Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1


5. Times and Places without the Usual Landmarks

Grocery Stores

If I am going alone, and I know what I want and where it is, I find movement easiest with my cane in front while holding the front end of the grocery cart and pulling it behind me. It steers better that way. If I am shopping with another person, I find that store aisles are too narrow for two people and a cart. That is when I follow my guide with my hand on a shoulder. The cart needs to go at the front or the back of the procession, a matter of personal choice.

Most of the time I am an organized shopper, preparing my grocery list beforehand. If I know the layout of the store, I think of each section and decide what to buy as I mentally walk around. If the store is new to me, and all stores are new the first time, I do some preparation, anyway. The more I am going to buy, the more help I need, so I ask the store for one of their staff to help in my selections. You have to be specific when designating items: tuna, oil packed or water packed; cereal, which size; bananas, how green. Finding a time that is good for you to shop and the store to help is a matter of juggling schedules.

In years past, I used a two-wheeled fold-up cart for pulling my groceries home. The cart had a bad habit of getting too close and running over my heel. In order to keep the cart in its place behind me, I held my arm straight down and against my side. That position kept the wheels back from me.

How Do You Walk in Ice, Snow, and Rain?

Ice, snow, and rain have this in common: they make the footing slippery. How do I keep from giving a skating demonstration and falling on my dignity? I walk a little slower, keep my knees slightly bent, and take shorter steps. I also put my feet down flat, not striding out with the heel landing first. I may not move fast, but I do move and stay upright.

If the snow is light or fresh, I dig my cane through it, and with the combination of sound and touch I can tell what is there. If the snow is too deep to dig through or it is packed and frozen, the cane must find something above the surface to identify as a landmark. Sometimes packed snow on the sidewalk and loose snow beside it show enough difference to help. Taller landmarks are helpful, such as bushes, fences, sign posts, and parked cars. Snow covers many of the usual landmarks, but it can become a landmark, itself. One winter it stayed so cold for so long that I used a particular snow bank as a landmark on the way to a friend's house.

When the snow is deep and soft, it weighs down branches which hang in front of you. One advantage of a long cane is that you can reach up and tap a branch so it will release its burden of snow before you walk under it. Well, it works sometimes.

The world sounds different with a covering of snow. Echoes disappear. Distances expand. I navigate more by dead reckoning and less by my usual landmarks.

Rain may not change the footing as much as snow and ice do, but it can change the sound of things in its own way. Cars hissing by on wet streets mask other sounds. Rustling raincoats do the same. Hats, scarves and hoods all influence what you hear in different ways, and you may want to think of that along with the weather. I am rarely out in rain so hard that it covers all other sounds.

It may take longer to get places in the rain. I often listen harder and wait longer to know where things are and when things happen. Here is another practical use for the long cane: finding the depth and width of curbside puddles.

How About Suburban and Rural Roads with No Sidewalks?

I like to get routes, distances, and landmarks well in mind before starting. There is more area in which to get lost, and fewer people from whom to ask directions. I take my longest cane and swing it rather widely. I move along at a good clip because there are greater distances to cover. I still have to stay alert for traffic on the road, as well as mailboxes and ditches beside it.

I usually stay on the shoulder of the roadway, but sometimes I take short excursions to explore for a sidewalk which may appear for a while, or a front walk, driveway, or other landmark that would help me keep track of what is about and around. I like to stay close to the road, because that is the main landmark. The direction of the sun, wind, and distant sounds can also be used as a guide and landmark.

Are There Roads and Intersections Unsafe for Any Pedestrian?

I am one of those people who finds the "wet paint" sign and wonders if the paint is still wet. That same rebellious, disbelieving streak comes out when people tell me not to attempt certain streets or intersections because they are too dangerous or complicated for me. I always wonder if they mean "because I am blind."

I usually learn something about these places before testing them for myself. Is there another street or intersection a block or two from there that would get me to my destination just as well? The answer is sometimes "yes" and sometimes "no." I know some "nervous nay-sayers" who simply have no faith in the travel abilities of blind people. I also know some "supporting stalwarts" who recognize realistic obstacles.

When it comes time for me to make my own decision, I take it slowly, allowing plenty of time on my schedule. I also pick an off-peak time for traffic. There is no doubt about it, I have made mistakes! Once I found that the roadway dropped immediately into a 3-foot wide ditch at the bottom of a 50-degree hill. The cars going by fanned me with their breeze. I never went back there. Another time I walked over an area of hedges, potted plants, no proper sidewalks, becoming somewhat disoriented before coming to the other side. I was glad I had only gone through the confusing part of that one, and not the dangerous part.

Sometimes I have had satisfying success. I have stood at an intersection for many minutes, listening to the traffic to learn where the movement went, and when the directions changed. Then I decided I could make it, and did. To another blind person, I would say, "gather all your skills and use your best judgment for evaluating the situation before and during the trip. If necessary, be willing to find another route for the next time."

Picnics, Hiking, and Rough Country

Do you go for picnics or hikes in the country? When I go on these trips, I take my sturdiest cane along. It is just as important here as anywhere else to use the cane and to keep track of landmarks and directions. When I arrive at a new area, I do as many people do; I try to get an idea of what is around me. Are there buildings, roads, rocks, trees, or open areas? Is there a slope to the land, and what is the direction of the sun, wind, and noises? I may do some short-range exploring while keeping track of my point of reference, be it a car or a picnic table.

Since I am the only man in my family and the strongest one of us, I get to carry the picnic cooler from the car to the table, but I still use my cane. The cane is held somehow or other in front, whether I am being guided or carrying this two-handed burden alone. My shins want the cane to tell them when we arrive at the bench.

When hiking beside someone else, I still protect myself with the cane. Some trails are well-worn and obvious to the feet, so I may walk alone and use Rule One, the side-to-side swing of the cane. On some narrow trails I let my guide take one end of the cane while I hold the other end. Since I am without the cane as a bumper, I work out signals with my partner such as "left around the rock," or "up and over the log." I try to get my partner to put the functional word first and not at the end of a long, descriptive sentence. By the time I listen to "There's a bend in the trail up here with a tree on one side and a cliff on the other, so I guess you'd better stay to the right," I may already have met my fate.

When it comes to clambering over hills and boulders, some of the cane technique gets rather informal. I still use the cane to locate the next place my foot is going. Sometimes there is as much poking and probing as swinging the cane from side to side. I rarely jump, and only when I am very sure of where I will land. When the rocks and hills get very steep, it may be more practical to slip the cane under my belt or abandon it altogether, and just use hands and feet.

If you want to use a directional compass, you need to have a good idea of where you are going before you begin. You must make the compass work for you along with the other tools you use. Keep a record of landmarks, distances, and compass bearings. If you are going very far, you need more instruction in orienteering than I can give you here.

When I am entangled in bushes and trees with interlocking branches as high as my head, I am usually in someone's back yard or in a city park. Only a few times have I been in rough country where this condition lasted. If the usual city technique of swinging the cane along the ground is just not telling you enough, and the branches are getting in your face, try this.

Bring the cane up at a diagonal in front of your body, across at head level, and down at a diagonal to the other side. For the next step, reverse the direction. The path of the cane is an X with a loop at the top. I go rather slowly when I do this, and I am usually holding back branches with my free hand. This really is a "wild woods" technique. Do not use it around people or other works of the human race such as windows. IN all the years of travel I have behind me, my total use of this technique probably does not exceed ten minutes.