Listen To the Interview: Trevor Thomas Heading North on the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail

Trevor Thomas, a blind hiker, intends to thru-hike the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. Photo courtesy of Trevor Thomas.

Taking on the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail is a tough challenge for anyone, and doubly so for a blind hiker. Trevor Thomas, who already has thru-hiked the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, is up to the challenge. In this interview with the Traveler, he explains how he lost his sight and his ambitions as a long-distance hiker.

You can listen to the interview at this site: http://media.libsyn.com/media/rmnpodcast/nptp-022-2010-04-18.mp3

Here's the transcript:

INTRO: In 2008, Trevor Thomas became the first blind person to thru-hike the Appalachian National Scenic Trail unassisted. Now his goal is to go end-to-end on the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile-long footpath that meanders from the US-Mexican border to the US-Canadian border. Before he set out on his trek this past week, Trevor, who just recently turned 41, talked with Traveler editor Kurt Repanshek about how he lost his sight, why he hikes such long distances, and how he navigates on the trail.

NPT: “You lost your sight due to a disease?”

Trevor: “Yes, I have a very rare eye disease that is probably about 15 feet long in typewriter print, called ‘atypical central serous chorioretinopathy,’ basically what it is is something in my body decided that might maculas were a foreign agent, and my immune system attacked it and killed it, so it cost me my sight.”

NPT: That’s got to be a tremendous challenge and difference in your life.

Trevor: “The way I equate it, losing your sight later in life, was kind of like being in the prime of your life and having to go back to kindergarden. you have to learn everything all over again, from reading and writing to using a computer all the way down to how to navigate around the streets and matching your clothes, things that most people would never think about.”

NPT: Had you always been a hiker?

Trevor: “I had always been into extreme sports. Pretty much, I’ve done everything from racing Porsches to skydiving, extreme skiing, mountain biking, and didn’t really, I did some hiking when I was sighted, but as I lost my sight pretty much I thought I lost all the other extreme sports that I was doing. And a friend of mine introduced me to not only hiking, but to distance and ultra-distance hiking.”

NPT: What’s the longest you’ve done. I know you’ve done the Appalachian Trail, right?

Trevor: “Yeah, that’s the longest one I’ve done up until I complete the PCT. Everything else has been 100, 200, 300-mile stretches.”

NPT: Why hike these long distance trails, what’s the allure there?

Trevor: “Originally I started on the AT to prove things to myself. The way I went blind, it wasn’t like one day I woke up and I couldn’t see. I lost my sight, it just degenerated over a period of about six months. And as my sight got worse and worse and worse, my world got smaller and smaller and smaller. After I got introduced to hiking, I wanted to prove to myself that my world wasn’t small, and looked to hiking and said I need to find probably the longest trail that I can get to that’s on the East Coast. and the gear outfitter that I went to had just gotten off the Appalachian Trail, and while I was buying some gear from him, he wouldn’t stop telling me these amazing stories. Because he had just through-hiked it. So I decided, when I was in the outdoor outfitter, I said if I can do that, then I’ll be able to do anything else in life.”

NPT: When did you hike that.

Trevor: “I thru-hiked in 08.”

NPT: Now certainly, you come to the trail experience quite differently than most other hikers. Your senses have changed a lot, in terms of what you experience out on the trail. Can you explain the differences between what you might have seen when you were sighted and what you’re now experiencing?

Trevor: “When I was sighted, of course, I would summit a mountain simply for the spectacular views in addition to the shear accomplishment of doing it. Like most sighted people. They want to, they get to the top of the mountain and the first thing they want to do is, hey, I want a snapshot of this, look at the serene environment I’m in. I still, I view the accomplishment of getting to the top of any mountain without sight, I view it as a greater accomplishment for me, because it’s a little bit harder.

"So when I get to the top of a mountain I experience, as opposed to taking pictures for a keepsake that I can look back on, one thing I do is I take a rock, so I have my, I have my individual summits, I guess I would say tactily. If I feel a rock, and all rocks are different, I can think back, ok, this is the mountain I did when I’m feeling this rock. And then when I’m on top of the mountain, I use my other senses, other than my eyes. I think of the smells, I think of the, is it a windy day, do I feel the sun on my face, or is it cloudy and possibly raining. So any other sense, other than sight, is how I take in an individual summit.”

