The Appalachian Trail is 2,175 miles long and runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. The trail was finished in 1937 and in 1948 Earl Shaffer of York Pennsylvania completed the first documented thru-hike. Since then over 50,000 people have set out to hike the entire trail. About 8,000 have been successful. Considering the nature of the journey, it's surprising that any of those intrepid souls made it. Among the difficulties that hikers face are brutally harsh weather, intense physical challenges that include prolonged periods of solitude, steep drop-offs with poor footing, and miles of ridgebacks. In 2008, about 1,600 hikers set out to hike the entire trail. Of those, 460 completed it. Among them was a blind 39-year-old man named Trevor Thomas.
Thomas intended to hike the trail with a companion, a man who was an experienced hiker who had agreed to meet him at Springer Mountain. He waited for several hours at the mountain's parking lot with his sister Elizabeth who had driven him from his North Carolina home. It finally became apparent to them both that his friend was not going to show up. Although Elizabeth assumed that this would put an end to the hike, Thomas was of a different mind. Much to his sister's surprise, he began asking passing hikers if he could follow them up the trail. The first 23 who came by declined his request. The 24th, a 25-year-old graduate student from Connecticut named Kevin Rondeau, responded, "Why the hell not?"
Rondeau helped to guide Thomas by walking a few steps ahead of him tapping rocks and trees, so that Thomas would be alerted to their presence and avoid them. He also helped him get through the especially difficult places on the trail. After a week of hiking, Rondeau needed to pick up his pace in order to make it back on time for the fall semester and left Thomas with another group of hikers who had agreed to help out. After a few days, this group too felt the need to accelerate their pace and "coincidentally" at the time, another group of hikers showed up and offered to take over. This pattern continued throughout the hike. Hikers would accompany Thomas until another individual or group came by and took over.
Thomas carried a GPS that relayed his location back to his parents back home who were not at all pleased at their son's decision to hike the trail. His mother, Judith Thomas thought that her son wouldn't make it more than two days. "We were amazed", she said. "Every day he just kept moving forward." But Thomas's progress was not without its ordeals. He chipped a bone in his hip and gashed his wrist in a fall in Massachusetts and he cracked two ribs on Saddleback Mountain in Maine causing what he describes as "the most intense pain, ever!"
On October 7, six months after setting out on the trail, Thomas arrived at the foot of Mt. Katahdin. He made his ascent the next day, the last day of the hike. The climb would prove to be the most difficult and challenging aspect of the journey. About halfway to the top, Thomas reached a wall of rocks that he could not pass. He was wet and freezing from the wind, rain and cold that had numbed his fingers making it almost impossible for him to grasp the granite to climb further up. After continuously trying unsuccessfully to find a way up the section, in frustration Thomas jammed his hiking pole into a crevice and gained enough leverage to reach a perch and throw his leg over it. Exhausted, but not defeated, he raised himself up and slowly climbed over the rocks until the ground finally leveled out. He made it to the summit to the sound of cheers coming from the hikers who had preceded him and were waiting for him. They grabbed him and shouted with joy at his arrival.
In the five months since Thomas completed his hike he's been asked numerous times why a blind man would hike the mountains when he is unable to appreciate the beautiful scenery. "I appreciated the summits in my own way", he said. "I heard the snow crushed underfoot, felt the wind against my skin, felt the sun on my face, and enjoyed the sheer silence of it all. I put my life in the hands of complete strangers over and over again. And whenever it seemed the darkest, whenever it seemed the magic had run out, someone would be there."
Through Trevor Thomas's extraordinary efforts and commitment, he not only restored trust in himself, but he experienced a depth of trust and faith in others that he had never previous known. His journey demanded far more of him physically, spiritually, and emotionally than he ever expected it would, far more perhaps than he might have initially believed he had in him. And it rewarded him with infinitely more than he could have imagined he would gain from his efforts.
There have been many times in my own life when I have thought or said, " It's a good thing that I didn't know how hard this was going to be, because if I did, I never would have done it." My ego is usually the part of me that makes those choices and makes them on the basis of what I believe myself to be capable of at the time. As I’ve often discovered, it usually underestimates my capabilities and discourages me from going after what I really want, probably to protect me from the possibility of failure, pain, or loss. Sometimes however, life provides circumstances that thrust all of us into situations that challenge us to dig down into the reserves of our hearts, minds, bodies and souls and in so doing to discover that there is much more there than we had realized.
In Thomas's case, his ordeals not only opened up a deep well of inner strength within himself, but they affirmed what his heart already knew about the web of interconnectedness that holds us all. His life was permanently transformed as a result of his experiences, as were the lives of those who helped him complete what can perhaps best be described as a holy pilgrimage. Their gift to him was their support and his gift in return was the opportunity to contribute to another person in a way that left them all more awake to what it means to be truly human.
We don't need to hike the Appalachian trail in order to experience life's greatest blessings. The opportunities are there every day of our lives. The transcendent is always present in the ordinary. As Marcel Proust reminds us, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes."