Zero/Zero: How a Blind Hiker and His Guide Dogs Tackle America's Toughest Trails.
This is the inspirational story of Trevor Thomas and his two guide dogs, Tenille and Lulu.
Stop and think for a second – how many steps do you take each day? You may have heard of the ‘10,000 step’ goal, a good daily target for most of us.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is an ambitious feat. Stretching across 2,192 miles through 14 states, to complete the A.T., you’d need to complete a total of five million steps. Given that a thru-hike expedition typically takes five to seven months, that equates to almost 30,000 steps per day.
Now, imagine you’re doing 30,000 steps, by yourself, every day while hiking the A.T. – the world’s longest hiking-only footpath, across undulating landscapes and constant elevation changes. You’re at the mercy of hazardous weather conditions and the dangers posed by animals who may frequent the trail.
Finally, imagine that you’re doing all of this after being diagnosed with a rare eye disease which has left you completely blind.
This episode of A Life of Dogs features the incredible and inspirational story of Trevor Thomas – the first blind person to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
Embarking on the A.T.
After Trevor’s diagnosis in his mid-thirties, he decided to pursue hiking to maintain his independence. After getting a taste of long-distance hiking, he set off alone and completed the A.T., followed by solo-hiking other notable ranges such as the Shenandoah Mountain Range, the Smoky Mountains and the Grayson Highlands.
Trevor decided to embark upon the notoriously difficult Colorado Trail, but after struggling to complete it on his own, he realized he needed some help.
Obtaining help from Tennille
After speaking with Guide Dogs for the Blind in California, Trevor met Tennillle – his first guide dog. Tennille was athletic, intelligent and eager to learn; after a year of practice and training, Trevor believed they were ready to embark on their first long-distance trail together – the Mountains-to-Sea trail in North Carolina.
The weather throughout was terrible, making the trail difficult – but Trevor and Tennille completed it, and were the only ones to complete the thru-hike that year.
Following on from completing the Mountains-to-Sea trail, Trevor and Tennille have completed over 10,000 trail miles together. Together, they tackled The Long Trail, the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Ozark Highlands Trail.
Lulu - Trevor’s second guide dog
With 13,500 miles under her paws – more than halfway around the world – Tennille had earned a rest and a happy retirement.
In October 2018, Trevor decided to train up a new guide dog partner, Honolulu (Lulu).
Lulu recently demonstrated her capability as she helped Trevor thru-hike the Collegiate Peaks Loops in Colorado – a breathtaking 160-mile loop at high altitude.
In this episode of A Life of Dogs, you’ll hear the detail of this amazing story, and how Tennille and Lulu have played a crucial role in helping Trevor to maintain his independence and act as an inspiration to all of us.
A Special Thanks to Trevor Thomas for sharing his story.
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Highland Canine Training, LLC
Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.
A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season 2, Episode 2 (S2, E2)
Episode Name: Zero Zero Blind Hiker
January 19, 2020
Jason: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com and by Highland Canine Training offering professional dog training solutions and premiere canine education. Learn more at highlandcanine.com.
I’ve had the fortune of being a professional dog trainer now for more than 20 years. In those 20 years, I have had an opportunity to do some pretty remarkable things with dogs and I’ve also had the opportunity to meet other people and see them do some pretty incredible things with dogs as well. None of those things, however, compare to what you’re about to hear in this story.
Trevor: Had just left Munson, Maine and that is the last stop on the AT before you go into the 100-mile wilderness and the last before you will get to Katahdin and finish. It was getting close to the end of the season. Rain had come and there were threats of a hurricane. Hurricane Kyle was supposedly going to be closing in on the 100-mile wilderness. Well, I decided at that point that I didn’t want to hike 2100 miles and not be able to finish, regardless of whether it was a hurricane or not, so I made the decision to go into the wilderness knowing that a hurricane was coming and it hit with full force. As far as hurricanes go, it wasn’t a bad one according to North Carolina standards, but it was a Class 1, and I don’t ever recommend trying to go hiking in a Class 1 hurricane in the most remote section of the AT, because what you do is when you walk in, there’s a big sign and it warns people take 10 days of food because there is no exit point once you go in the 100-mile wilderness.
I suffered through four to five days of the worst. The trail was flooded, tree limbs were coming down, the worst rain I’d ever experienced, the worst wind I’d ever experienced, and I basically muddled through. With the trail being washed out by water, I couldn’t feel the trail. I’m being battered by everything. It was basically I prayed just to get from point A to point B. The one thing that Maine has that most of the rest of the AT doesn’t is they decided to let you cross your own rivers. They don’t put bridges over them, so I nearly drowned in the first five stream crossings that I had and finally thought I caught a break. The hurricane blew through and we got sunny weather and I left the shelter in the morning thinking, okay, the hurricane is gone. It’s going to be smooth sailing. I got four days to get to Katahdin. I walked around the corner and smack dab into a river I knew was there. I knew the dangers, but in the chaos I’d forgotten that that was the day I was coming up on it. It was the widest river crossing on the AT. It’s dangerous in good conditions to the point where they string climbing rope across the river so you can hold onto it to avoid getting swept down the stream. It was also 38 degrees, so it was going to be a cold river crossing. I had two choices – wait for somebody to come, which I hadn’t run into somebody in four days. I didn’t have enough food to wait, or risk it. Grab onto the rope and cross the river.