NPT: I’ve heard that for blind people, your various senses that you perhaps didn’t notice so much when you can see, become much more attuned?

Trevor: “Yes, they actually do. I have noticed my hearing, I rely on that pretty much for just about everything, from direction to what kind of environment I’m in, whether I’m say, in someone’s home and it’s maybe a small room that I’m in versus if I’m in say maybe a football stadium. It all sounds very different for me. I learned on the trail, that the feeling in the bottom of my feet has become incredibly acute. I can literally, with so many miles on my feet, through my shoes, and through my soles, I can actually feel something as small as the paint line on a road. The way I navigated up the AT, is I felt as if I was on the trail through my feet. things like that have become much, much more acute.”

NPT: Did somebody accompany you on the AT hike? How do you approach these?

Trevor: “Actually the AT, I became the first blind person to do it solo, unassisted thru-hike. I hiked it just like everybody else did. I started alone, met up with people along the way, and I summited alone. So when there were groups, I hiked with groups. When there were no groups to hike with, I hiked by myself.”

NPT: As far as deciding where to camp at night, did you always aim for a shelter?

Trevor: “If I could get to a shelter, sure, I would aim for one because, especially me being blind, I knew if I got to a shelter, then it would be easier for me to be able to listen and hear where a water source would be, as opposed to if I did something, say, set up my tent whenever I decided it was time to stop for the night. So that was my ideal, but of course, there were a lot of places where you simply couldn’t make it to the next shelter for one reason or another. I was forced to do that.

But the PCT I’m taking it a little bit differently. There are so many people who start to do the AT, it was a much easier environment for me, and it’s not as rough a trail as the Pacific Crest, so until I got up to the northern terminus on the AT, there were almost always people that you would run into, that were either thru-hikers or section hikers or even day hikers, so it was a much more comfortable environment.

The PCT, I actually put together a team. we call ourselves Team Farsight, and I’m not, my two teammates that I’m taking with me, I’m doing simply for safety in numbers, because I’ve been told that you start the PCT alone, you’re going to end it alone. And going across a glacial moraine for a blind person would not be the smartest thing to do by yourself. But, my teammates in no way, shape or form, unless it’s positively necessary, are going to give me any assistance. I want to pretty much do it as purist as humanly possible for someone in my condition.”

NPT: How do you stay on the trail? You mentioned the sense in your feet that you’ve developed, but beyond that...

Trevor. “Beyond that I listen. I can tell if I’m in say, a grove of trees, it has a different sound than, say, if I’m on a bald. The other thing that I use that has been a godsend for me, is I have a pair of Leki (lek’-ee) trekking poles. You can’t really use your white cane with the red tip. You can’t use that in the wilderness, it’s not practical. So I use my trekking poles much as I would use a cane in town, but it also provides me a sense of stability, so instead of having two feet, like most hikers, I now have basically four. So they provide stability if I’m going to fall, and then I can scan in front of me and find rocks with my poles.”

NPT: But for instance, I know in some sections of the AT you might be crossing a granite boulder field or maybe just a shelf of granite. How do you negotiate the trail there when there might not be any distinctive...

Trevor: “That was, I had quite a bit of trouble to be honest with you on those. When I wasn’t lucky enough to bump into a cairn, or if it was say one of the sections that wasn’t worn, a lot of the AT that goes over the granite, the granite balds, there are so many hikers who have been on it, you can feel the little divit that is the AT, so sometimes I could follow that. If I really, really got stuck and I didn’t know where I was, I simply, I just stopped and I waited. I waited for anybody to come by on certain sections. And a lot of hikers that I was with, they knew I wanted to hike alone, I would have people that would go ahead of me, and there were some people who would stay behind me, if the people ahead of me got to a section that they thought was maybe a little bit too confusing for me, they’d stop and wait. they’d help me through whatever that section would be. If I got into a section where I was really concerned that I was lost, I would stop and maybe somebody from behind would catch up with me and then we’d go through.

NPT: How long did it take you to do the AT?

Trevor: Exactly six months and two days.

