From the Mountains to the Sea

Jenny Scarborough
The NC Appalachians . . . ahhhh.
The NC Appalachians . . . ahhhh.
Photos courtesy of Trevor Thomas.

Moving forward is what professional long distance hiker Trevor Thomas does every day.

He recently passed through Ocracoke on North Carolina's 1000 mile Mountains to Sea Trail, which jaunts through the village, crosses Ramp 70 at the airport and runs the length of the beach to the Hatteras ferry.

Trevor began his hike in two feet of snow, at Clingman's Dome, on the NC-Tennesse border in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The first forty days and nights were a "test of wills," he said. He battled an uncommonly wet and cold spring, swollen rivers, and frozen nights. The trail passes through scenic and remote parts of the NC mountains, and rock scrambling was often required. Sometimes he fell, but he hopes that "bloodying myself on the rocks" could inspire others, especially blind youth.

"Slippery rain and rock hopping. What could possibly go wrong for the blind man?" laughed Trevor.

When he crests Jockey's Ridge later this week, 13 days ahead of his 90 day goal, Trevor will add the Mountains to Sea Trail to his impressive list of long distance treks that he is the first blind person to complete.

Their bond was instant, said Trevor.
Their bond was instant, said Trevor.

"Trevor does things 99% of sighted people couldn't or wouldn't do," said Jef Judin, who is making a documentary film of the hike.

The Mountains to Sea Trail is about 60% trail and 40% road. While it is not as technically challenging as through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, scaling Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the Continental US), or ascending multiple 14,000 foot mountains on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado, a few of Trevor's accomplishments, it represents a step forward in his hiking career, as it is the first trail he navigated solo as a blind hiker.

Well, almost solo. "Tennille is the detail girl," Trevor says of his guide dog, a gift from Guide Dogs for the Blind. "She is the only dog in the world trained for working on the street and in the backcountry." This was their first shared trek, and Trevor anticipates it will be one of many. Hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain is next, and he is considering taking Tennille on a walk around the world.

Trevor and Tennille navigating deadfall.
Trevor and Tennille navigating deadfall.

Trevor tracks the cadence of his steps to anticipate trail junctions and stream and street crossings. "All blind people are OCD," he observed. "I could tell you where every paper clip in my house is." He pays careful attention to the sunlight on his face, the sound of water spilling down a stream bed, and he even echo locates. Have you ever noticed the sound of the ocean bouncing off the dunes?

Trevor does, and that skill helped him and Tennille on Ocracoke, when their instructions, as heard by Trevor, who had a friend record an audio copy of the MTS guidebook, said to walk to the high tide line and turn left. "What is the high tide line?!" Trevor asked, with genuine bewilderment. Without a distinct trail or instruction, Tennille tends to meander, and Trevor admitted they hiked the beach in zigs and zags until they found the ruts of a truck to follow.

On other sections of the trail, Tennille helped Trevor choose the correct turns when the pair arrived at intersections. As a backpacker who sometimes fails to successfully navigate with map and compass, I find this incredibly impressive. People who are challenged to find the Ocracoke lighthouse should also take note.

From the Mountains to the Sea

Trevor, now 44, went blind at age 35, from an auto-immune disorder that attacked his retina macula. Losing his sight was "excruciating," said Trevor, an adrenaline junkie who'd spent his life skiing outside the bounds, racing Porsches, and skydiving. Somewhere along the way he also completed law school.

After losing his sight, he visited a career counselor, and was told that with enough training, he might get a job stuffing latex gloves into packaging. 96% of blind people in the US are unemployed.

His world was flipped. "I haven't been told 'what you can't do' since birth," he said. The same people who supported his dangerous pursuits as a sighted man were suddenly full of fear for Trevor. He sank into anger, frustration and hopelessness.

"One of the few friends that didn't give up on me" invited him out for a night, and then told him they were going to see a motivational speaker. "I went begrudgingly," said Trevor.

From the Mountains to the Sea

That speaker was Eric Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest. After the talk, Trevor spoke with Weihenmayer, whom he now considers a friend, and "he encouraged me to be stupid." Trevor has never regretted his decision to challenge the unknown, though he admits his "first long hike was probably a little foolish, as I barely knew how to exist as blind person" at that point.

"The same people who were concerned I'd get myself killed are encouraging me now," said Trevor.

Trevor had several goals for hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail. One was to demonstrate that it could be self-navigated by the blind. Because it is not a well-traveled trail, detractors couldn't accuse him of relying on his fellow hikers. In fact, Trevor and Tennille are currently the only through-hikers using the trail.

