eye contact, Trevor Thomas locates the source of a voice and adjusts his gaze. | Photo by Chris Daileader and Amy Leigh Horan
He would become angry, violent. I remember one night I had to come over to my parents' house at one in the morning and sit at the top of the stairs all night because we were worried that he'd think my mom and dad were intruders and attack them. —Liz Thomas
Two days later, Thomas and I were hiking through the Pisgah National Forest when he said, "Let's stop at the spring up ahead."
I perked my ears but couldn't hear anything. We walked for another minute. I saw the water before I heard it. "Oh yeah," I said. "There's a creek." It looked to be rushing down from above.
"I'm pretty sure it's a spring," Thomas said.
We rounded a bend, and I saw that he was right. The spring poured out of the hillside. We sat on logs and took swigs of water. Tennille plopped down in the runoff. Clear, cold water flowed over her haunches.
"Are we in a burn zone?" he asked.
I looked at the canopy of leafless trees. I told him I wasn't sure, but the trees were certainly dead.
"Actually, I don't think it's a burn zone," he said, "because I'd smell that. But there's an absence of sound. This forest gives off an eerie feeling. Now, the forest we were in before we came around that bend was different. I heard birds and leaves and the understory. It was full of life."
"Can you tell me anything else about what you're hearing?"
"The trees are tall and straight and spaced fairly far apart. The hill goes up on that side. It goes down on that side into a valley."
"What about the spring?"
"It opens up into a stream that's about three feet across. It's shallow, maybe about six inches deep. And there are a lot of small rocks in it."
I told him I was amazed by his ability to hear what the world around him looked like, and he said, "I know a guy who can echolocate a quarter on a driveway."
We kept hiking. Thomas walked ahead, trekking pole in one hand, Tennille's leash in the other. When she came to a log of hazardous size, she would stand on it with her two front legs and look over her shoulder for a treat. She also stopped for treats at low-hanging branches, signs, and high steps. She was well equipped for the woods. She had her own sleeping bag, her own backpack, her own sponsors.
As we trekked, Thomas told me of other soundscapes—the desert, and a river that ran over several small ledges, which he heard as a series of whooshings separated by pools of silence. The most overwhelming sonic atmosphere he had ever visited was a rainforest in Washington—a constant patter of water hitting leaves that drowned out everything else. He had never heard anything like a raindrop on a huge fern leaf.
That day we hiked 16 miles and then made camp in a thicket of low-hanging trees. Tennille waited while Thomas put up his tent and methodically unpacked what he would need for the night. Each object had its own spot, the same no matter where he was camped. He unfurled Tennille's abbreviated sleeping bag, which Judith had made by cutting off the bottom third and stitching it closed. He set up his stove.
"I noticed you had the TV on the other night," I said.
"Yeah," he said, seemingly confused. "So?"
"Do you watch TV, if you could call it that?"
"Oh yeah. I watch Discovery, History, Animal Planet, Les Stroud. I even sleep with it on."
"To tell the time. I've got the schedules of about five channels memorized. Plus, it blocks out all the other noises. I wake up easily. Like, a refrigerator turning on—that will wake me up. Footsteps on the street."
Early in her training at Guide Dogs for the Blind, Tennille displayed unusual athleticism and confidence, making her a perfect match for Thomas. | Photo by Chris Daileader and Amy Leigh Horan
I thought back to his house, which I'd visited on my way to meet him because he'd wanted me to pick up some dried meals. He lives in a two-story cookie-cutter town house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Charlotte, North Carolina. To get around town, he walks. Tennille knows how to get to Starbucks, Walmart, and a dozen other locations, some more than five miles away.
The house gives no indication that a blind person lives there. In the bedroom is the largest television I've ever seen. The walls are decorated. He painted them himself, and there isn't a speck of stray paint anywhere. Old backpacks hang on display. Within grasping distance of the living room sofa is a softball-size geode.
"Oh yeah," he said as he got some water boiling. "That thing is awesome."
"What do you do with it?"
"I touch it. It's kind of like entertainment for me."
I thought about the geode's endless nubs and pockets, spires and valleys, smooth domes and sharp ridges. It was a tactile wilderness.
He removed his sunglasses. His eyes were beady and blue.
I asked, "Can you imagine colors?"
"What about faces? Do you remember what people look like?"
"Nope. That's one of the worst things about it. I can't remember a single face." He sucked in his lips and rocked back and forth.
"Not even your own?"
"Not even my own. My mom's face was the last to go. They kind of faded away one by one. Actually, mine was the last face I could remember. The last color I remember is this bright, vivid blue. It was the color of these floating specks that I saw when I was losing my sight."
He poured boiling water into his bag of dried food and let it sit. At his side, Tennille snored. He kept his head pointing in one direction. At 44, he had the wrinkles and gauntness of someone 10 years older. There were thick bags beneath his eyes that never went away.
