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Column: Savoring Life Outdoors, Even Confined in a World of Darkness

Mount Willard, Crawford Notch

I half-turned and spoke to the tall man a few steps behind me on the trail. “Randy, there are three really sharp short spruce stubs sticking out on your right side, just about eye level. The first one’s the worst.”

“Thank you,” he said. Raising his right hand, the one with the hiking pole in it, he felt in the air ahead of his face for the branches, found them, and inclined his body away as he passed. His dog, in his left hand, who’d paused as he’d felt his partner’s hesitation, started up again.

Acting as Randy’s early-warning system feels pleasant and familiar. Both my parents were deaf from about the age of 10, victims of spinal meningitis that destroyed their auditory nerves. They had no sensation of sound and no natural balance in the dark. So from our childhood my sister and I acted as their ears — on the telephone, at the auto repair shop, at meetings where the speakers didn’t sign and had no interpreters. (My worst moment occurred when, at Bishop Peabody’s retirement banquet, the bishop referred to “intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Try signing that in a hurry.) It wasn’t always a pleasant office, but it was always a necessary one when they asked, so it became second nature.

Many blind people have some sense whether they’re in the dark or the light; Randy doesn’t. In 1989, about a year after he graduated from the University of New Hampshire in electrical engineering, he began suddenly to lose his vision, to a still-unidentified neurological disease. Within a few weeks he’d lost his right eye, and had tunnel vision in the other. Eleven years later the lights went out entirely; he remembers vividly the last glimpses he had of the sighted world.

My sister and I used to talk about which of the two senses — sight or hearing — we’d choose to lose, if we had to. Naturally, we chose hearing. Our father could drive, which for a missionary to the deaf was a blessing. Except for not hearing, there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do. But in those days before the communication systems now common, they were almost completely cut off from hearing society. Both of them could speak normally (though I gave up after several years trying to correct Dad’s pronunciation of his car as “Pon-tay-ic”), and my mother could read lips pretty well. But the nervous reactions of hearing people to their disability — they were called, at the high end, “deaf mutes,” and at the other, “dummies” — separated them ineluctably from everyone but their friends in the “deaf world.” No wonder there were monthly meetings of the various fraternal organizations of the deaf; it was their main chance to feel normal. When television came along, about the time we kids were in our teens, Dad used to say, “You want to know what it feels like to see everything going on and not quite understand it? Try watching television with the sound turned off.” It was a good lesson for us, and we began to wonder if being cut off from seeing the world wouldn’t be preferable to being cut off from people and their conversation.

Randy is definitely not cut off from conversation.

I doubt if he’s ever quiet for more than a few seconds, at least on the trail. It’s probable he needs the give and take in order to locate who’s where and what’s happening. Two years after he lost his sight, the same disease attacked his cerebellum, and soon he was in a wheelchair, suffering from migraines and vertigo. About the same time, his first guide dog died unexpectedly of cancer. It couldn’t get much worse.

That could have been the end of it. But with persistence and some experimental therapy, he got out of the wheelchair, started walking with a new dog, kept up his season tickets to Patriots’ games, and even began to tackle small New Hampshire mountains with a girlfriend. In 2010 he proposed to Tracy on the Mount Welch-Dickey loop near Waterville Valley; they were married in October. About that time, he conceived a plan to hike all 48 of the White Mountain 4,000-footers.

Mount Willard rises to only 2,800 feet, and its trail, a former carriage road, is only 1.6 miles and pretty easy, but it’s ideal for our purposes today: to hike with Randy and his dog, the Mighty Quinn; to film their partnership on the rocky trails and slippery stream crossings; to talk with Randy about how he fixed on the goal of climbing the 48; and to hear about his charitable organization, 2020 Vision Quest, dedicated to improving the lives of folks with disabilities.

Plus there’s the matter of the tattoo on his shoulder, celebrating his status as the New England Patriots Fan of the Year in 2001. That was a good year to be Fan of the Year; the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and Randy got to go with the team to the White House to meet the president.

Hiking with Randy, I find myself occasionally trying the exercise my father recommended with the television audio, but this time by closing my eyes. Even with both hiking poles, two steps forward is clearly death-defying, and I can only imagine how Randy manages to feel and teeter his way across rocky, slippery brook beds.

Yet as we chat today, I learn that he’s managed to climb all the 4,000-footers in winter (easier, he says, than summer because the rough spots are snowed under), and tomorrow he’ll tackle Mount Isolation, a 15-mile round trip, along with Quinn and a group of friends. That’ll leave him just two shy of the summer 48.

At the overlook near the top of Mount Willard, he said, “That’s Mount Jackson across the Notch. Take my hand — I’ll point my finger — and trace the skyline with it, will you?” I ran his pointing finger up the left skyline to the summit, over the peak and down the rough southern ridge. He smiled as if he could really see it; and perhaps he can. His shins may be a bloody mess from bashing trail-side rocks, but his face shines with a joy that I almost envy.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net