As a North Carolina resident whose unique--in the truest sense of the word--accomplishments receive media attention, Trevor also wanted to draw attention to the route, the entirety of which is a state park. Sighted people are also encouraged to trek the breadth of NC, and enjoy its wonders.

"Part of the charm is going through the little towns," said Trevor. "Our state is so diverse." He encourages more hikers to use the trail not only for their own benefit, but because the MTS trail has the potential to have a positive "economic impact on these little communities it goes through."

Cuteness alert!
Cuteness alert!
Click image to vote for Tennille as Hero Dog of the Year!

People he calls "Trail Angels" offered him a warm welcome, meals, a place to set up his tent, and the opportunity to wash clothes. On a rain drenched night in Pine Ridge, parishioners of the Baptist Church pressed the keys to the sanctuary on him, insisting he stay inside. Hiking leads to many serendipitous moments, said Trevor.

On Ocracoke, George and Janille Turner of The Topless Oyster Restaurant hosted Trevor, Tennille, and filmmaker Jef. Jef was looking forward to a hot shower and roof, while Tennille would appreciate the air conditioning said Trevor, who confessed he doesn't require many luxuries, or baths.

Trevor's Trail Angels include a friend from his days hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, who joined him during the cold sodden portion of the hike in the mountains. Trevor was not concerned about his ability to safely cross rivers, but knew it would be a challenge for him to get Tennille, a two year old black lab, across deep, swift, rocky creeks.

"Demonstrating to the sighted community the value a dog can have to the blind" is another aspect of this journey, said Trevor.

More cuteness!
More cuteness!

Tennille has "already saved my life more than once," he said. Most recently, she yanked him into a ditch to avoid a car that crossed onto the shoulder. Trevor and Tennille were hiking on Highway 55, and there was so much traffic that Trevor couldn't isolate the noise of each vehicle.

Training guide dogs can cost $80,000, and there is no public funding available. Trevor encourages the sighted community to donate so that other blind people can enjoy increased autonomy in the company of a trained dog. Tennille chose him after being trained by Guide Dogs for the Blind, said Trevor. If there's not an instant bond, the organization brings in another dog as a potential match.

The extra pack weight Trevor carries for Tennille is a fair price to pay for her assistance, he said. She's becoming a star in her own right, and has been nominated by the Humane Society to be a Hero Dog of the Year. The public is encouraged to cast their ballots. "It's like Chicago politics. You can vote early and often," said Trevor.

Tennille attracted the attention of a boy in a KOA campground. He wanted to pet Tennille, and Trevor explained that he couldn't, as Tennille was working. Working how? the boy wanted to know. "I explained as best I could to a seven year old that I'm blind, and she's my eyes," said Trevor. "The boy said, 'Cool.' I've never been told that being blind was cool before." The kid, a natural negotiator, wondered if he could get a dog like that by giving up just one of his eyes.

As Trevor and Tennille approached the coast, they realized they'd walked past the logistical limits of their volunteer support crew, based in Charlotte, who provided food and supply drops.

"Jef said, 'Would it help if I dropped everything and filled up my car with your re-supply and stay with you for the last two weeks?' I was flabbergasted," said Trevor. His answer: "'Hell, yeah.'"

Even though Jef is from South Africa (Rhinos! Hippos! Enormous untamed cats!), he was reluctant to drop Trevor off in the Croatan forest. "Everyone we talked to was saying be careful of alligators, and there are copperheads and water mocassins. Oh, and there's a bobcat running about," said Jef.

"If I get killed the media's going to blame it on you," Trevor chuckled. Not reptiles but greenhead flies ("those bastards!") have been his biggest irritant in coastal NC.

From the Mountains to the Sea

Jef does not regret trusting Trevor and Tennille on their own. "Every day my faith in him increases. As a filmmaker, I like some degree of planning, and now I'm absolutely following a blind man."

You can follow Trevor as he continues his adventures. Trevor said he "turned a negative into a career." As his name becomes more of a brand, major sponsorships and motivational speaking engagements follow, allowing him to keep exploring and pushing his limits. One of his sponsors is a North Carolina company that makes a product I love. Good socks!

"Thorlos are like a hug for your feet," said Trevor. Then Jef and I took a sidebar about how quality socks are a luxury everyone can afford, and deserves.

"Trevor instills in everybody he meets a sense of confidence," observed Jef.

"I refused to accept being told what I couldn't do," said Trevor. He hopes blind and sighted people will be inspired to follow their own dreams. When you step outside your comfort zone, wear comfortable socks.


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