Opening Up My World
By Cathy Beaudoin
Ravines, steep cliffs, and toe-gripping trails are not the typical obstacles people with a visual-impairment are taught to deal with. I didn’t care. With a prosthetic right eye, and only peripheral vision in my left eye, I explored Zion National Park using my other senses. Whether walking in the valley, or hiking on a trail cut into a canyon wall, a deep and prolonged silence surrounded me. With the silence came a stillness that soothed my soul. When my vision started to erode, my life as an accountant flittered away. When I lost the better of the two eyes to an infection, my life as an academic became untenable. Because of my blindness, the world around me shrank. But here, in this place, my world opened up again.
Besides the pervasive stillness, I smelled the fragrance of the earth. If a trail was damp and shaded, the scent was heavy and musty. If a trail baked in the sun, the aroma was dusty, and lighter. Besides the smells, I felt the natural beauty of the land underneath my feet. As I embraced the challenge each route offered, my feet sensed the softness of the ground covered by fine, silky sands, or the toughness of the dry red clay. Out on the trails, the sound of my boots crunching down on the packed earth brought great comfort. Each time my foot hit the ground, I knew I was safe. Each time my foot hit the ground, I felt normal. With my guide dog Maggie leading the way, and my friends Tammy and Sean providing additional support with verbal commands and endless encouragement, I hiked almost all the popular trails in the park.
My planning for this trip included some internet research to figure out how to hike with a guide dog. It seemed like being on the trails with Maggie in her harness would be uncomfortable for both of us. While her harness was fine for urban travel, using it on challenging, uneven terrain seemed like it would cause unnecessary rubbing around her arm pits, and create shoulder strain for me. After looking at several videos of people hiking with dogs, I found a system I thought might work for us. If I tied Maggie’s leash to my day pack’s waist strap, she could lead me forward. Then I could use a pair of hiking poles to identify obstacles as needed. The technique seemed simple enough, and was ultimately very effective.
Once inside the park, I had to find a way to allay my fear of hiking in unfamiliar territory. In an urban area, I managed the fear of the unseen in stages. First, I’d walk a block, then return to my starting point. Then I’d go two blocks, then three blocks, and continue until I formed a mental map of the area. My biggest worry was not being able to recognize landmarks, like a building or a tree, that might give me a clue about where I was. My surroundings were simply a blur, and a bank looked like a drug store. Since Tammy and Sean were with me, I didn’t have to worry about recognizing landmarks. However, to Sean’s dismay, I still insisted we study a detailed map of the area before leaving the parking lot.
It was late October and the daytime temperatures were in the mid-seventies. We decided to start out on the Pa’rus trail because it provided an easy introduction to Zion National Park. The trail cut through the center of a valley, with canyon walls rising along its entire length. The contrast between the sky and the top of the cliffs was stark enough for me to discern. But to me, the canyon walls had no details. So, I created them. Creating visual images is a common technique blind people use to see things. I imagined ragged, brown rock speckled with flecks of bright reddish, orange clay. I imagined deep, dark crevasses interspersed with sheer rock faces. I sensed there were no foothills, or gradual rise in elevation, just the valley and a series of plateaus high above. Whether my image of the place was accurate or not, just being there relieved my frustration with being blind. I was doing things again.
We hiked about three and a half miles on the Pa’rus trail. The beginning of the trail started out on some well-traveled, hard-packed dirt and was shaded by several clusters of sycamore trees, which quickly thinned out. Seam described every possible detail, including how tent sites were strategically placed about ten feet away from any of the tree trunks. Meanwhile, Maggie walked tantalizingly close to what I thought was scrub brush. Tammy provided the initial warning.
“Cath, don’t let Maggie wonder off the path. There’s small prickly pear cactus all over the place.”
I yanked the leash to get Maggie to move towards the middle of the path, and she responded accordingly. Since the trail was flat, and there were no obstacles to worry about, I practiced walking directly behind the dog. She also sensed there was little to guide me around and took the opportunity to snort and sniff her way along the pavement’s edge. I gave her leash another tug to get her to the center of the path. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Maggie turn her head back toward me. A wave of guilt overcame me. She needed to enjoy the new wilderness smells too. I let her drift back to the edge. Then something caught her attention. She sank into a downward crouch, stuck her nose under a clump of bushes, and furiously wagged her tail. She found a pile of wild animal poop.
“Poop jerky,” Sean joked, and the three of us giggled.