Well, I started crossing and the hurricane had dumped so much water that the river was swollen, and so the little areas that I should have been going across was a full blown torrent of water coming down. Made it halfway across and walked into an underground boulder field and that was pretty much my disaster. I couldn’t go around it because there wasn’t enough rope. I had to go through it. So I went through it and I actually managed to – I hate to say it at this point – but I managed to rim rock myself in the middle of a river. I got to the point where I stood up on a boulder to get out of the water so I didn’t get my legs broken between boulders and I realized that I couldn’t go backwards and I couldn’t go forwards. I also realized I couldn’t balance on that rock forever. So I devised a plan that I was just going to ditch my pack, because that’s what you do in a river. You ditch your pack so if you do dump in, you’ll be able to hopefully swim to the side.
When it’s 30-some degrees and it’s 20s at night-time, I realized I couldn’t afford to lose my pack, cause it would be gone downstream forever and then I’d be wet and I’d be pretty much going to die. So I made a gross error. I tied my Para cord onto my pack and I tied the other end around my waist. I ditched my pack so I could get my balance and hopefully jump to the next rock, and in about half a second, a hundred feet of Para cord laid out and my pack had turned into an anchor and it ripped me off the rope. I went into the river and basically, I don’t know. It was nothing I did that was miraculous. I didn’t save myself. The river spit me out 100, 200 yards down on the side of the stream. So now I was in a river, I just almost drowned myself. It was 38 degrees and I was sopping wet. I got my pack back because I pulled it in, but everything was wet. All my clothes were wet, my rain gear was wet, my sleeping bag was down and the dry sack had failed so it was wet. So all I could do was pretty much just put on every piece of wet clothing I had, wrap myself in my rain gear and then realized I don’t know where I am. I had to figure out, go upstream, upstream, upstream, periodically feel the ground to try and find the trail to find the trail to find the trail and eventually found it. Couldn’t stop hiking for about 11 hours because if I stopped, I got cold. If I got cold, I got hypothermia and die. So I kept hiking, hoping to God I would run into someone that could build me a fire because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find the wood. I didn’t know how to build fires. I was horrible at it and I got to a shelter and I was just spent. Hadn’t found anybody and I just sat there and I’m like, Oh God, this is bad. The sun is going down, the temperature is going down. I am still wet.
So I was like, okay. I started shivering and I’m like, I’m going to die. That’s it. I blew it and I’m sitting there. I had this little panic unit and I can press this button and somebody’s going to come and get me. Then I realized in the 100 mile wilderness, it could take them days to get me. And I’m like; I’m not going to go out like that. So I said, I’m not pressing the button. I’ve been cold before. Maybe I’ll do jumping jacks all night. Well, I didn’t know.
And all of a sudden I heard people and I’m like, God, please stop at the shelter. Stop at the shelter, stop at the shelter. And it turned out to be friends. People I hadn’t seen in months. They were probably a week behind me for a month. They knew I was up ahead. They got to Monson and they heard that dimwit me decided to go into the wilderness. So they went in after me and … it was surreal. They built me a fire. It was so hot that it burned my shoes when I was trying to dry my shoes and those guys basically … now they saved my life. So yeah, that was probably the worst. But the best thing was it was also my best day. I didn’t quit. My name is Trevor Thomas and I am the only professional blind long distance hiker in the world.
Jason: From A Life of Dogs, I’m Jason Purgason and this is the story of Trevor Thomas who relies on a guide dog to help him navigate some of the most grueling long distance hiking trails in the country.
Trevor: I didn’t start hiking until after I went blind and that was back in 2006. I started recreationally. I had to teach myself because I found out after you go blind; you’re not supposed to do those things. You’re not supposed to do any of the crazy things that I did before I went blind. So against my orientation and mobility instructor’s advice, I learned how to hike and instantly found out that it was the one thing in my life that I could control as a blind person. It was the one place that I felt alive and in control. So what started off as recreational therapy turned into an obsession and then I found out that there was a thing called long distance hiking and everything spiraled from there. I actually walked into a gear store because I kept breaking my cane. The little white thing with the red tip that identifies us as a blind person when we’re going around town, they don’t work on a trail. Kept breaking them and I was getting in trouble with my own instructor because she figured out what I was doing. So I was at the outdoor store talking to this kid here in Charlotte, North Carolina. His name was Matt and I’m like, help me. He said, okay. He showed me these trekking poles. They are like ski poles for hikers. And while he was telling me or while he was showing me these things, he was talking about an expedition that he’d just been on. He was out in the woods for six months. He nearly froze to death. He came across bears, all sorts of these things and I was enthralled and it sounded like something that I needed to do and I don’t know what possessed me, but I asked him, I said, what was it? And he said, I just through hiked the Appalachian Trail.
