Originaly published on: AFB AccessWorld Magazine
When Trevor Thomas lost his sight 10 years ago, he heard a lot about all the things he could no longer do. Most of those “can’ts” involved the activities he had loved best all his life.
Since boyhood, Thomas had immersed himself in what he calls extreme sports. At age 3, he started skiing. Over time, his activity dance card included hiking, mountain biking, racing Porsches, sky diving, and more. Sometimes, he pursued the sports he loved in the company of others, sometimes not. The constant was his love of risk-taking and testing limits, particularly the limit of his own physical endurance.
Then, a rare autoimmune disease changed the game. Overnight, he was significantly visually impaired. At the end of eight months, he was totally blind.
He had finished law school with the dismaying albeit crystal clear recognition that he had no desire to practice law. He had embarked on that educational journey with a fascination for our legal system, but finished his law school education with a certain disdain for corporate practices and billable hours.
“I never took the bar exam,” he explains. “And I never will.”
He had lost his sight, lost interest in the career path that had taken years of study to complete, and now had naysayers apprising him of his new options, which ranged from limited to nonexistent. A blind guy, ran the conventional wisdom, could forget about all those outdoor sports activities.
Telling the Story with Miles
Some 20,000 miles later, those who believed Trevor Thomas was no longer a hiker were obviously mistaken. Since losing his sight, he has hiked more than 20,000 miles, including all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail and the 3,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Before losing his sight, he says he was barely a recreational hiker, camping in the back country for a weekend here or there. Today, the shorter spells are the ones he spends off the trail.
The first several thousand miles Trevor Thomas hiked with a sighted partner. But his partner failed to show one day in Colorado, and the idea of getting a guide dog began to take shape. If he intended to continue rigorous long distance hiking and intended not to turn over the control of when and where he could do that hiking, Trevor concluded that a trained guide dog was the only reasonable solution. He needed eyes to see what lay ahead on unpredictable trails, and his own eyes weren’t working.
His background in corporate sales gave him plenty of confidence and conversation so, thinking it was a matter of signing up, he picked up the phone and began calling guide dog training schools. Living in North Carolina, it only made sense that he began with schools nearest the east coast.
One after another, the schools rejected his plan. A guide dog, they told him, could not handle the kind of stress and terrain he was describing. His plan, they said, was dangerous and irresponsible. They weren’t in the business of training dogs for hikers.
Then he called Guide Dogs for the Blind. He explained again his love of hiking and his desire to use a guide dog to help him navigate the trails. The reaction, a novel one by now to his ears, was one of challenged curiosity. They didn’t know if it would work, but they were almost as interested as Trevor to find out.
A Match Made in Heaven
In October 2012, Trevor Thomas returned home with his new hiking partner, a black Labrador named Tennille. While in training at the Guide Dogs for the Blind school in San Rafael, California, Trevor and Tennille completed the same coursework typical students complete. He learned to command Tennille through town and across streets, to make turns without encountering obstacles, and to locate doorways and stairs.
They also hiked trails in the John Muir Wilderness, using the same signature positive reinforcement techniques employed by the school to teach Tennille to alert Trevor to landscape elements needed for his hiking safety. Tennille’s first significant hike with her new partner was 1,000 miles of the Mountains to Sea Trail, hiking from Clingman’s Dome in western North Carolina to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks. It took two and a half months and no one, not even Trevor Thomas, knew for sure whether Tennille could return to guiding him through city work after that adventure.
She did. On the trail, Tennille carries a backpack with about 3 pounds of her doggie essentials: her bowl, her boots, her Ruffwear, and her favorite elk antler chew toy. Trevor now carries between 38 and 42 pounds, including food for both himself and Tennille, a two-person tent, stove, water purification system, and a few pieces of essential technology.
Time spent in the back country ranges from one to seven months for Trevor Thomas, and he estimates that he spends one hour of preparation time for each mile on the trail.
To prepare, he sits down with his expedition coordinator who has gathered every available guidebook and topographical map of the trail. With excruciating detail, the trail is outlined in writing, noting every possible touchable marker available. A cliff, a boulder field, a road to cross, a stream, or river. That detailed course description is then emailed to Trevor’s iPhone and serves as his audio navigation on the trail.
“If I know I have about 3 miles to go before a designated turn,” he explains, I know from time and my own cadence when we’ve gone about 2.5 miles of that distance. I then begin to echolocate and follow Tennille to identify the touch marker that tells us when to turn.”
Tennille has alerted him to countless dangers, from cliffs to boulder fields to rattlesnakes. “I’m the big picture guy,” he summarizes, “and she is the detail girl.”
He does not carry GPS equipment. Besides the rapid burning of batteries, he says that much of the terrain he hikes would not be clearly marked by GPS software anyway. Instead, both he and Tennille constantly send Google Earth pictures of where they are back to his expedition coordinator, who can then confirm that they are where they expected to be.
“I’m really not very tech savvy,” Trevor says. He owns every Apple product — iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV, and a MacBook–but says that he doesn’t use any of them with any significant level of sophistication.
The emailed trail instructions documents can be saved to his phone and thus don’t depend on a cellular signal. For emergencies, he carries a satellite phone, which enables him to call anywhere at any time.
When not on the trail, Trevor says that Tennille absolutely requires walking at least 10 to 15 miles daily. And he has taught her some pretty amazing city tricks as well.
“In the grocery store,” he boasts, “she can identify at least 25 different products.” He says he can direct her to find pharmacy, deli, coffee, wine, bread, and more, and she does each flawlessly–encouraged, of course, with praise and a treat for each success.
Trevor Thomas says that his future will always include hiking. The former corporate sales representative and law school graduate is now a professional hiker and fulltime ambassador for a host of outdoor and canine products. He and Tennille are sponsored by companies such as Marmot, Big Agnes, Ruffwear, Cliff, Taste of the Wild, Ahnu, and Camelbak, among others. They don’t accept sponsorship from any product they don’t use or fully support.
To read more about Trevor Thomas and Tennille or follow their next adventure, visit Trevor’s website.