Though not crowded, other people were out on the trail. Like us, most were walking at a leisurely pace. There were also some random runners, and a few people riding bicycles. Normally, I relied solely on Maggie to maneuver me around people. But out here, Tammy and Sean took on some of her responsibilities. They instinctively called out when people were passing from behind, or coming toward me. Like Maggie, my friends seemed to have one eye on the natural beauty around us, and the other on me.
The Pa’rus trail paralleled the path of the Virgin River, which, in this section of the valley, seemed to range from ten to thirty yards wide. We crossed the river several times on a series of short, metal bridges. When bicycles crossed these bridges, there was a loud clankitty, clankitty, clank as the tires rolled over strips of metal. Normally, the noise would have agitated me. Out here, it did not. When I first started losing my vision, I was desperate to hang on to my old world. I steadfastly assured anyone who asked that my hearing had not changed. Over time, it became clear my sensitivity to noise had increased. And it was a double-edged sword: it annoyed me to no end, but I needed the increased acuity to gather cues about what was happening around me. After all, my sensitivity to noise was the only tool I had to figure out traffic patterns, and when it was safe to cross a street.
As we approached a curve on the Pa’rus trail, Tammy yelled out, “Hey Cath, go stand over by that sign on the side of the path.” She cackled and called out directions until I found myself next to a yellow sign. Then I heard Sean mutter, “Oh, boy.”
“What’s the sign say?” I asked unable to mask sarcasm.
“Blind Curves Ahead. Stand right there with Maggie, I gotta get a picture of this!” We all laughed as I posed with Maggie, and then continued our hike. By the time we got back to the beginning of the trailhead, I was confident the set up with Maggie would work on the more challenging trails. It turned out Maggie also got very thirsty, very fast, and I didn’t carry enough to keep her hydrated. The thirstier she got, the more sluggish she became. I shuddered to think about the consequences if this happened on the trails cut into the cliffs, and vowed not to let it happen again.
Most of the trails in the park were more demanding than the Pa’rus trail. Never one to settle for easy, I wanted to challenge myself. The route to Angel’s Landing was known to be both physically strenuous, and technically difficult to navigate. The last quarter mile had a narrow ledge with only a thick, black link chain attached to the cliff to keep hikers from falling to their death. It grated against my nerves any time my blindness limited my choices. But I thought this section of the park was beyond my capabilities. Coincidently, I was talking about the trip with a friend who had previously hiked to Angel’s Landing. She was confident Maggie and I could manage all except the last quarter mile. As she described the route, I gained confidence and knew I was going to see how far I could go. Starting from Zion lodge, it was a three-mile trek to Angel’s Landing, and the elevation gain was about fifteen hundred feet. It turned out the lower part of the trail was composed of some my favorite terrain. Within the first mile the paved trail took us through wilderness alley ways created with canyon walls on one side, and towering trees on the other. I caught a whiff of the sweet, woody smell of pines. While I liked to hug the cliff wall, Maggie thought I couldn’t see it. She preferred to walk on the opposite side of the trail. Ultimately, we both compromised and mostly walked in the middle of the trail.
As the trees thinned out, the ground turned from paved path to the dense red clay I loved to hear crunch under my feet. We encountered some long, straight, steeper sections, which required more physical effort. Drops off the cliff-side of hundreds of feet became more prevalent. I was scared, like when I walked the blurry streets of New York City, or Boston, and had to trust I would be safe. I could sense how the trail was winding its way across the face of the rock-hard mountain. My stomach became queasy, as if I might fall off the balcony of a Manhattan skyscraper. Again, I stepped closer to the wall, and Maggie pulled me back to the middle of the path. The steepness of our route intensified. My calves felt the strain, and my breathing became labored. Then it struck me, I was free of the boundaries created by limited vision.
“Hey Cath, this is Walter’s Wiggles,” Tammy called out. From my research, I knew Walter’s Wiggles was a series of twenty-one of the shortest, steepest switchbacks on the trail to Angel’s Landing. The layout of the switchbacks made it feel like people were walking right over the top of your head. As we continued upward, I was thankful I retained much of my fitness from recently running a half-marathon. Like when I ran longer distances, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and focused on the positive. This was great exercise in a great location, and most people only dreamt of being here. I became ecstatic and blurted out to no one in particular, “This is so freakin’ awesome.”