"Do you miss being able to see?"
"I wouldn't change what happened to me."
The worst night was the last night he had any sight at all. He had this violent headache, and he was screaming and pounding his head on the kitchen counter. Nothing we did made the pain go away. There were points that night when he would stop banging his head and would look up, and there were tears running down his face. I remember one time he looked up like he was trying to see me, and he said, "Why is this happening to me?" —Liz Thomas
Thomas started going blind in the summer of 2005. He'd just moved back in with his parents after graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas law school. He was preparing to enter the Navy as a judge advocate.
At 36, Thomas was still a kid in his family's eyes, the youngest of four children, a high-achieving, corner-cutting troublemaker with a photographic memory. "He collected bucks from students who didn't go to class and took exams for them," his mother recalled. "He was good with the gals. He had a couple of close friends. Today, you might consider them nerd people. He really always preferred to be by himself. He liked racing cars and jumping out of planes." According to his father, he could read a 400-page book in one hour. But he was also distant, stubbornly independent, even arrogant.
"Trevor had to do things by himself," Liz said. "He was very curt and wanted instant gratification, and everything was all about Trevor. 'Trust no one'—that was his motto."
"I was an asshole," Trevor said.
One day that July, he walked into the house and told Judith, "Don't let me borrow your car anymore. I'm not seeing well."
Several days later, he was out running when something large banged up against him. An elderly woman was on the ground. He'd put her there. He hadn't seen her standing right in his path.
He had no time to cherish the last things he could see. He quickly descended into a blurred world of doctors' offices, of injections and scans, of threatening hallucinations, of migraines, of a visual field that was never constant from one day to the next. He visited several ophthalmologists, each more specialized than the last, but none was able to diagnose his condition (his final diagnosis, fuzzy in itself, is atypical central serous chorioretinopathy). They gave him laser surgery, and they injected cancer drugs into his eyeballs. The treatments only resulted in tremendous pain, mostly from the pressure of the serum inside his eyes, which often took a week to dissipate. Toward the end, his vision would disappear completely, only to return the next day as a single speck of light.
Asked about those eight months, he said, "I blocked nearly everything out. I don't remember most of it, and I don't want to remember."
Blindness was a regression into the past. He was dependent on his parents for everything. He went back to school, where he learned how to walk straight, how to keep food on a plate, how to read the word "cat" in braille, how to be nice to his teacher. He learned to run his hand along the rim of a bowl until he found the spoon, to cover the faucet so he wouldn't spit toothpaste onto it, to listen for traffic, and to memorize grocery aisles. He would have fits. If he worked hard enough, they told him—if he learned to spell and move and control his temper—he might be able to get a job packing boxes. But Thomas did not want a job packing boxes.
"He started going into the backyard," Judith recalled, "figuring out how to set up this tent, figuring out how to cook, working on all the little things that would go inside his backpack. He had to learn how to use the little stove."
"He somehow got it in his head that he would walk the Appalachian Trail," Mark said. "He had a tent in our backyard, and he'd go out at night and sleep there. He's always been very physically fit, but he was never a hiker. He walked a little bit to prepare, but not a lot of hiking. It amazed us."
Trevor announced a few days before starting the Appalachian Trail that he needed a ride to Springer Mountain on a certain day because he had a partner who was going to meet him there. When his partner canceled, Trevor was too fixed on the idea of proving his independence to quit himself.
"When Trevor sets his mind to something," Mark said, "get out of the way. He'll do it."
The day after he lost his sight, there was a weird sense of calm, like it was finally over. But there was also a sense of the unknown. We were setting into uncharted territory. —Liz Thomas
Two weeks after I left Thomas on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, he encountered the wettest day of his hiking life. He and a partner from his Appalachian Trail hike crossed 16 rivers, all overflowing after a week of nonstop rain that was still coming down. As night fell, they made camp amid rhododendrons that Thomas could smell rotting. They tried to make a fire. While they sat, Thomas felt around in the mud beside the fire ring and found a rock. It was wedge-shaped and sharp.
After three hours of intermittent flames, Thomas brought his rock into the tent, where he lay in a small pool and listened to the rain. It thudded against dead leaves. In puddles, it popped and splashed. On the tent, it made a bursting thrum, something like distant machine guns. Behind all this, the failed fire hissed and the rhododendrons stank.
That's the world Thomas remembers when he holds that rock, because a month later, when he finally got to the end of the trail—after crossing the dry, hot piedmont and the muggy Croatan swamp and the sands of the Outer Banks, where spectators cheered from the beach and his cellphone rang nonstop—there were no rocks to be found. Today, the wedge-shaped rock is still dusted in soot. He can rub his thumb on the remnants of the fire and remember how he got to where he is now.
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JAKE ABRAHAMSON is an assistant editor at Sierra.