By Theresa Sweeney-Smith
As a person with low vision, it is surprising that I would be excited about visiting our national parks. Of course, a lot of the appeal is the beautiful scenery. Although I cannot take it in the same way as people who are fully sighted, I derive great pleasure from the outdoors, and I have looked forward to this vacation.
My husband Gary drove Utah State Highway128 to get to Arches National Park. I could make out the giant mountain next to us and the Colorado River below. The mountains are magnificent. Although I can’t see the view clearly, it is still amazing, with the blue, green and white of the clouds.
The area was under a flood watch and it had already received several inches of rain.
We stopped at the visitor’s center to find out which paths were the easiest. They suggested The Windows Section because they had steps and the trails were well groomed.Upon our arrival, we discovered that the steps had received a good amount of rain, and in order to keep me from having very muddy and wet shoes, Gary had to maneuver me around the puddles and up the sides of the stairs.
This might not seem like such a difficult task for him; however, the sighted tourists were running up the sides of the stairs, and since I didn’t have my white cane with me, they had no idea why we were moving so slowly. I didn’t care because what I could see was so beautiful!
Gary and I hike together whenever we can. When you have low vision or are blind, here is the first thing about hiking–you need to have complete trust in your partner. If you are not comfortable with his or her choices, you will find any kind of hiking stressful.
Next, you have to have a plan. My husband is my height. He wears a backpack with a few essentials including a cell phone, water and sunscreen. He wears the pack mostly so that I can hang on to it. I know when we are ascending, because my arms lift as they hang on to the back pack. I know when we are descending when my arms drop lower. Gary’s voice is my cue to steps that go up or down. I concentrate on this, and it works well.
As a team, we decided to take the primitive trail back to the parking lot to avoid the wet stairs and the people trying to pass us. I use my feet to feel where I am, and Gary describes the kind of terrain we are encountering. I was not wearing hiking boots because we were on vacation and typically, even the primitive paths are not too difficult.
As we came down the mountain, we met a nice couple with an Australian accent. Gary mentioned to them that the rains the day before had washed out the natural markers and he asked them if they knew the path. They seemed to be experienced hikers and they answered that they also noticed that the markers were washed out, but they were making a go of it anyway.
As Gary and I descended, we came to a point where all I could detect was rock below and rock above us. I said, “I don’t think I should be here, Dear.” Gary did not respond to me. He was probably thinking the same thing.
I laughed and asked, “What do you think? Go back or go forward?”He hollered up to where the voices of the Australian couple could be heard. He asked, “Are you on the path?” They responded, “We think so, but the path we came across is very washed out. If you can come up here, we’ll wait for you.”
What should we decide to do? We could go back, but we had already come across some slippery and steep areas. At this point, I left it to my partner. We were going up.
I overheard the Australians talking. He commented, “You know, she is blind?” His wife answered, “Is she wearing hiking boots?” He responded, “No, just tennis shoes.” She responded, “Oh Lord!” This made me smile. I guess it is because I had overheard their conversation, and I felt much more confident than they did. Still, I was glad they were going to wait for us.
Gary didn’t hear the comments since he was focused on moving upward. I didn’t tell him at that point because I thought we might be better off without his hearing it.
We headed up and in the direction of the voices. I was feeling comfortable again because we had a plan, and Gary hadn’t indicated that he was the least bit worried.
The rocks are steep, and I hang on to his tee shirt at times, instead of to his shoulders or the backpack. He calmly tells me that I have to let him go up a two-foot rock and he will help me. I feel totally at ease with this because he is my partner and again you have to trust your partner. I take his hand and bend my knee. Up I come, just like we had planned it out. This is only the first of many planned and unplanned ascents that I take!
We finally get close to the Australian couple. I said, “Thanks for waiting for us.” He responds, “Actually, I work with people who are blind, and I couldn’t leave you.” I said, “Ahh…. We are very glad to have you on this mountain.”
The man then offered, “Your husband will help you up on a rock and then you will take a two and a half foot step to the hand of my wife. The rock is flat after that, and then we will help you climb the mountain.”
I stepped up on the rock. Gary gave my back side a push and I stepped out, confident that a hand would be there to take. It was. The couple then told me there was another step up about two feet. I listened and brought my knee up as high as I could to accommodate. I felt another hand. Then I was told that a guide was waiting three feet above me. I took another giant step to feel the hand of the guide who helped me to a flat spot.
I told Gary that it’s fun for me now because “it’s your turn to get up here!” He arrived at my side in a flash. We thanked everyone and then began the next part of the journey which was down into a mountain crevice. It was slow going, but exciting. We made it and started our descent to the parking lot.
Most mountains have paths. Even if you can’t enjoy the scenery, having the opportunity to be part of a team of people you trust makes for an amazing experience.Your mind, in addition to your body, has to do a lot of work. If you have someone you trust, it is anexciting accomplishment.
You may be thinking,“You could have fallen or been injured.” In my head, I was thinking, “I’m experiencing an adventure.” You are exercising your brain as well as your core. If you have Non-24-Hour Sleep Wake Disorder, you will find that you are physically tired and you can sleep the night.
Like me, you have the opportunity to feel the sun, hear the sounds of nature, feel the earth beneath your feet, and experience challenges and accomplishments. So, find a trusted partner and get out there!
Theresa Sweeney-Smith lives in Wind Lake, Wisconsin.