CaptionMax has a dedicated Consumer Advisory Board with experts in all kinds of accessibility. As guest bloggers, we let our board members to share their accessibility stories. Our next CAB guest blogger is B.J. LeJeune. She has many years of experience in the field of rehabilitation and blindness. Her perspectives about blindness have been influenced by both her deaf-blind grandfather – who fell off the roof at age 80 while making some minor repairs – and her husband Bobby who lost most of his vision as a child. Although Bobby hasn’t fallen off any roofs, he keeps B.J. pretty active with many other activities. Thanks, B.J., for sharing this fantastic experience!
by B.J. LeJeune
This morning on the Today Show, Marc Ashton and some blind hikers known as the FBC Canyon Crawlers from the Foundation for Blind Children in Scottsdale, AZ, shared their adventures of hiking rim to rim through the Grand Canyon. The memories flooded back.
October 1984, it was lightly snowing and the heat felt good as we huddled around the small campfire preparing for our hike through the Grand Canyon. There were 15 of us from Arizona State University, and about half the group was blind or severely visually impaired. We were “Hikin’ Blind- 84!” We had spent the night on the North Rim and although we had planned to make it a leisurely 4 day hike, our overnight camping permits for the first and last day had been canceled at the last minute. It was all or nothing – 23 miles down and up. The group gathered and decided we had trained enough to go for it. When we left the rim it was 9 degrees, and after about 2 miles it was in the 80’s.
We groaned some about having to carry our heavy clothing all 23 miles as it was stuffed in back packs pretty quickly after we left the edge. We forded creeks, climbed over rocks, went around a zillion switchbacks, laughed at the kabab squirrels fussing at us, and enjoyed the canyon – almost every step down.
Down at Phantom Ranch at the bottom, we set up camp – put up tents, hung our food on deer proof (not so you would notice) racks, laughed at our various adventures, and fell into a deep sleep – exhausted, but exhilarated.
The next morning the young blind man I was guiding, found his knee was swollen and painful from the downward hiking pressure. We decided to get an early start so we could make it out before dark with the rest of the group. The Colorado River was raging and there was a wire foot suspension bridge that spans the river. It is made out of heavy iron mesh and comes up to about mid chest level on either side and is wide enough to accommodate two way hikers. It sways a little, but it is secure. Because people get a little freaked out looking down at the river through the mesh, some 1 by 12 boards had been laid across it lengthwise to make the crossing less scary.
We decided it would be best if my friend walked directly behind me with his hands on my shoulders so he could stay evenly on the boards. We were the only ones out, so there wasn’t any traffic on the bridge. The river was so loud, I could not understand him when he started trying to yell something at me as we made our way across, so I walked a little faster so we could get over to the other side.
The boards were clanking with each step – and a little slick from the river water splashing on them. When we got to the other side he starting yelling at me and said something cheery like, “What, are you crazy? Are you trying to kill us?” Apparently, I had neglected to mention there were sides on the bridge or that the boards were not just laying on logs. When I explained that we had not been in any danger, he explained to me that if he could figure out how to get out of the canyon without me, my life would indeed be in danger!
The hike out was fairly uneventful if you take out the pain factor. We didn’t have to ford any more streams, but we did slosh through a lot of mule droppings and urine ponds at the switchbacks.
How the mules could empty themselves at each turn was amazing to us. At first we would go around, but after about 3 miles, we just barreled on through. It was a little scary when the mules passed because they get the inside of the path. The hiking paths are not always that wide, and it is a long way down!
A faculty member brought his 12 year old son who was an aspiring geologist and who filled us all with wondrous tales of the different levels we were crossing through. He was great a picking up different types of rocks for people to feel and after running back and forth among the spread out group must have doubled his trip through the canyon. When we finally reached the South Rim, we were exhausted, sore and we were changed. We were tougher, we were sorer, and we were more appreciative of the vastness of the Canyon, and perhaps how small we were by comparison. Did I mention we were also pretty sore?
As guides, our eyes were focused mostly on the trail. But we were also challenged to describe the beauty around us in ways that would communicate the grandeur and glory of the Grand Canyon. We had seen lots of rocks and noticed subtle changes as we changed levels and as the sun changed its angle. I was amazed at how many ways there were to describe a rock wall. Sure wish I had had some of those CaptionMax describers around to make it a better, more interesting experience.
One of our group and his guide did the whole thing round trip over the weekend, putting in a grueling 46 miles. I could not even imagine! After hearing the piece on the Today Show, I pulled out my old photos and even now, I think the Grand Canyon hike is one of my biggest personal achievements. I was delighted to hear the FBC Canyon Crawlers had also experienced the rim to rim experience of the canyon. My congratulations to each of them! I’d love to hear their stories too.
Through the years B.J. has been in a variety of rehabilitation positions, but currently is at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State University where she serves as Training Coordinator. Her background includes working with persons who are Deafblind, college age blind students such as her fellow hikers, counseling and teaching adults with vision impairments, and older adults with vision loss. She is also the founder and CEO of CARE Ministries, a national Christian organization serving persons who are blind and Deafblind.