As we approached the top of the Wiggles, Maggie lost focus. She looked at Tammy and Sean instead of the trail. I heard her panting. Crap, I thought to myself, you need to pay attention to the dog. I told Tammy and Sean we needed to stop and give Maggie water. Maggie dropped to her belly, and with her portable bowl situated between her paws, greedily slurped her water. Once she licked the last droplets, she rose, ready to resume her guiding duties. As we continued on, an occasional hiker stared at Maggie, not realizing she was a guide dog, and then at me. Tammy proactively addressed the issue when this happened, “Isn’t it awesome, she’s blind.” Yes, I thought to myself. I’m blind and I’m hiking up Walter’s Wiggles!
Once we got to the top of the last switchback, it was just a short hike to a flat, sandy patch of ground called Scout’s Landing. This was the spot where Maggie and I waited for Tammy and Sean while they continued to the top of Angel’s Landing. Sean directed me to a dead tree limb. I sat, sent my friends off, and turned to the dog.
“Puppy want a snaaack?” It was cookies and water for dog.
While it felt good to be sitting, there was a major drawback to resting on the tree limb. The only porta-potty on the trail was just down the path from us. Every time someone opened the door, a nasty stench came our way. Still, as hikers passed by us, Maggie garnered a lot of attention. The interactions were all similar. People were amazed Maggie was guiding a blind hiker on the trails. Wasn’t I afraid I was going to fall? Some had previously seen us on the trails and noted how attentive the dog was. The conversations almost always ended with a comment about how I was an inspiration. I had mixed emotions about this suggestion because I knew I would be invisible without Maggie. When I first lost my vision, I walked with a white cane. Often people saw me coming and crossed the street to avoid me. Once I got Maggie, people crossed the street to say hello to us. While the attention Maggie garnered created mixed emotions, I loved the fact that people recognized how special she was.
About an hour later, Tammy and Sean made it back from the top of Angel’s Landing.
“What took ya so long?”
“You know Sean is afraid of heights, right?”
I didn’t, and shrugged.
“Well, we got to the chains and he didn’t want to go any farther. So I went up without him.” Then Sean took over the story telling.
“Once I saw her making her way across the face of the cliff, I figured what the heck, I’m out here, I might as well face my fear.”
Tammy chimed in again. “I could see he decided to follow me so once I got to the top I waited for him. It took him awhile but he got to the top! I’m so proud of you, honey.”
“What was the view like up there?”
“Unbelievable,” Tammy answered. “Freakin’ unbelievable.”
With those words, we got ourselves together and headed back down the mountain. My friends did not stop cooing about the views from the top until long after dinner that night.
Besides hiking to Angel’s Landing, we did another hike that was quite technically demanding. We linked together four trails for a total distance of five miles. Our route began on a concrete path with a modest upward slope. The concrete was crumbling at its edges, buckled from frost heaves, and had a predictable undulating pattern. Sensing the difficulty, Maggie diligently attended to her guiding duties. She walked up the hill at my pace, and stopped where precise foot placement was required. I started to sweat as the path narrowed and the drop off on the open side of the trail got steeper. The grip on my hiking poles tightened. The trail morphed into a series of long, subtle inclines with steps spaced several yards apart. The cliff face above us began to arc high over our heads. And then I heard it. A soft mist at first, then a gentle spatter. Still unsure of what was going on, I felt the coolness of the spray hit my cheeks, arms, and hands. I looked up just as we were about to walk under a waterfall! Unfortunately, Maggie didn’t appreciate getting wet, and hustled me past the waterfall. Then she stopped and shook herself. As we continued forward, I heard the soothing sound of the spray behind me. My soul was healing.
The next section of the trail was crowded. Because the trail was narrow, we stopped often to let people pass. We heard the voices of others much more frequently, though they may have been in a canyon as much as a mile away. Sometimes it was laughter that echoed around us. My mind always in the gutter, I said to my friends, “No getting away with having sex in the canyons around here. Everyone will hear you!”
Just after my incriminating remarks, a young woman in her early twenties easily hiked past us.
“Hey, she has a Motorhead logo on her backpack,” Sean said. “That’s so rad.”
“What’s that?” I naively asked.
“A metal band. A metal chick out here hiking the trails. That’s so cool…”
I thought back to my twenties, when I rode a motorcycle. I loved to ride along the back roads of New England, especially the route that took me past Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, Amherst College, then through the campus of the University of Massachusetts. I’d stop for apple pie at the local farm, or browse the independent bookstores along the way. It was my Route 66, and in those days, I believed anything was possible. While I daydreamed, Maggie continued to focus. I caught her peeking out of the corner of one eye to see if I was okay. When there was a good viewing spot, I’d let her take a break so she could look around. She’d perch herself on the edge of the path, and stick her snout out as far as she could. I imagined she was taking stock of her land. Tammy told me how her nostrils twitched left, then right, then widened and narrowed. I guessed her brain was analyzing the scents in the air. Wolf, deer, coyote, only she knew who’d recently been nearby.
