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.

PCT Section J Hike in 2021

I’m a sucker for Wilderness Boundaries. PCT Section J.

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.

Cascade Crest

Watching for hikers in the sunshine.

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.

Encouraging Words

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?”

Sunrise and smoke

Early morning starts are the best.

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.

Affiliate Disclosure

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.

Comments 6

  • Wolf of the Wind and Wood : Apr 14th

    I cant imagine living with a disability like yours or any for that matter. You have the short end of the stick in this but dont think you are off the hook in how you treat or look at others. In your article you go on about how people shouldn’t take your phone, or wait for you to finish typing among other things. Lets be serious though, when is it ok just to take someone’s phone in the first place without asking? Hey, I understand what that means to YOU because I have the leisure to sit here and read what you have said about it. No one else has a clue or will have a clue what that means to you especially on the trail. Maybe if you sit down with them and work it into a conversation over the course of an hour they will get it to some extent, but still not the full extent. There simply no way that will ever happen. You are just going to have to accept that, or only travel with people who have had time to absorb this about you. Its not a good or a bad thing, its just the way it is. You get to live the short end of the whole thing. Don’t go around despairing people for it though. Its not their fault any more than your disability is your fault. Its the way people simply are. Nothing will change it. To you I say regarding this, its up to you then to figure out how the get your point across as quickly as possible without alienating people in the process. You are doing this for yourself firstly and then if fate allows, maybe others benefit from it as well by being able to adapt to the additional effort it takes to communicate with you while in your company. Good luck out there.

    • Steve A. : Apr 14th

      I worked with a hearing impaired guy who always said “we are only as handicapped as we make ourselves.” I learned ASL ( American sign language) because it made it easier for both of us to communicate. Robert would work with anyone to teach them ASL. we were on a scuba diving boat and there was 4 people in our group and Robert was the only hearing impaired person, but the other people on the boat thought all 4 of us were hearing impaired. The joke was on them. You will find people don’t always want to take a little more time to communicate with others, because of language differences. Can you read lips? That would help you with not handing your phone to others. ??? I translate when I can.

    • SportySpice : Apr 15th

      Of course disabled people have the right to ask for basic respect which includes not touching/moving peoples wheelchairs or, in this case, not taking his communication device. Honestly, it’s sad that that even has to be expressed because it is so obvious and human decency should solve this, but sadly, it doesn’t. I don’t get your comment, are you mad at a disabled person for demanding basic respect? Because that’s what he is doing in his article. Just like people who can talk don’t forcibly shut other peoples mouths, they shouldn’t take his phone out of his hands. There’s not exactly a huge learning curve to this simple concept …
      You sound insufferable.

    • Quick response : Apr 18th

      Wolf of the Wind and Wood, you seem like a gigantic piece of shit. I hope I don’t cross paths with you on the trail.

  • Sherlock : Apr 14th

    Thanks for sharing your life situation and how it relates to backpacking. I’m deaf in one ear and have moderate hearing loss in the other. Like you, this affects all sorts of things on the trail (some good, some not as good). For example, I normally don’t have to worry about people who snore in shelters on the AT because I simply don’t hear them if I sleep with my “good” ear down. However, participating in a conversation around a campfire is very challenging because it’s normally too dark to read lips or be certain who’s talking.

    Adaptability is the key and you are certainly doing your best to do that. Being outdoors is such a blessing and we certainly need to keep experiencing it even with the challenges our “disability” brings. Happy trails!

  • Sibley : Apr 17th

    Thanks for a well-written article and the gentle reminder that it’s easy to be thoughtful like the woman in Summerland if we just pay attention to the people we meet. Hoping the hikers you encounter on your hike this year will show the same patience and consideration.


What Do You Think?