He explained what it was. He said, I started in Georgia and I hiked 2,175 miles without stopping to Maine. Something clicked in my head. I decided that’s what it was going to be. If I would be able to do that like everybody else, not have somebody drag me from one end of the trail to the other – I wanted to go alone – then I’d get my life back as a blind person. So that’s how it started. And once I got into it, I found out it was much, much more than just putting on a little day pack and walking, stopping, camping, getting up the next day and doing it again. It turned out to be a full blown expedition.
Before I went blind, I was into extreme sports. I was the quintessential adrenaline junkie. Started skiing at the age of 3, was into back country skiing and out of bounds skiing by the time I was in my early teens. That got a little bit too tame for me so I got into mountain biking, downhill mountain biking. Graduated to skydiving, and then eventually it was racing Porsches. When I went blind, all of that was gone. Everybody said you can’t do that anymore, and I needed to find something and that’s something was hiking. I had never done any overnight hiking before I went to the AT. I trained myself, I day hiked, I set up my tent and I practiced using all my gear in what I called advanced base camp in the little woods in my mom and dad’s backyard, and so the first time I sat on trail and the first time I did an overnight hike was the AT.
Well, my plan was simple when I left for the AT. I know that, or I knew at that point that the AT was 24 inches wide and it was the most well-travelled trail in the world, so I counted on the fact that there would be other people there. If I got in trouble, I could ask for help. But I also knew that every sign was etched. So they engraved each sign with side trail to shelter and it had an arrow, or it said, you know, next shelter, 12.5 miles. So what I learned to do is I kept track of cadence, which is how fast I hiked and I kept track of time and that gave me distance. So hiking for me is a lot of math. I would keep track of my cadence and time, give me my distance. When I got close, I’d start paying attention to what it was that I needed and then when I came to a trail intersection or came to a road crossing, and then I’d go from basically pointed to point B. I called it the highest stakes games of connect the dots is what I was playing. There were times I got in trouble where I simply didn’t know the trail would split and there was no sign or the sign was knocked over, and if you could see those little white blazes, you knew which way to go but I didn’t.
So my backup plan was to sit and wait, and I’d wait and wait and wait until somebody would come by. If it was a through hiker, then I’d say, Hey, I’m going to Maine, which way’s the AT? And they’d tell me. If it wasn’t a through hiker, I carried a copy of the Through Hikers Companion with me, which was the definitive guide map book, everything you would need to hike the AT. And I would simply hand it to the person and say, where am I? I need to go north. And after they got over their shock value and all of that, then they’d open my book, they’d find it, and then they’d tell me where I needed to go. There were a lot of places when I got into Northern Terminus where there was no one. I didn’t realize when I started the AT, I knew 4,000 people were going to start. So I figured there would always be somebody around, but there’s also an 80 to 90% drop off rate. So the further north I got, the fewer people there were. And by the time I hit say someplace like Massachusetts and into Vermont, everybody I’d met down in the southern part of the trail was gone, and I would go a week, two weeks with no one around.
So it was a lot of make sure I’m going in the right direction. A lot of going forward, feeling the trail with my feet. The AT, since it’s heavily travelled is a very worn trail. So I learned through the feel if I was on what I called the ‘mother’ trail, which was the AT or a side trail, which would not be as well travelled, things like that. I’ve also learned over the years to sense what sighted people see. I can use wind patterns to tell if I’m going into a valley. I’ve used the old trick that a lot of Special Forces do, am I going north by feeling the moss on the sides of trees or on the sides of rocks? There are a lot of places that it was simply I went on my gut feeling, because you go into a boulder field, which is a blind person’s worst nightmare, getting out the other side. A lot of times I’d get on the other side, but there was no trail so I’d have to go up and down the side of the boulder field until I found the trail and could keep going.
So it was a lot of trial and error, but my one rule of thumb was never go forward unless you’re absolutely positive you know which way you’re going, because I didn’t want to be the idiot that the search grid kept getting wider and wider and wider because I didn’t know where I was and I just made things worse and worse. And I also carried a little spot unit with me in case everything went sideways. And that’s a little GPS, emergency personal rescue beacon. If I really got into trouble, I could press the button and it would send out my coordinates and then my hike would be over, but at least I wouldn’t be dead.
I started let’s see, April 6, 2008. I finished October 8, 2008, so six months and two days it took me, and a whole lot of adventures in between.
