Braille Monitor                  March 2022

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Returning to the Trail

by John Paré

John ParéFrom the Editor: We have people in our organization who make me feel blessed whenever I meet or talk with them. John is one of these fine people. Mostly he is an optimist, believing despite some of his real-world experience that right will be done, that he has a hand in making it happen, and that when it does he should be modest about his own role.

This article is appearing first in this issue because most of our March edition is heavier than usual. So for this issue we’re going to do the unthinkable and eat our desert first. Thank you, John, not only for your hard work but for your vacations and, through your article, taking us along:

I do not know why I have always wanted to visit Death Valley. Maybe it’s because it is the trifecta of atmospheric and geographic extremes. It holds the record for the hottest temperature recorded on earth, 134 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also the driest and lowest elevation in North America. The Greenland Ranch Weather Station in Death Valley averages 1.58 inches of rain per year, and the elevation of Bad Water Basin is 282 feet below sea level. Maybe it is because the terrain is so different from any place I have ever lived; but, for whatever reason, on my birthday, January 5, 2022, I found myself crossing the boundary into Death Valley National Park.

A few months earlier my partner, Ann-Marie, asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. I said I wanted to go hiking. She asked where, and I responded half-way jokingly, “Death Valley.” I could tell she was a bit apprehensive, and I quickly reminded her that it was winter and the temperature should not be that bad. To my surprise she agreed (it was my birthday after all). Before either one of us could change our minds, we booked the trip. The plan was to fly to Las Vegas from our homes in Baltimore, rent a car, and drive two and a half hours to Death Valley National Park. We wanted to stay inside the park to help minimize traveling time to the hiking trails and booked the centrally located Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel.

The timing made our Christmas shopping easy—we bought each other backpacks and other hiking gear items we thought would be helpful on the trip. Our first stop was at a local REI (an outdoors store known for its experienced and knowledgeable sales staff). Ann-Marie told the salesperson that we were going on our first hike together. He asked where, and Ann-Marie replied, “Death Valley.” He seemed incredulous that we had picked Death Valley as our first hike, and with renewed apprehension Ann-Marie turned to me, and I quickly reminded them both that it was winter, and it would not be that hot. He still seemed skeptical, and with hesitation he wished us well.

It was not literally my first hike, but it was going to be my first hike as a blind person. After my sophomore year in college, my brother and I had hiked for ten weeks on the Appalachian Trail. We completed the southern half, 1,000 miles. We carried all our gear including sleeping bags and a tent. We hiked off the trail every four or five days to purchase food. I was sighted back then. I would begin going blind about fifteen years later from cone-rod retina degeneration, a progressive and incurable eye condition.

Maybe this is why I really wanted to go hiking in Death Valley. Could I still hike as  I did when I was sighted? If I was going to prove to myself that I could, I needed to make it challenging, and Death Valley fit the bill for me.

Death Valley National Park is located on the Nevada-California border in the northern Mojave Desert. It is 5,270 square miles of sand and rock, and most of Death Valley is devoid of vegetation. In the winter of 1849, a group of pioneers became lost while traveling through the forbidding conditions of the valley, and one of the party died. Against the odds, the rest of the group finally found their way out, and upon exiting, one of the pioneers said, “Goodbye, Death Valley,” giving birth to the name we use today.

While I walk five or six miles a day, and sometimes more on the weekend, all of this walking is on unobstructed and relatively flat sidewalks. Both Ann-Marie and I were in for a big surprise.

Our first hike was through Mosaic Canyon. It is a two-mile drive up a very bumpy and dusty unpaved road to reach the trailhead. We confidently headed up the canyon trail, carrying between the two of us two quarts of water, snacks, a first aid kit, compass, maps, an external iPhone charger, and identification.

The path was dirt and rocks. Sometimes the rocks were like gravel, sometimes like small stones, and at other times quite large. Sometimes the rocks were loose, and other times they were anchored in the ground. I expected the path to be steep but not so rocky. I used my white cane, which helped find the larger rocks and ensure that I was stepping into a clear spot. The canyon was typically about twenty feet wide—sometimes it would narrow to only three or four feet wide and other times it would widen to thirty or forty feet.

Our tour book warned there would be a need for some light scrambling—which when hiking means to use your hands to balance and traverse a steep incline. When Ann-Marie and I were in our twenties, that probably would have been a good description of what we did, but since our twenties are a few decades behind us, a better description would be rock climbing.

Most of the “scrambling” was up four-to-six-foot ledges. In one case there were some intermediate steps, but the steps were sloped, and the rock had been polished into a smooth and dangerously slippery surface. I would feel around for handholds and then try to secure myself well enough to move up a step. At other times the rocks were quite jagged, which I mostly avoided to prevent injury but sometimes used as handholds. We were seldom at risk of falling very far, but if we did fall, the rock landing was not going to be good.

Ann-Marie did a great job describing the landscape and geological features including the “noonday dolomite,” a light, tan-colored bedrock which covers most of the canyon and was formed 750 million years ago, as well as the rock formation known as the “mosaic breccia,” which is rock consisting of angular fragments cemented together and which inspired the name of the canyon.

We reached the end of the canyon trail after two miles and then hiked back. While the weather had been no problem—it was probably in the high fifties that day—the trail surface and the “scrambling” were not what we expected. Although we were a little surprised about how challenging it had been, we were still ready for more.

Next, we drove thirty miles to Bad Water Basin, the lowest point in North America. It was an easy walk from our car onto the salt flat. The surface is relatively smooth, and yes, it is literally salt. After spending about thirty minutes wandering around on the salt flat, I was ready to get back on a hiking trail.

We still had about an hour of daylight, which was enough time for a quick hike to the Natural Bridge—just a short distance from Bad Water Basin. Compared to Mosaic Canyon, the road to the trailhead was much bumpier and difficult to navigate; the tires would occasionally spin out, but the hike was shorter—two miles round trip. This trail was a little steeper than Mosaic Canyon and was again very rocky; however, there was no “scrambling.” Reaching the fifty-foot natural bridge was worth the effort. A natural bridge occurs when the water flows through a hole in a rock formation, and then over time the hole gets larger due to erosion, but the rock over the hole remains intact.

After the hike we drove back to Stovepipe Wells Village and had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. Our next two days were similar with a variety of hikes, scenic lookouts, and dinners at the hotel.

Overall, the trip was fun, challenging, rewarding, exhausting, and empowering. My goal, in addition to celebrating my birthday, was to prove to myself I could complete a challenging hike as a blind person. I could have gone back to the Appalachian Trail, but I wanted something new, exciting, and potentially more difficult. I would not have had the confidence to attempt such a trip if it had not been for the National Federation of the Blind. When I first went blind, my expectations for my life were comparable to the elevation at Bad Water Basin, but the philosophy, mentors, and lifelong friends of the National Federation of the Blind changed all that. So, when Ann-Marie and I crossed the boundary out of Death Valley National Park on January 9, I said “goodbye low expectations.”

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