NPT: And two days. That’s pretty good. Don’t most people take six months to hike it?

Trevor: That’s why I was pretty proud of my time. The average time it takes, just your regular sighted hiker, is anywhere between five and a half and six months.

NPT: Is your pace the same as when you were sighted?

Trevor: “My pace when I started as pathetically slow to be honest with you. But as I put in more miles and put in more miles and more miles, I got, actually got very, very quick, and my pace now is, I would say as fast as it was, maybe a little bit faster than it was when I was sighted.

NPT: It kind of goes to show you that the rest of us don’t use our senses as best we could, perhaps.

Trevor: “In some ways yes, but unless you’re forced to rely on your other senses, why would you think about it. you rely on what you have. I just happen to have one less sense than other people.”

NPT: You said you decided to hike the AT because you wanted to prove something to yourself. What’s your motivation for the Pacific Crest Trail?

Trevor: My motivation for the PCT is I want to prove something to the rest of the world. i want to prove that, basically I want to raise awareness for blindness. And, hopefully, hopefully through the publicity that my hike is going to receive, then people will take notice of yes, there blindness is more of a problem in this country than most people think of. Because to be honest with you, until I went blind, I didn’t know a blind person. Never thought about it. Now, of course, it’s definitely one of my No. 1 issues. There are a lot of improvement in research that can be done, and of course, that takes a lot of money and it takes a lot of publicity to encourage people to donate to those things.”

NPT: Is there any research that’s being done that could perhaps restore you sight?

Trevor: “No, at this point there is no research that could restore my eyesight. There is research being done that can help many, many other people who are blind, or are currently going blind, that could possible reverse or even restore their sight. The problem with my disease is it’s such a rare eye condition, simply there aren’t the numbers of people to make it, to make it feasible to do research into what I have.

NPT: What are the numbers, do you know offhand?

Trevor: “Out of the U.S. population, they really can’t tell me. All they could do is, of the people that have central serous, mine is a strain that some of the best experts in the world, some of the best doctors in the world, had never seen before. So I’m kind of an anomaly. they didn’t know how I got it, they knew they couldn’t cure it, and they just don’t know. That’s why, they keep my information at the National Institute of Health just in case they start running into more and more cases like this. Hopefully some research down the road will be able to be fostered.”

NPT: How long do you plan to take on the PCT.

Trevor: “I want to get the PCT done in six and a half to seven months. Because I do not want to be in the Canadian Rockies in the end of November. That doesn’t sound like a safe thing to do.”

NPT: And then after that, do you have another project in mind?

Trevor: “Yes, I do. I want to, in 2011, I am planning on doing the Continental Divide. I’m going to thru-hike that, and then that will make me the world’s first handicapped triple crowner.”

NPT: That’s another tough one, because it’s not all laid out.”

Trevor. Exactly. A lot of it’s a corridor. So a lot of it is map and compass. So for that one I will probably take a team with me as well. I will, hopefully be able to test out some of the new generations of GPSes, to see if they will help me out a little bit as far as my own navigation goes in the tougher sections. But at this point technology with GPS, for a blind person, inaccuracy in even 5 to 19 meters is an eternity.

NPT: So there’s nothing out there currently, for instance, that would use a series of tones to let you know if you’re on the right corridor or if you’re straying from it.

Trevor: Not currently. One thing that my team and I are doing, one of my sponsors is Garmin, we’re going to be testing out the exact accuracy of the unit to see if it could be adapted to somebody who is visually impaired.”

NPT: Are your team members going to accompany you the whole way, or are they going to be switching off with other team members?

Trevor: We’re going the whole way. Unless somebody gets injured, that is our plan.”

KURT: Have you ever met the blind climber who summited Everest?

Trevor: Erik Weihenmayer, he’s a friend of mine. And, actually, if you want to know who got me into distance hiking, it was Erik.

NPT: Has he done these trails?

Trevor: No, we actually, we’ve got an agreement. He can climb high, and I’ll trek far. He doesn’t have the stamina to go far. ... One of the other things I do is I’m a rock climber, but as far as anything, he’s climbed everything, so I would be the second guy to climb Denali or whatever. He’s sticking to the mountains and I’m sticking to the trails.”