Jason: For Trevor, completing the more than 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail was a phenomenal accomplishment. But with his thrill seeking attitude, he knew he had to do more.
Trevor: After the AT, I decided I had to go farther and found out that while I was on the AT, people like to write, you know, reporters like to write stories about me and people read those stories and they watched the interviews and they listened to the radio, and some of the people that listened and watched and read were gear companies of the gear that I was wearing. So I got calls from these companies and they said, hey, what are you doing next? We would like to sponsor you. So I said, wow. Ended up finding a way that I could do what I wanted to do, what I needed to do and get paid to do it. So I took about a year to figure out how to do the next step, which in long distance hiking is part of the Triple Crown that was the PCT. It is 2,654 miles from the Mexican border into Canada. I did my research, figured out if I was going to be attempting it the way I did the AT, I would be dead very, very quickly because fewer people started the PCT when I did it than actually finished the AT.
So I called up some of my hiker friends from the AT and said, I got a crazy idea. I want to do the PCT, let’s go. So I started what I called team Pharsight, which was a group of my hiking buddies that would do anything and everything to make sure that I got to the other end of the trail and did it alive. So we did that and followed that with the John Muir trail, the AT Tahoe rim trail. I went back and did most of the AT in sections so I could actually enjoy it. Pretty much hiked anywhere and everywhere I could nonstop.
I headed to Colorado, I wanted to do the Colorado Trail, which is probably one of the most difficult and demanding trails in the United States, and I found out while I was hiking with my team that though I was paying for the expeditions, I was outfitting them. I was blind, so I was getting paid; they weren’t. I was a professional; they were amateurs. They couldn’t keep taking off six months here, three months there to keep going on these crazy adventures with me. So eventually I was running out of hiking partners and I went to Colorado and had a friend of a friend recommendation. You can probably see where this is going. I wanted to start trying to go solo because I had the experience at that point. I didn’t have everything really set in stone as how I was going to do it. So I showed up in Colorado and my partner never showed, so I couldn’t walk away from the state without even giving it a try. So I did. I made 5 sections, 124 miles and I did it simply by fumbling through, but I knew I wouldn’t finish. Had to get off trail and that was my first non-complete that I ever had. I decided then and there that it was never going to have a human partner again.
Jason: Trevor suffered his first non-complete because he didn’t have the support he needed. To learn how his first guide dog helped him overcome this challenge, stay tuned as our episode continues.
Jason: Support for A Life of Dogs comes from Royal Canin. Royal Canin delivers precise nutritional solutions so your dog can perform at their very best level. To achieve a perfect balance of nutrients for each dog, they rely on extensive network of canine experts across the globe, including veterinarians, universities, dog professionals, and their own research and development center in France. Royal Canin helps your dog’s train and perform at their full potential. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com.
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Trevor: I had to figure out how I was going to navigate, because up until that point I was memorizing the trail. The trails that I wanted to do were so remote, so rugged that there would be sections that it was map and compass. There weren’t signs. There were no people. So I got a great deal when I got my first iPhone, which actually you could turn on this accessibility feature and it would talk. So I said, Hmm, if I could get somebody to write down all the data that was in a data manual, in little sections and email it to myself, then I could pull up an email and I would have my first guidebook for a trail. That was navigation taken care of. I was already doing my cadence and time and getting my distance, so I had the big picture on these trails and I decided, but I still needed a little help and I said, I’m going to get a guide dog. How hard could it be? I’ll have a guide dog. I can get around town. I hated my cane anyway, not because I couldn’t use it, but I hated the stigma that it attached to me. I’m like; a guide dog is a win-win. In town, everybody loves dogs. It’ll make blindness a positive experience, but the dog could also fill in the blanks. If I needed a stream, that dog could find it. If I needed a campsite, the dog could find it. So I started to apply to schools and then I found out that all the people that were seeing the articles written on me, seeing me on TV, well, the guide dog schools, we’re seeing that as well. And unlike the gear industry, you thought it was a great idea to sponsor a blind guy. And the people that were saying, oh, you’re really inspiring, the guide dog people said, you’re dangerous. We don’t want to give you a guide dog.
So I contracted every school in the country starting most locally to me and got the same result. They knew who I was. They said, no, you can’t have a dog. A couple of them even told me that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing, and I was a bad experience or a bad example for other blind people. They might get the idea that they could do what I was doing and they’d go out and get hurt or killed. I was a bad example and it shocked me because their job was to help me achieve my goals. That’s why they are in business. So I finally got to the last school on the list – Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, on the other side of the country. Called them up and said, I’m Trevor Thomas. I’m a blind long distance hiker. I would like to apply for a guide dog. However I need my dog to do everything that they do in town, but I need it to do guide work in the back country.