I was jolted back to reality when we came up to an extremely steep, narrow section of steps. They were uneven, crumbling at their edges, narrow from front to back, and spaced tightly together. Controlling my panic, I quickly developed a technique so I could proceed up the climb. I placed my toe flush against the rise of a step even though only half my foot fit on the flat portion of the stair. Then I used a hiking pole to find the edge of the next step. I’d lift the lower foot up, and slam the toe of that boot forward until it hit the back rise of the step. My feet felt which steps were sturdy, and which weren’t. Tammy kept her hand on my pack, just in case I needed steadying. At each plateau, Maggie waited for my command to continue. In total, there were about two hundred steps. The staircase took us around a corner and through a series of narrow ravines. I had to turn sideways and suck my stomach in to get through some of the sections. Finally, the trail opened into a flat section, and we found ourselves less than a hundred yards away from the lower emerald pool. I felt shaky from the adrenalin that gave me the nerve to keep going, and wiped a couple of beads of sweat from my forehead.
“Good girl…you were a good girl.” Maggie’s tail wagged in short strokes along the ground as she sat and waited for instructions.
Ironically, the lower emerald pool didn’t resemble any kind of pool at all. At least not when we were there. Instead, we found a lot of thin, flat, smooth rock covering the ground with a trickle of water that made its way past the outer edges of the rock and off into the brush around us. This was a place where people stopped, sat, and reflected. Out here, there was a great respect for the stillness. It wasn’t that people didn’t talk. They did. But there was something about being in Zion that brought everyone’s voice down. Even the rangers roaming the park were mellow. They seemed adept at using Zen-tones to get people to cooperate with the park rules. At one point, when I decided to wait on the rocks while my friends explored another very technical demanding side trail, a park ranger saw Maggie and came up alongside me to have a chat.
“Good morning, ma’am. How ya doing today?”
“Great thanks.” It took me a minute to realize he was a park ranger.
“Excellent, glad to hear that.” He took a long pause. “Are you aware that dogs are not supposed to be on the trails out here?” I panicked. He’s not going to tell me I can’t use my guide dog out here, is he? I felt him staring at me, and tried to mimic making eye contact. I was certain he was about to kick her out of the park.
“Yes, I am. But she’s a guide dog.” I turned my head away from the man’s face and down toward Maggie. Then I remembered she did not have her harness on.
“I can’t see,” I finally admitted. “I have her papers in my pack if you want to see them.” After another long pause, the park ranger wished me a good day and went on his way. I wondered if he ever came across a blind hiker in the park before. I looked down at the dog again. Maggie’s posture was perfect. Her front arms were straight, elbows locked, back hips set between her hind legs, back straight up at a hundred and fifty-degree angle, ears pointing up high in the air and, I swear, a huge grin on her face. It was always special when it was just Maggie and me. One cannot go forward without the other. We knew how to take care of each other, and at that moment, at the lower emerald pool, it was my turn to take care of her.
“Here ya go pup,” I said. “Here ya go.” More cookies and water for the dog. She sucked down four dog treats, barely chewing them, and then slurped and gulped her water. Dainty she wasn’t.
When Tammy and Sean came back, we quickly moved on to find the route back to the lodge. To my relief, we picked up the next trail at the top of the stairs. Instead of having to descend them, the next trail started out as hard packed dirt with plenty of trees and brush off both sides of the path. Most of the time the incline dropped at a moderate rate. But portions of the path turned into rough rock descents that were quite tricky to deal with. I tripped and stumbled several times, making Maggie very anxious. She yawned frequently, a sure sign she was stressed. Her instinct was to move me along as fast as possible, and she started pulling me harder than I felt was safe. I did a quick analysis of my options. I figured slowly poking my way down the path with my hiking poles was better than an open wound from falling on a bunch of sharp-edged rocks. I asked Sean to take the dog.
“Of course, come on Magster, you come with me.”
I unhitched her leash from my pack and handed it over to Sean. Then I slowly made my way down the hill. Tammy stayed behind me, giving me voice commands as needed. We ended up using this technique on the rest of the more difficult downhill sections, and it worked well for all of us.
