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Nicholas’ Story: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

By Nicholas Abrahamson

Even as a small kid, I always dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I enjoyed hiking, and I found a quiet beauty in the mountains that I couldn’t find anywhere else. To hike the entire trail requires skill, coordination, and planning and takes the best hikers 3 or 4 months to go from one end to the other. Because I work, I was not able to do the entire trail at once but in parts.

My group of hikers was unique in that we all have a disability and we vary in skill level. Two of us, John and I, started hiking and camping regularly together years before, and could predict, with frequent reliability, what the other would carry in his pack for any given trip. We are the kind of friends who call each other brother, though there is no blood relation. We speak to each other in half sentences, not needing to finish because we know what the other is going to say. This makes for excellent communication in the mountains, where your life depends on your ability to think quickly. The third person in our group was my girlfriend Susie, a novice hiker.

This trip would be my first as a person who is profoundly deaf.

I triple checked my gear list and weighed my pack, which was 10 pounds. We packed everything from jerky to a snakebite kit; we even brought John’s excited, albeit elderly, beagle, Trail-Magic. This would be Trail Magic’s last trip in the mountains, but he seemed determined to live up to his name.

We picked up John on our way, stopping in Virginia at a natural spring. The spring is a favorite location of ours for refilling our water sacks; Trail-Magic enjoys splashing in the water. The town is known for its springs and has everything from bathhouses to dog pools, as well as a slew of kids willing to pet a dog. Trail Magic lapped up the attention. Conscious of the time, and the tendency for the sun to dip below the horizon early in the mountains, we climbed into the truck.

Upon arriving in the mountains, we looked for a campsite that would fit our needs. We needed trees that were at least 12 feet apart, leaving enough room for our hammocks to hang comfortably. I could smell that rain was not far off; sudden storms pop up often in the mountains. We needed to set the hammocks up with tarps or everyone would be sleeping wet. On overnight hikes, we use Brazilian style hammocks that are made of a solid sheet of material with ropes on the ends, allowing the camper to hang them from trees or poles; these hammocks were our only luxury. They have built-in mosquito nets, ripstop bottoms, and pockets for holding gear and are designed specifically for hiking. They also come with extra line for tarps.

I sniffed the night air and wondered why my audiologist hadn’t mentioned that my hearing aids would buzz in the mountains. When I finished hanging the hammocks, I set up our gear inside the tent and put Trail-Magic to bed. We knew from previous experience that if he wasn’t in the tent a little after true dark, he would bark at everything and everyone. In the mountains, away from city noise and buildings, his barks carry quite a distance, disturbing campers more than half a mile away.

We made dinner, ate and did a quick check of our food stores. Our campsite provided a steel bear locker, and we made sure to clean the skillet and the table and to stow away the dishes to keep away night time intruders. Then it got dark. In the mountains, deep under the trees, away from city lights, true dark is complete blackness. The occasional camp lantern or headlamp shined passed our table as campers walked to the bathrooms nearby. The stars lowest in the sky winked out leaving only the moon to guide us back to our beds. We all bedded down for the night, talking companionably until we fell asleep.

A rainstorm fell and I dreamed I was lying under a waterfall.

I woke later to warm sunshine and a delightful breeze, the rainstorm of earlier having dissipated. The smell of bacon and eggs wafted over from the campfire, and eager for coffee, I jumped up.

We decided to leave from the lodge for the falls. It would add some hike time to our trail, but put us near some awesome cliffs. Susie packed our backpacks, while John packed his. It’s customary for another experienced hiker to go through the packs of less experienced campers or to run through a general check list before the group leaves base camp. That way, nothing important gets left behind, but I was so excited I forgot the usual procedures.

We took it slower than usual at first; with my deafness, I was not confident about jogging this time around, as John and I had not developed a system of silent cues yet with which to communicate. Trail-Magic was eager to run however, so we sent John ahead to scout out spots, which might present trouble for Susie or me. We used two-way radios to keep in contact.

At the top of the first mountain, we stopped for food and drink. Opening the packs, I found some Tang®. This is a must-have for me on the trail, because I often get dizzy and cranky without food and have passed out before. John and I even trained our dogs long ago to recognize the signs.

As we got to the steeper parts of the trail, I discovered that hiking with Susie was a bit daunting for me. I was used to the way John and I hiked; I would latch onto his pack, or he’d put me in front, grabbing me for support. With Susie, I felt anxious because the cues I was used to with John were not there. I was getting hungry though and checked to see what Susie had packed for lunch. I searched the top pockets, and then the outside pockets of our pack. No lunch.

Both of us turned to Susie with equal parts panic and frustration on our faces.

“Nobody said to pack any. I just thought…” she didn’t finish.

John’s eyes met mine in silent reproach; it wasn’t her fault; we should have checked. Out loud he said to Susie, “We have a three hour hike out. If you have more Tang®, mix it up stronger than normal now.”

We began to climb back, in an attempt to get as much ground covered as possible before we got too tired to walk. As we hiked, the surroundings seemed to fade in and out for me, almost as if I were dreaming. I caught my boot on a rock and fell, waking up a few minutes later to Trail-Magic shaking me by my shirt.

Susie tried to keep me awake by asking me questions, but I was too drained to keep my eyes open for long. John and Trail-Magic ran back for food and help.

When I woke again, I felt Trail-Magic’s teeth gripping the front of my shirt once more, his side packs full of food. I fished out jerky and began to eat.

Safely back at the campsite, we tore down base camp and walked around to our favorite spots one last time, before heading back to “the real world.” I couldn’t help but smile. Susie leaned casually against the truck, a red pen in one hand and a rather large check list in the other. The last thing on the list to go in the truck was the food. She starred it.

Since taking this trip, I have lost a significant amount of hearing and vision. We would love to kayak around Alaska and we want to hike a volcano in Hawaii. Of course, we want to keep visiting our favorites such as the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, Parker Dam in Pennsylvania, and Mosquito Lake in Ohio. Our current goal is to figure out new and interesting ways to use camp equipment to improve communication for people with vision and/or hearing loss and to develop ways to assist these hikers during steep climbs.

*Tang® is a registered trademark of Kraft Foods, Inc.

Note: This is an excerpt from the book Possibilities: Recreational Experiences of Individuals who are Deafblind, edited by Lieberman, Haegele, and Marquez.

Table of Contents

Credits, Introduction, and Preface
Rachel Weeks- Triathlon
Maricar Marquez- Running
Kristine D’Arbelles- SSP—Swimming Triathlon
Heidi Zimmer- Mountain Climbing
Cody Colchado- Power Lifting
Corrina Veesart- Ballet, Cheerleading, Rock Climbing, and Yoga
Emily Desfor- SSP—Outdoor Adventures
Kevin Frost- Speed Skating
Ryan Ollis- Running
Faye Frez-Albrecht- Soccer
Quinn Burch- Dance, Horseback Riding, and Running
Nicholas Abrahamson- Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Bruce Visser- Traveling
Jason Corning- Running
Sarah K. McMillen- Ice Hockey and Taekwondo
Angela Theriault- Running
Scott Keeler Bass- Biking
Maria Marquez Dykman- Wind Chimes
Conclusion & References

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