Expected the same result. And they told me, well, we think it’s fantastic that you want to do that. We don’t know if we can do it. It’s never been done before, but we’re willing to try. So I waited and waited and waited, and then finally, after about a year, year and a half’s wait, they called me and said, we have a match, and they said, we’ll fly you out and come to school and I met Tennille, which was my first guide.
She came perfectly trained, wonderful and wonderful abilities. She was athletic enough to do the 20 mile days that I needed her to do. However, they said, we don’t know how to train her to what you need because we don’t know what you need. So they sat down with me and in addition to the regular training that I needed to do to use my guide dog in town, they taught me how to train a dog and they said we’ll give you the tools. Then it’s up to you to train the dog as you come into situations to do the things that you need to do. When you get a guide dog, they have, basically the dog knows what they’re doing. You go to school to learn how to use a dog, so you can make sure that their personality fits yours, their cadence fits yours, or your lifestyle is going to be conducive to their personality, so that’s what you go to school for and they usually send you for either some schools are a month, some schools are three weeks, or some schools are two weeks, depending on your specific needs.
I went for two weeks and that would have been fine if it was just, go and learn how to use a guide dog, but I learned that there was a lot of extra things that I had to do. So while all my friends in class were taking time off to play with their dogs or just doing fun things around campus, I was out on trails with my dog. I was doing extra things to learn how to train a dog, things like that, so it was pretty much nothing that I wasn’t used to. I immersed myself into it and spent a solid two weeks, eight to 10 hours a day, learning how to use a guide dog and then learning how to train the dog to do new things, but when I got home, that’s when the real work started. I had just a thumbnail ability to be able to train a dog. When I came back, it was sitting down and putting into practice over and over and over again when I got home. Fortunately, my school has what we call field service representatives, and if I ever got into trouble with anything, any of the crazy things I needed to train my dog or any bizarre question that I came up with, they were there to help me. So that’s why it took me quite a bit of time before I decided I’m ready to risk not only my life, but her life and go out into the back country.
So I took a year off from doing my hiking. I told my sponsors, I’m going to get a dog. When I come back, I’m going to shock the world. I’m going to do what’s never been done and I’m going to take it to a whole new level. I’m going to go hiking just with me and a guide dog. No GPS, no maps, no human partner, no guide, just the two of us. And so they said great. And I worked with Tennille for a year. She became my job – every day, all day. We worked together, we trained together. I had to learn dog physiology. I had to learn dog first aid, back country first aid for dogs, so it too like hiking was much more than just training a dog to walk on a trail with me, because I knew she had the traits. She wanted to learn. She’s a genius. She had the physical ability to do what I needed her to do. Beyond that, it was basically, can I teach her? Will she enjoy the work, because you can train a dog to do anything? The thing that I had to have was a dog that could perform it, had the physical attributes to be able to go through that kind of rigorous exertion day after day after day after day, but would love to do it. There are lots of dogs that could have been trained, but if they don’t love to do it, they won’t perform the job well. So we really didn’t know and the biggest thing that I was warned is even if I managed to train her to go out on trail and we went on trail, nobody knew if she would come back and still want to do her guide work in town.
They didn’t know if she would be able to go from back country to town and then the back country again and go back and forth seamlessly. The only way we could try that was to actually take her and do a thorough hike. And amazingly enough, all I had to do was put her regular harness back on when we got home and it was like we never stopped. So she could go back and forth and back and forth at will. She learned bridges. She learned trail. She learned how to find me those blazes. She learned how to find me all the different types of signs that I needed, and it became a running joke. I always told people she will always find me a sign. She will always keep me on trail, not necessarily the sign or the trail that I need because she can’t read the signs. That was up to me. So I called her my detail girl and I was the big picture guy.
When a year rolled around, I decided we were ready to go and I decided to take a little stroll in North Carolina, the Mountains-to-Sea trail, a thousand miles from Clingman’s Dome in the Appalachians, all the way to the farthest reaches of the outer banks and we were going to go alone. The weather was so bad that year. The trail conditions were so horrible that literally we were the only two who completed the trail that year. The only two through hikers at all. We ran into a grand total of 13 people on trail. Not through hikers – people! So it was a true test of what I wanted to do. Can a blind person and a guide dog go out and not just not just survive, but thrive in the back country? And we did it. So that was the first experience I had with Tennille. Luckily she was a trooper because I know she’s going through her brain, she was sitting down and thinking what the heck are we doing? Why did you do this? But every day she’s like, let’s go. Let’s keep going. Let’s do this.
