Hearing Impairment and Thru-Hiking
It’s an isolating feeling to be alone in the woods, but it’s far more isolating to be alone in a room full of people.
It is widely recommended that—for safety reasons—hikers avoid headphones whenever possible, but what about the challenges of those who can’t hear in the first place?
If you are not deaf or hard of hearing you have probably never given any consideration to what life is like with little or no sound. I sure didn’t. It changes the entire way you can interact with the world. Charlie Chaplin films became something I was able to more deeply appreciate, but daily life was altered in every conceivable way. The only benefit was that hiking became a refuge where there wasn’t an overwhelming abundance of chaotic noise, but the struggle that provides is that diminished hearing reduces my safety in the back country.
Hearing loss is isolating in ways that can’t be explained to the hearing community.
It becomes a constant struggle to gently remind almost everyone you know to speak more slowly, face you when they’re talking (if you’ve managed to learn at least passable lip reading), and to keep everyone from getting angry or otherwise impatient when they have to repeat themselves again and again. Group activities? They are an anxiety nightmare, at least for me. Additionally, the idea of learning sign language becomes daunting because all it does is allow you to communicate with a very tiny percentage of the people in your life. Most people, no matter how much they love you, will not learn an entire language for you—especially in the age of text messages. We are expected to accommodate the hearing instead of the other way around.
In 2009, at the age of 22, I caught a cold that would change the course of my life. It lasted for two weeks and ended with the terrifying reality that my hearing would never return in full. I lost my hearing as a result of Meniere’s—a progressive, episodic, degenerative inner ear disorder. It is something generally diagnosed at aged 60 or later. To have developed it and been diagnosed at 22 was catastrophic and means that my hearing will continue to diminish until it is just gone completely. A slow spin into utter silence. What a Meniere’s diagnosis meant was that my hearing loss would not remain stagnant, but would be constantly fluctuating—this means that hearing aids are not a viable option for me and they never will be, meaning that an already isolating condition proved even more isolating when my primary companion through my hearing loss was able to regain the use of her ears through aids.
In the same year, at the same age, my sister (in-law) lost her hearing while stationed aboard the USS Stout DDG 55 as a result of responsibilities related to her service in the United States Navy. Largely in support of one another, we learned to cope together with this new and permanent way of life, but while her hearing aids are provided for her by the VA I have to get by with subpar lip reading.
Life on the trail has its challenges, and knowing that some of my challenges will diminish my level of safety is not without its fear-inducing panic attacks, but we don’t commit to things like this because they’re easy. We don’t thru-hike thousands of miles at a go because we lack fear. We do, and desire to do, this crazy thing because we understand the place of fear. We can’t climb a mountain without fear, but we can learn to utilize this companion. Fear can drive us forward. Fear can be our fire. Fear is the battle we win to stand where other brave people have stood. We know fear. We respect fear. Some of us even need fear because we know that we can own it and use it. We know that we can stand on mountaintops, head held high and facing the sun, arms outstretched as if embracing the sky, because we do not answer to our fear.
Learning sign language
Given the continued degeneration of my hearing, my partner and I will be using our time on the trail, and the resources afforded me as a member of the deaf and hard of hearing community, to learn sign language. So let this be an open invitation to anyone on the Appalachian Trail in 2020 to learn and interact with us in American Sign Language (ASL) if they happen upon our path.
Dream big. Play hard. No regrets. Fuck fear.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.