When Trevor Thomas and his black Lab, Tennille, finished hiking the Long Trail earlier this month, they crossed off another long distance hike on their to-do list. Thomas, 35, and Tennille averaged 10 miles a day — hiking through rainstorms, climbing cliffs and rickety ladders, no small accomplishment for the average person.
But Thomas is not an average person. Thomas completed the 270-mile hike without benefit of eyesight.
About eight years ago, Thomas was finishing law school and looking forward to working as an lawyer in North Carolina. He spent his weekends skiing, skydiving and mountain biking, an athlete to the extreme.
That all came to an end when he started to lose his eyesight because of an autoimmune disease. A year later, Thomas could no longer do the things he loved.
“It was the most difficult thing I've experienced,” Thomas said. At the time, he questioned his fate and felt as if he would never regain his love for adrenalin and independence.
That's when a friend suggested hiking, something that was difficult without sight, but not impossible.
Thomas started hiking, something he had never been interested in before going blind.
“I found it to be too tame when I could see,” Thomas said. “Losing my sight made it more of a challenge, and I liked that.”
Thomas spent the first several years in his newfound darkness solo hiking with the assistance of a GPS system on his phone and the descriptive voices of other hikers.
“Sometimes, I would sit by the trail for hours, just waiting for someone to come along and describe in great detail the next 10 miles of the trail,” Thomas said. That tactic would not have worked well on the Long Trail, where he and Tennille went days without seeing a soul. He didn't need to rely on other people, however, because two years ago, he got Tennille from a guide dog company out west.
“She sees for me but thinks on her own,” Thomas said of his constant companion. The process of getting her was not easy. Guide dogs are trained from birth and nearly 60 percent of them fail to have the cognitive skills to be a successful working dog. Each dog must bond with their person or the deal is off.
“People have told me that they can see the bond we have by the way she looks at me,” Thomas said. Tennille knows how tall Thomas is, and warns him if there is a branch in the way of his head when they're hiking.
“I don't know how she does it, but she is right most of the time.”
The four-legged hiker lets Thomas know when there is a trail intersection, water source, directional signs or obstacle in the way. She will physically lead him to them, or climb on a fallen log to let him know it's there. She leads him to the Starbucks down the road from his house, or to his favorite Gatorade in an aisle of the grocery store.
“She just knows,” said Thomas, who can't go from his office to the kitchen without her trailing close behind.
Between a voice-activated GPS system and his canine guide, Thomas has hiked dozens of long-distance trails throughout the country.
“It's simply incredible to see him with his dog, completing these hikes that are difficult for people who can see,” said Vermont search-and-rescue coordinator Neil Van Dyke. Van Dyke met the duo when they came into Stowe from the trail to find a post office.
“It's not unusual to assist hikers on this rough trail,” Van Dyke said. “But Thomas was not one of them.”
Only 140 people complete the entire trail each year, said Green Mountain Club director of land and facilities Peter Antos-Ketchan.
“It's doable, but challenging. Some places are very technical and isolated,” Antos-Ketchan said.
Thomas said he no longer owns a suit and can't imagine being anything but the professional hiker and motivational speaker he is.
“I didn't used to believe that everything happened for a reason,” Thomas said. “But now I do. I didn't find this job or this dog, they both found me.”
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