I started that trail on April 6th in honor of starting the AT. I like to start my East Coast trails on that day. Got a freak snowstorm. They actually closed the Smoky’s, so we had to push our start date back about six days to let the snow melt so we could literally get to the top of Clingman’s Dome. Got pounded with snow on the first part. Got rain after that. The first month we had nothing but rain and snow every day, all day, and we were just wet and miserable, cold. I began to wonder why the heck was I doing it because we just couldn’t get a break. All of a sudden, the weather went from winter to summer and we got scorched after that. We ran through two hurricanes. That was quite interesting weather. One of them under a pecan tree in the Outer Banks. Don’t recommend doing that. We just had horrible, horrible weather, but the cool thing was is that the outpouring from people that we met along the way was just amazing. People started showing up at trailer receptions just to meet us; more so they wanted to meet her, but it was really cool. It was a great way to see a state, no pun intended.
Jason: The Mountain-to-Sea Trail may have been Trevor and Tennille’s first long distance hike, but it definitely wouldn’t be their last.
Trevor: Some of the bigger trails with her would be Mountains-to-Sea, the Long Trail, Denton-Mackay, Tahoe Rim, the Colorado Trail. She got me back and helped me complete the one trail that I was unable to finish in my career without a dog, so she got me about back to that. We summited 9 of the 13 tallest mountains in the contiguous United States together. We did sections of the PCT together. We have done the John Muir, did Shuckstock in Washington. Let’s see. Parts of the Penn-Hoady, the only parts that we wanted to do. Sheltowee Trace and those are just some of the notable ones. Documented trail miles, I don’t count training miles or anything like that, but she was at 13,500 when she let me know that she was ready to retire.
Jason: To put that number in perspective, 13,500 miles is more than halfway around the earth. Tennille, who Trevor describes as one in a million, retired in 2018. She continues to live with Trevor as she watches her successor fill some pretty big dog boots.
Trevor: Honolulu, I returned from school with her November 14th of last year. She’s already proved her mettle. When Tennille let me know she was ready to retire, we are actually on the collegiate loop on the continental divide in Colorado on a 14,000 foot peak called Mount Yale. We were almost at the summit and she let me know. So I decided when and if I could train another dog, I wanted to pick up exactly where I left off. So I worked with Lulu for 9 months, 10 months solid, just like I did with Tennille. I thought it would be the same training, another dog. She had the same traits, everything like that, but I learned it wasn’t. They have different personalities, different things motivate them, so I had to learn a new training technique for her, but she took to the work, just like Tennille did, and after 10 months I said, okay. We did our shakedown hikes and it was time to go to Colorado and I took her on probably one of the toughest trails that you could take a dog on. She was the first dog ever to do it, not first guide dog, but the first dog to complete the trail.
We went to Colorado and basically the collegiate peaks are a series of 14,000 foot peaks along the Colorado Trail and continental divide. It’s a gigantic loop and you simply hike, summit, hike, summit, hike, summit, hike summit, and that was her first experience. It was a horrible snow year so the trail was in bad condition. We had a lot of avalanches that we didn’t know they were there. They weren’t in the guidebooks. Water sources were wiped off the map. Rivers or streams that were supposed to be there were gone. They had a lot of blight in the trees so the topography was not what we expected. It was a real learning experience. But for a dog that had only done shakedown hikes on the East Coast, going to high altitude, which I didn’t know if she could do, going into that type of environment where we had snowfields to cross, which she’d never seen snow in her life. We had boulder fields to navigate through that we had never come across boulder fields like these before. She was just a trooper. The trail was so bad in certain places that I went through two pairs of boots and her pads were still ripped up and she still kept going and kept going and kept going.
Jason: Working with a guide dog had a remarkable impact on Trevor’s independence on trails, but it also fundamentally changed the way he approached long distance hiking.
Trevor: Well, in one sentence, my days of ultra-lighting are over. Yes, everybody always packs too much. Over the years you learn what you actually do need and what you don’t need on trail. I learned that and I became avid into the whole ultra-light craze. How light can you go? You know, the lighter you are in your pack, the happier you are while you’re hiking and that’s what you’re there to do. The less items you have, the less comfortable you are in camp, or if you get into a serious situation such as weather, things like that, that are going to bog you down because you just don’t have as much available to protect you in a survival situation. Now when you hike with a dog, most people assume my dogs wear packs. They assume that they’re packing their water, their gear, their food, everything like that. Well, it’s not the case with me. It’s my idea to go, and these are my guide dogs. They are working animals. They are not pack animals. Their job is guiding so I pay the price. I carry their food, I carry their gear, I carry everything that they need, other than they choose a toy to take with them. They will carry that. Their packs are great for packing out small amounts of trash. They also carry a jacket so I have easy access to it and their boots. That’s it. So they really don’t carry any weight at all.
I learned very, very quickly that I needed to modify the types of food that they eat while on trail because kibble is very heavy. They actually eat as much on trail in weight as I do. So I doubled my weight for my gear. I doubled my weight for my food and I doubled my weight for my water, because it’s really hard to explain to a dog when you have 18 miles between your water source and the next one. They don’t really understand that if they don’t want to drink. So it’s one of those things where I go slower now. I have to, not that it’s a bad thing because I’ll fall less, but it’s one of those things where I earned my trails even more than I used to.
