Appalachian Trail hiker and author Cindy Ross accompanied Bob Barker and Bill Irwin on a trail hike on the A.T. near Harpers Ferry. After two days, they had covered only five miles, but no one had billed this hike as a marathon.
If you saw Bob Barker and Bill Irwin hiking down the Trail, you, too, would wonder at their chutzpah. There they were, both loaded down with full packs and accompanied by Seeing Eye dogs. In adition to the obvious obstacles, Bob was using a crutch and trying to ignore the multiple sclerosis that had crippled him. He had hiked the A.T. before, with the aid of his crutches, but near-blindness, due to glaucoma, was a new impediment.
Bill, who thru-hiked the Trail in 1991 with the aid of Orient, his Seeing Eye dog, had convinced Bob to get a dog. So, here were the two men and their dogs, out on the Trail for a trial hike. I was invited to join them for companionship and my sight.
All the bases seemed to be covered. Bob had been training for half a year by walking 30 miles a week, rain or shine. The section of Trail we were hiking was near Harpers Ferry, W. Va. Bill could use his cellular telephone to call friends at the Appalachian Trail Conference headquarters if any problems arose. We were planning to hike as far as we could in four days.
Bob left his second crutch home. He’d need one free arm to hold the harness on Cheetah, his Seeing Eye dog. The pair had worked together before, but not climbing over rocks and up and down steep terrain that we would encounter on this hike. Nearly all of their training had been on roads, where Cheetah was well behaved. Once in the woods, however, the young pup was more interested in chasing toads, slopping in creeks, and sampling grass along the way. Bob was having a difficult time remaining in charge.
“I like a challenge,” he commented at one point. “That’s why I’m here. I missed the Trail. I knew it would be difficult, the first time with a dog. It was difficult the first time I hiked with multiple sclerosis, too.”
Bill noted that when he and Orient began hiking the A.T., he fell as many as 40 times a day, due, in part, to flaws in their communication.
Bob appeared to be equally determined.
I didn’t realize how determined until he took a particularly hard fall. We had crossed a stream on slippery rocks, about an eighth of a mile from the Trailhead. Cheetah stood broadside in front of bob, determined to get a drink of water. And, Bob tripped over the dog, fell hard, and twisted his foot. On the next switchback, the exact same scenario was repeated.
“I know what a sprain feels like, and this feels different,” he said. “The pain is going all the way up my leg. It feels like I broke it.”
It looked like our hike might end soon after it had started, but Bob said he wanted to keep going. Who were we to argue with him? He had me wrap an Ace bandage around his leg and force an ankle guard over the rapidly swelling joint. He downed some pain pills, and we continued climbing. Once the drugs began taking effect, we settled into our pace, Bob’s pace, of one-quarter mile an hour.
We were in no hurry, in fact, over the course of the two day hike, I spent much time standing still. I’d walk a few yards, turn around, and wait for Bob. Bill and Orient brought up the rear. Sometimes, I’d take Cheetah’s harness and give Bob my hiking stick to use as another crutch.
There was time to enjoy the beautiful weather, to watch sunlight and shade patterns, smell wildflowers, and think how my busy, fast life back home contrasted to this. There was also a lot of time to talk. The men discussed what they thought was more difficult- being totally blind, like Bill, or being nearly blind, like Bob. (Bob’s vision is limited to about a two-foot radius in which all is blurred.)
“I think you’re worse off than me, because you hike as though you can see, although you really can’t, and Cheetah guides you as though you could, too,” Bill told him.
Bob told me how he continued to garden and to mow his lawn. “I place five-gallon white buckets int he corners and point my lawn mower in each bucket’s direction. After I cut a strip, I move the bucket over for the next cut. I keep moving buckets until it is done. I never watch the mower but just stare at the blurred white buckets.
“I also put in a large garden this summer. I stretched a white string between two stakes, for each row, and followed it with my hand as I crawled on the ground. I used a stick that’s three feet long with holes drilled into it. I dropped seeds through the holes and covered each with my hands. I operated my tiller the same way as the lawnmower, and, for closeup weeding, I relied on feeling. I know the difference between crops and weeds and grass.”
In camp, Bob listens carefully to his stove, to tell when the pressure (of escaping gas) built up enough to light it. All his cooking gear is laid out on a sheet of plastic. When he unfolds his tarp, all cords and tie-downs are exactly where they are suppose to be.
After two days of hiking, we had covered only five miles and had run out of water twice. Bill, who functions as though he can see, went ahead to a store at a road-crossing to call ATC. An ATC staff member met us at a nearby road crossing, and took Bob to the hospital.
“I would have never given up,” Bob insisted. ” I would have walked out on my own, had it taken me three more days. Once, I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to do something, it’s hard for me to quit, even though things have not gone according to plan.” And, Bob’s broken leg bone was definitely not planned.
In the midst of all the hospital-shuffling, there was talk of retuning to the Trail after Bob’s leg healed. Perhaps he could hike a more gentle stretch with his grandson or with friends who have knee problems and are slow hikers themselves.
Bob’s fall and aborted hike disappointed him, but his life has been one of perseverance. The hike taught him many things that he needed to learn and would now act upon, one of which was the fact that Cheetah needed more training.
As I drove home, I thought of all the reasons hikers abandon their A.T. hikes -rain, loneliness, aches and pains, lack of preparation, etc. -and the incredible feeling of failure that they usually have as they leave the Trail. But, words like, “difficulty” and “hardship” have new meanings for me since hiking with Bob Barker and Bill Irwin. And, they have shown me that the only real failure in life is to stop trying.