Our last hike in Zion was different from any of the others. For one thing, the weather took a turn for the worse. The temperature dropped to the mid-fifties, the clouds rolled in, and the forecast called for rain. Our original plan was to explore the River Walk. From there Tammy and Sean would continue to The Narrows, a famous section of the park that required walking in the river. The River Walk was a paved walkway, about a mile long. I wanted to hike it because the path was just feet from the Virgin River. On the opposite side of the river, cliffs rose straight up from the water’s edge to over five hundred feet in some places. The River Walk was a popular destination for tourists and hikers alike. So even though the weather was not favorable, it was more crowded here than anywhere else in the park.
After a couple of stressful days of hiking, Maggie was happy to be leading me on a flat, easy path again. The only obstacles she needed to navigate around were other people. When we came across a patch of sand leading to the river, I’d let Maggie explore. She pressed her nose deep into to the ground which, in turn, triggered a furious round of tail wagging. This day was as much about her enjoyment as it was about my own.
Because of the threat of rain, it was risky to venture up the river into The Narrows. When we entered the park that morning, a big sign indicting a high risk for flash flooding was posted.
“Good morning,” Sean said to the park ranger as we stopped at the gate.
“Doesn’t look promising for a hike into The Narrows today, does it?”
“Let’s put it this way,” the ranger responded, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that part of the canyon today.”
We all heard the ranger loud and clear.
“Have a great day,” she said as she waved us through.
“We’re still going to do the River Walk today, right?” I pleaded.
“Yeah, we’ll go check it out,” Sean assured me.
When we were about a half mile down the River Walk, my friends dropped back a few yards behind me and started caucusing. Should they take a chance and go a quarter mile up the river to see the entrance to The Narrows? Cooler heads prevailed. The flash flood signs were no joke around here. We all knew people died in The Narrows, mostly because hikers ignored the warning signs.
“Nope. We are not going to risk it,” Tammy concluded.
I relaxed a bit when I heard the conversation draw to its end. We continued to take lot’s of pictures along the river, and eventually came to the end of the path where there seemed to be a lot of random junk strewn about.
“What the heck?” I lamented out loud, thinking people had dumped their garbage.
“It’s just boots and sneakers and towels. It looks like people just leave their stuff here,” Tammy said. Based on the number of shoes that were laying around, it looked like about twenty people were hiking up the river.
“What do you think?” Tammy asked Sean.
Knowing what this meant I said, “You guys are crazy, you know.” And then after a short pause, “I can just hang out here with Maggie. There’s no way I’m takin’ her in that water.”
And with those words Tammy and Sean hustled down the stairs to the rock covered beach. I knew they would enter the knee-high water and walk upstream and out of sight. That was where The Narrows began. I took a seat on a bench, and Maggie laid at my feet. For the next hour, I watched, and worried, as people came to the end of the trail, looked around, took some pictures, and walked back. Stay safe, I thought to myself. Just stay safe.
I ate a power bar, and drank some water. I gave Maggie a snack and some water. I waited and worried some more. I’d seen the videos of people scrambling up cliff walls trying to escape the flash floods. We all knew it could easily be raining ten miles upstream, making flash flooding imminent. I tried not to think about the worst-case scenario. Instead, I focused on the sound of the water. Then I felt spits of rain hit my face. The cloud cover darkened, and the spits turned into a light drizzle. I pulled a poncho out of my pack, and put it on. Then I draped as much of the poncho over Maggie as I could.
Trying to distract myself from thinking about all the trouble my friends might be in, I looked across the river. I fought off a tinge of jealously over the fact that Tammy and Sean were up in The Narrows. At least I’m out here, I thought. After all, I did it. I hiked in Zion Nation Park. Tears filled my eyes. Then, just as the drizzle turned into a steady rain, Tammy and Sean emerged at the top of the stairs.
“Oh my god, that water is COLD,” Tammy exclaimed. “My feet are numb!”
“What was it like?” I asked, brushing away the tears that mixed with the rain.
“It was a little nerve wracking. We only saw a couple people once we got up around the corner. And knowing there might be rain upstream, we were pretty nervous about it all.”
“Tell her about the rocks.”
“Oh my god, you won’t believe this. When we were coming back, I said to Sean I’d like to find a heart-shaped rock to bring home. And I swear, we looked down and there were all these rocks that had been inscribed with a name and a date. One of them was heart-shaped! We didn’t want to take it, but how weird was that.”
The rain was coming down harder now.
“We need to get goin’,” I said, “You guys are gonna get hypothermic if we stay out here much longer.” As I bent over to grab Maggie’s leash, she turned and gently licked the remnants of tears off my face.
“I love you Pup.” I whispered in her ear. My world was opening up again.