Jason: Trevor mentions that now with his dogs, he falls less. Over the years, he’s had a lot of experience with that.
Trevor: My injury count is long. Let’s see, I hiked 300 miles on the AT with splinter fractures in my left foot because at a place called Jump Off, outside of the NOC, I literally did that. I took a trip and fell down a very large rock staircase and broke my foot. That was bad. I’ve cracked my skull open. I broke four of my ribs when I was in Maine and still kept on hiking. Actually ended up, they didn’t heal properly, so I have a deformed rib cage now and it looks kind of funky, but it’s kind of a badge of honor for me. That’s another thing I can thank my dogs for is they keep me safe and I’ve had much, much fewer injuries with dogs than without. I kinda think they’re smarter than I am. They know not to walk up the side of cliffs. They judge situations a little bit more rationally than I do, so they’re a little bit more cautious and therefore I am. So they keep me safe.
Jason: Trevor goes on to explain that the terrain is not the only danger when you’re in remote wilderness.
Trevor: I’m constantly talking to my dogs. I’m either asking them things or yes, I do have conversations with them, so we scare a lot of wildlife away. On the East Coast, I found that bears are hunted by people with dogs, so bears smell us. They smell the dogs and they give us a really wide berth so that’s kind of nice. I really haven’t had too many encounters with bears since I’ve had either one of my dogs. That’s not to say out West, my dogs are on the menu so that has me concerned. Probably Tennille did a great job and so does Lulu with snakes, things like that. They alert me to them. They make sure that I give them a wide berth. All snakes to them are the same so it’s not they’re finding rattlesnakes for me or anything like that. It’s just if there’s a snake, we go around it. Tennille and I did have an encounter … well, we had two of them. We had one in Colorado and we had one in the Long Trail and that was with moose. And most people don’t think moose are very dangerous or anything like that. They’re just big, stupid oaf-looking creatures, but in actuality they can be the most dangerous creatures in the back country. They’re very, very mean. They were very nasty. They’re territorial and they will kill you. Especially when I ran into them when they’re in rut. Anything that enters their territory is free game. First one we encountered on the Long Trail, we were just walking by a marsh and I heard trumpeting from one of them a ways back and it’s kind of on guard. We walked up around the bank and then all of a sudden it came out of the water onto the trail, and there was two tons of very angry animal versus me and a 60 pound dog and I knew what to do. It’s very hard to do it but moose have a lot in common with me. They are nearly blind. If you can manage to muster the strength and the fortitude to stand perfectly still and you’re downwind from them, they can’t see you. So I froze like a statue and I thought for sure Tennille was going to start lunging at it or she was going to try and run away because I taught her anything big like that we go.
She must’ve sensed it. She must’ve known that this is bad. This thing is meaning a lot of bad ill for us. So she just eased right in back of me and stood perfectly still. We must have stood there for seemed like hours, probably 5, 10 minutes and all of a sudden the thing decided, I guess it wasn’t anything here in the first place and just sauntered off on along the way, and I waited and waited and waited for about another 30 minutes to make sure it wouldn’t come back and we went on. But that was another one of those things. It was just very … I mean people go out to find and see moose. I don’t want to, and yet I managed to walk right up into it.
Jason: In talking to Trevor, it’s pretty clear he’s far from finished and he’s got some pretty big plans for himself and Lulu in the coming year.
Trevor: I am finally through my Foundation … I’ve got a generous gift from some donors that I’m going to be able to fulfill a promise that I made to Tennille but wasn’t able to fulfill. I’m going to fulfill it for Lulu. I am redesigning the traditional guide dog harness, one that is comfortable for a dog and one that’s ergonomically correct for a person, and we’re training. We are getting ready for probably I would consider my most ambitious season that I’ve ever had. We’re going to start by going to Tahoe this summer and we’re going to do the Tahoe Rim to Reno. We’re going to solo that and then we’re going to keep going south and we’re going to hit Yosemite. We’re going to start in Yosemite and we’re going to do the John Muir southbound and we are going to summit Mount Whitney, which is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, and we’re going to do that solo as well. So that’s going to increase the altitude record we’ve already set for working with a guide dog, a little bit higher. Lulu will be coming into her own, not recycling trails that Tennille has already done. I’ve decided that I want her to do trails and basically not live in a shadow, so we’re going big. It’s all high altitude. It’s all very, very technical, very, very rugged, very remote hiking.
Jason: Trevor’s dogs have to work in both the city as well as some pretty rugged back country. So it got me curious. Is there one workplace that they prefer over the other?
