A Quiet Walk
Imagine yourself alone on the trail. You’re walking in the high country, well above treeline, with long views over the tops of stony peaks. You hear the crunch of your feet on the gravel path, there’s a jay that’s been following you for the last quarter mile who is energetically telling you about its nut collection, and a marmot is barking at some perturbation off in the distance. Fat bumblebees buzz about the stonecrop and you’re content to listen to them because there’s no one otherwise for miles with which to have a conversation.
Time and miles get ticked off one step at a time and you come to a pass. Others are there. The sunshine has remained bright above and there is a crisp breeze flowing through the pass that cools sweaty bodies. Everyone is basking and happy. They greet you, and you strike up a conversation as you gobble some trail mix. You’re low on water, but drink the last of it knowing it will do you more good washing down the last of your snack. One of your new trail buddies notices how low you are and asks if you’d like some of his water. You gladly accept the offer and hand him your bottle so he can pour off a little of his water weight.
To most hikers, none of this is an uncommon experience. Many of you can picture this narrative because you’ve experienced something not completely unlike it at some point in your travels. But it’s not how everyone experiences the trail.
Hiking with Disability
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned it is that disability can affect anyone. I turn fifty this year and I’ve spent the last two years of that half-century neurologically unable to form words. It’s complicated, none of my doctors are completely certain why, and beyond learning a new language (ASL) there’s not a lot of support for me or people with this disability. That said, my reality has become a routine where I wake up and face whatever challenges life presents me without being able to say anything. My condition has changed how I tackle everyday tasks both on and off the trail. Most importantly, every walk, for me, is a quiet walk.
When I landed a SOBO permit for the PCT this summer, I was initially overjoyed. I’ve wanted to tackle this hike for a long time: I’ve covered sections here in Washington and Oregon already, but a thru-hike always seemed beyond me. Now, with the permit in hand, I’ve really had to pay close attention to a lot more than I anticipated ever having to handle. Predictably, some of my initial exuberance has been crushed by the limitations imposed by my condition.
Hiking, especially thru-hiking, with a disability adds a lot of complexity. I can’t, for instance, call ahead and book a room at a hotel or hostel even when I really need a zero. Some places take reservations online. Many do not, or even if they do I may or may not have internet access from the trail. The same goes for calling that trail angle or shuttle service to get a ride to or from a trailhead. Need help or rescue on the trail? I can’t call 911. Functionally, most of these challenges can be overcome, but they also change the nature of my hikes.
Right now, months ahead of my permit date, I’m shaking down my battery and charging strategy so that I don’t run out of power while on the trail. I’m forever tethered to my phone despite being unable to use it for its primary purpose. If it’s not working or charged (or it’s just out of my hands) I can’t communicate.
Before I lost my ability to speak, I don’t think I really appreciated how often people do it on trails. We’re a talkative species, and that’s a really cool component of our evolutionary success. We greet each other as we pass on the trail. We commiserate when it’s cold or wet, and this can bring with it a sense of comfort that’s as nice as a warm fire. We complain to each other when it’s stupid hot or when the bugs are growing fat on our blood. That communication too is a way of discharging the stress of an event in solidarity with our trail family. What walking without a voice has taught me is that the community of hikers is important to most of us, regardless of how much we recognize this component of our hikes.
If you’ve ever gone days at a time without encountering someone else, you might be able to appreciate my point of view. Sometimes I find myself aching for people to talk to, even though that’s not in the cards for me.
How to Hike with the Disabled
Yep, here is the meat of it. You’re probably hiking near someone with a disability. Sometimes they’re obvious, and others’ challenges aren’t unless you get to know that person. And that’s just the obvious news you’re probably already aware of, but awareness isn’t always enough.
Considering some of the side-eye I am the subject of there’s still some room for improvement. So here’s some basic advice from one disabled hiker to those who are not.
First, treat me like you would anyone else. I can’t speak for other people hiking with a disability, but I can assure you that if you approach me with pity, shock, or revulsion I won’t assume the best of you. I’m an adult who has extensive experience in the backcountry and a sincere love of backpacking and long-distance foot travel. If I need help or advice I can ask for it.
Next, don’t identify me by my disability. It’s safe to assume that if you refer to me as the “mute” hiker behind my back, eventually you will run into me and slip up and say that to my face. It’s happened before. I suffer from mutism, I am not “a mute.” My disability isn’t me, it’s a thing I can’t do.
Don’t take my phone from me unless I offer it to you. This seems obvious, at least to me, but this has happened more than once. I meet someone on the trail, whip out my phone after signing that I’m mute but can still hear them, start to type a question or greeting or whatever, and they snatch it from me. You wouldn’t push someone’s wheelchair or grab their walker, would you? That’s my mouth.
Finally, at least for me, wait for me to finish typing. This happens all the time, on and off the trail. I’m with others, we’re having a conversation, and they watch me typing as they switch subjects or move on leaving me in the dust. Thirty seconds later I’ve composed a response to a question or delivered my input on a topic that no one recalls. That right there is the cold heart of my ultimate frustration. It’s an indifference that routinely convinces me that my opinions and experience aren’t worth much because, if they were, then my companions would have waited for a couple of breaths it took me to type out my thoughts.
Last summer, while hiking along the Wonderland Trail in Washington I encountered another hiker just above Summerland. She was filling up her water bottles from the same spot as me. She said something to greet me and when I signed back to her the reply floored me. “I don’t know sign, but I’ll wait for you to write it down?”
She finished filling her bottles and waited for me to do the same. I got my phone out and we had a chat under the sun. She didn’t flinch when I laughed (my laugh is very rough and sometimes people confuse it for a howl) and she waited for me to type. It was wonderful for me because it can be very difficult to make friends when you can’t talk. She seemed pretty happy too.
As things start to thaw this spring, I’ve found myself thinking back to that trailside conversation near Summerland. I understand that everyone has difficulty from time to time in making friends or feeling like they’re a part of the community that exists along any ribbon of packed dirt and stone. We can all feel judged or excluded, but I also recognize that it’s much more difficult for me to bridge that gap.
My hope is that when I step out onto Hart’s Pass this summer, I’ll find people who won’t see me as the one thing I can’t do.
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