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.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar
    Michael Murphy : Dec 14th

    I like it, your insight and wisdom

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lily Matilda : Dec 30th

      Thank you, Holmes. 🙂

      Reply
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    "Chappy" Jack Layfield : Dec 15th

    Thanks for your comments on the deaf and hard of hearing! I completed my NOBO AT thru hike in September. I am hard of hearing and wore hearing aids on my hike. I am sure that at times that I frustrated other hikers. I almost named myself “Whajasay”. Maybe, I should have been more fearful. However, I never did have an incident where I was fearful as a result of my hearing difficulties.

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    • Avatar
      Lily Matilda : Dec 30th

      Thank you for sharing your experience! I’ll have someone with me for the trail, but there are still a few concerns I have on such a long journey. Hearing from other members of the deaf and HOH community have helped my nerves a lot!

      Reply
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    Pete (Smokestack) Buak : Dec 15th

    Just some thoughts having hiked with a deaf mute and watching his interactions on the trail. Since trail families are a bigger thing these days it should be possible to accumulate a group of friends that can assist getting the word around that you have a hearing problem. I ran into the fellow again on trail earlier this year and made a big deal about communicating by writing. I explained to a bunch of hikers what I was doing. I know he had 2 fears – snakes and not being to hear water when looking for it. He did have any snake problems and I don’t know if he had significant problems finding water. Good luck on your hike. I am a Georgia Trail Ambassador so we may meet.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lily Matilda : Dec 30th

      I can hear just well enough that conversations with a couple of people are manageable without background noise, so I’m hoping I do okay meeting people! I’m glad your friend had someone there with them to help them out 🙂

      Reply
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    Just Bob : Dec 15th

    WOW! Great post! Something one never thinks about……….Thank you for posting this……..

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lily Matilda : Dec 30th

      Thank you for your comment!

      Reply
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    Chris Swain aka Han Slolo : Dec 16th

    Thanks for your post. I am deaf without my Cochlear devices and I can relate to your concerns about missing the water soures. I will be heading back to the trail again next year to finish my nobo AT. ONE PLUS is your not bothered by noisy shelter sleepers.

    Reply
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      Lily Matilda : Dec 30th

      I’m so glad to hear that people have hiked long distances without much disturbance from their hearing impairments. I’m almost completely deaf in my right ear, so when there’s noise I can just roll my head over and go back to sleep! Huge bonus!

      Reply
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      G13Man : Jan 22nd

      i have tinnitus in 1 ear , hi pitched noise ,
      hope fully that will be the ear up when they yell at me for snoring
      thanks for the good humored laugh Slolo

      Reply
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    KMac : Dec 30th

    Lily, Thank you for this post! I have reverse slope hearing loss (lower tones – like male voices!) and cant hear people if they are in front of me on the trail:( I understand the frustration in social situations and am worried about this interfering in my ability to create a trail family… Keep an eye out for me. I am the one who talks too loud and says ‘What?’ a lot😜

    Reply
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      Lily Matilda : Dec 30th

      When is your start date? I’m also missing low tones instead of high! I’ve Honestly never interacted with anyone else who did. It also makes the hearing loss categorically worse because low tone loss means missing the bulk of a word where high tone loss means missing enunciations. I’m also super jealous that you can talk loud!! I can’t tell you how many times I have told someone I was hearing impaired and they looked at me so confused and responded with “but you’re so soft spoken…” 😂🤷‍♀️

      Reply
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    Zoee : Jan 9th

    Aw – I wish I was hiking this year because I’d totally meet up with you! I’m profoundly deaf (aka I hear pretty much absolutely nothing) and am a native signer. Honestly the most scary part of thruhiking for me is the social aspect. It’s going to be tough navigating that as a profoundly Deaf person who does not lipread or speak. But I have a lot of tricks under my belt. 🙂 It’s my goal to hike either the PCT or PNT next year sooooo if you’re interested for another hike in 2021, hit me up. 🙂

    Reply
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      Lily Matilda : Jan 25th

      It has been so encouraging to hear all the stories of people who have done this before! Thank you so much for sharing! I am excited to dive in and start learning sign. My hearing fluctuates greatly, so some days I can hear perfectly fine (well, not really, but close enough…) and other days I can’t hear anything at all. It does make the social aspect of literally every social encounter really stressful and I was actually treated for agoraphobia following the loss of my hearing. I’m doing much better now! But it’s widely dismissed how difficult it is to live with a disadvantage nobody can see.
      We had considered doing the PCT next year, but we decided we would rather start a family and focus on other plans. But if you’re ever hiking in Maine, let me know!

      Reply
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    Twiddlesticks : Feb 2nd

    Hey Lily,

    Good luck with your hike! I too am HOH, 100% in my right ear, pretty normal hearing in the left. Thinking about going SOBO this year.

    I am only worried about noises in the night like bears and not knowing where they are (as I have zero sound localisation skills). I have learned to just accept that I don’t cope well in large groups haha! Just keep in your mind that people are mostly saying boring things anyway lol.

    Reply
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    Dudley : Feb 9th

    Go girl…see yah on the trail!

    Reply

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