Trevor: Both dogs love trail work more than they do city work. They enjoy the city work. They enjoy the mental challenge, but there’s a different spring in their step. There’s a different excitement when we approach a trail head and their regular harness comes off and either their pack or their trail harness goes on. They know, it’s now it’s more fun for them. They make more decisions. They’re more in charge than they ever are out in the regular world. So I think it really pushes their mental state and plus they are dogs. They are Labs. What Lab wouldn’t want to hike on a trail all day long, be able to jump in a stream, get muddy and get dirty? That’s what they like.
Jason: What am I forgetting to ask?
Trevor: Let’s see.
Jason: Interesting story that I don’t know about?
Trevor: Well, both dogs have already proved it thus far, but I used to have a rule that I will not go forward unless I’m 100% positive I know where I’m going. I have relaxed that rule now because my dogs have proved that I don’t necessarily need to know where I’m going. I’ve gotten into situations with both dogs where I’ve gotten to a section of trail that I just don’t know. I’ve gone down every avenue. I’ve come to a trail intersection. We go down one leg of the trail. It’s not right. We go down the other one a few hundred yards; it doesn’t feel right. Go down the other one; it doesn’t feel right and there’s nobody around to ask. I’ve literally asked them. I’m like, I don’t know which way. Both dogs have proved it. They’ve chosen correctly. So that’s something that nobody can tell me how they’re doing it. Are they following the smells of another hiker? Nobody knows how, but instinctively they know which way to go, better than I did in certain situations.
Jason: In working on bringing you this story and interviewing others about their experiences on the AT and other through hikes, one of the major upsides to many of the hardships of this experience are the breathtaking views along the way. As Trevor is completely blind, I wanted to know if he felt as though he was missing out on a big part of the experience.
Trevor: Yeah, I would say partially it’s different, but partially it is the same. I’ve gotten that question a lot of times. Why hike if you can’t see the view? And pretty much for me, I’m a long distance hiker for the same reason that everybody else is. Nobody in their right mind is going to go through months and months of suffering just for the view you get at the top of a mountain that you could get on a postcard at the gift shop. We do it for the accomplishment. We do it to find something that’s in you, to push yourself, to push your limits, to discover things about yourselves. But I actually, and it sounds kind of ironic, I would consider myself fortunate when I get to the top of a mountain where other people are sitting down with their cameras and getting a picture. I’m taking in everything else. So my experience is not the one-dimensional thing that you get on, on a photograph. I remember the sounds. I remember the weather. Was it warm? Was it cold? Was there a mist? Was there dew on the grass? So it’s pretty much a multidimensional thing for me. It’s more robust memory of any summit that I’ve been on, and I have my memories from it. I take rocks, I don’t like to publicize it and they’re only little rocks, but I take a little rock from each one, and each mountain has a different rock. So I have my pictures to go with it. But pretty much if I asked any of the sighted people that I’ve been with on a mountaintop, hey, what do you remember about it? They remember very, very little. I remember almost everything.
Jason: With a little help, Trevor had performed something rather miraculous with these two guide dogs. Earlier, he was accused of being dangerous and a bad example. As such, I was curious what those early doubters thought about Trevor’s accomplishment.
Trevor: Ironically enough, I thought after I proved everything with Tennille that those people would see the light or would have seen the light and would have supported me when it was time for me to get my next guide. It’s not like I was going to go to them and ask them to find me a guide. I found a school that not only could give me the dog I wanted but believed in me, but just when people heard Tennille was retiring and that I was going to have to get another guide, many of the experts in the industry still came out and said Tennille was a one-in-a-million. Yes, she was, but they also guaranteed that I couldn’t do it again. They guaranteed that I couldn’t train another dog, instead of saying he’s done it once, he’s got a chance. So you know, I would really hope that maybe after my second guide, they might sit down and say, hey, obviously it can be done and we grossly underestimated what these dogs can do so we should modify our own training practices. Maybe that’ll happen. I hope so because I have people call me, email me all the time saying, I want to hike with my dog. How do I do it?
Jason: Long distance hiking is not only a battle against the environment and Mother Nature. More importantly, it is a battle of will. One of the greatest impacts that many experienced hikers discuss is the loneliness that sets in during these hikes. I asked Trevor if this was an issue and how it impacted him.
Trevor: Not anymore. It was when I was on the AT. It was when I was hiking alone. It’s not now. I’m not alone. I have my dogs. They may not be the best conversationalists. They listen really well. So I’d say, yeah, you do get a little lonely for talking to someone, but for the most part, I’m perfectly content with my dogs. They understand me and we have a type of communication that I guess is not verbal, but it’s really special.
Jason: We want to thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Jason Purgason and Abby Trogdon, our website, a life of dogs.com. Support for this episode of A Life of Dogs comes from Royal Canin. Learn firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to send a special thanks out to Trevor Thomas for allowing us the opportunity to bring you this remarkable story. I’m Jason Purgason. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple podcasts, Google play, or wherever you get your podcasts, and stay tuned for episode three of our second season where we share more stories of A Life of Dogs.