PILOT MOUNTAIN — Trevor Thomas has accomplished more in the past eight years than most people accomplish in a lifetime.
He hiked the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail at around 2,650 miles, and numerous other hikes. Thomas did this not only in great time, but he did it all with no sight.
Thomas is blind. He is the first unassisted blind person to hike the Appalachian Trail, all 2,175 miles of the trail from Georgia to Maine, in five and a half months, which Thomas said was the average time for a hiker with sight.
Trevor is the first blind person to stand on top of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
His new challenge is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina, which extends from the Great Smoky Mountains to Cape Hatteras, and passes directly through the southern portion of Surry County.
Joining Thomas is Tenille, a black Labrador guide dog. Tenille has been paired with him for nine months. Thomas said the Mountains-to-Sea Trail would be almost impossible without Tenille by his side, as she offers not only companionship, but keeps him away from danger and assists him with finding the trail markers.
Thomas said the companionship he has with Tenille is amazing. “What she gives back to me, compared with what I do for her, is a thousand fold. To be honest, I couldn’t do this hike without her finding the signs for me and then me interpreting what to do when we get to those landmarks.”
The Mountains-to-Sea trail is not yet complete — only 550 miles are dedicated to trails, and the rest of the trail is filled in with roads, but there is a dedicated map for the trail, and trail markers are placed along the route.
Tenille is trained to find each trail marker, just like she finds signs and light posts for Thomas when in town, but Thomas said sometimes the markers may not be exactly what he is looking for; for instance, it might be a sign warning hikers about the danger of forest fires, but it is up to Thomas to interpret the signs she finds.
Tenille is the only dog in the entire world, to Thomas’ knowledge, trained to hike in both city and back-country environments.
Thomas said he has to keep moving while on the trail, and tries to reach a certain amount of miles each day. The western part of the state took longer than the eastern part is expected to take, with mountainous terrain and multiple water crossings.
The first true road hiking Thomas encountered on the trail began as he left the Stone Mountain area. He previously walked on the Blue Ridge Parkway for around 30 miles, but the section he walked on was closed to traffic.
“I will be really excited when they move the trail off of the road. Highway 268 was a death sentence, and we are lucky we went through on a day when there weren’t as many large trucks and logging trucks. I knew there was no shoulder, or just a small shoulder, and lots of trucks, but that’s all the information I had… it wasn’t as bad as people had described to me, but it still wasn’t safe.”
Thomas arrived in Surry County late last week and was relieved when he entered Pilot Mountain State Park where the trail left the road. He hiked to the campground, where the rangers were waiting, with a spot designated in the campground. The parks service calls ahead and lets other rangers know when he should arrive at their location.
Thomas said he loves to be able to camp in a campground or stay in a motel, but those are not always available. “The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a thru-hiking trail, but there are not many designated camping spaces. There are areas where you have to go 30 miles without a place to camp. We do have lots of angels, trail angels, who will let us camp on their property.”
Two of those angels offered to pay for Thomas’ breakfast in Pilot Mountain on Saturday, and the owners of McRitchie Winery allowed Thomas to stay on their property, giving him access to bathrooms, snacks and drinks.
After becoming blind at age 36, Thomas said he did have a period where he “was angry at the world,” but he didn’t linger in it too long. Thomas was involved in extreme sports before he became blind. One of Thomas’ friends invited him to hear another blind person speak, Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest and the tallest peaks on each continent.
Thomas said they became friends. “We instantly identified with each other. He said to try hiking and told me I could do it on my own…if I hadn’t met him, I don’t think my life would be like this. Eric helped me get my career started and helped me get my life back.”
After a hike in the Grayson Highlands area of Virginia, Thomas decided to try the Appalachian Trail. He said he went to a trail outfitter to buy gear, and the young man he met there helped him start his journey.
“He took me to the trail and we went out and hiked for an afternoon. That’s the only experience I had on that trail, but after I learned I could hike and taught myself to do it, I wanted to find the most extreme hike, and I knew it was going to give me my life back. I had no idea how to do it. There isn’t a guidebook or a map for a blind person. I had Matt [the man from the outfitters] and he read me his trail journals. I memorized as much as I could…I had nothing to lose.”
Thomas said hiking with Tenille is different than hiking solo. He has to keep her needs in mind, and with weather warming up, he said he monitors Tenille’s temperature. “She’s only about two feet tall, so when she is walking, especially along road surfaces, the temperature is higher because she is closer to the ground. Temperatures can reach 110 on hot days because of the heat radiating from the road. She lets me know how she is feeling and I take breaks I wouldn’t normally take because I know she needs to. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Thomas has friends who enjoy hiking with him, including a friend Dave who has joined him for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, but Dave will disembark in the Greensboro area.
Resupply trips are made to meet Thomas at various locations with the help of family and friends. His friend Laine and her daughter Dannie met Thomas at a restaurant in Pilot Mountain to help with a resupply.
Thomas said he wants to continue hiking. He also wants to explore his “benevolent side” and support Guide Dogs for the Blind, an organization he is passionate about. He said he is raising money to support the organization on his hike, and according to his webpage, donations may be made to the organization in his honor.
After Thomas approached multiple schools to find a dog trained to handle hiking, he found a match with Guide Dogs for the Blind. He went to guide dog school, which was an intensive training session for both Thomas and Tenille. “Typically they will select five dogs that may work with each person, and they bring them into a room…Tenille was my first, and we bonded instantly. They were relieved because they thought Tenille would be the best fit, because she is a very unique dog with specialized abilities. She goes from city mode to backcountry mode instantly.”
Trevor’s Mountains-to-Sea hike will end at the Atlantic Ocean. He said he heard he will know the end of the trail when he climbs up the sand dunes and can hear the ocean, but if that didn’t alert him, he’d hit the water soon after that, Thomas recalled with a laugh.
To follow Thomas and Tenille on their journey along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and for more information about their sponsors and past hikes, visit their webpage at www.blindhikertrevorthomas.com. Regular updates also are made at www.facebook.com/TrevorThomasZeroZero.
Reach Jessica Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1933.