Trails for everyone, forever
Tales of four outdoor enthusiasts who are redefining what's possible.
Angelina Boulicault devotes her personal and professional life to showing that amputees can do anything.
Story by Angelina Boulicault | Photos by Nick Martinson
I am a hiker and an adventurer. I also happen to be an amputee.
About a year ago, I moved from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. I longed to be near the mountains. I also wanted to do research in prosthetics at the University of Washington. So Washington seemed like the perfect location. I spend my weekdays meeting with fellow amputees and improving prosthetic care for them. Then on the weekends I escape to the mountains.
As an amputee—I use a prosthetic for my leg—I expend about 20 percent to 45 percent more energy than the average person just walking. Hiking is a great way to get moving without putting extreme forces on my joints. And it’s a way for me to relax and escape the pressures of daily life in the presence of the natural world.
Most people I meet, whether on or off the trail, want to know, “Well, why are you an amputee?” I often come up with some exciting story, like I fought off a bear on a hike. The truth is that many amputees have boring stories of unfortunate circumstances. I was born with clubfoot and tibia-hemimelia—meaning my foot was turned inward and my tibia was not growing.
Nowadays we see all sorts of amputees and what they can accomplish. However, in the small town of Mineralni Vodi, Russia, where I was born, they thought there was no hope. Luckily, I was adopted and brought to the United States where I was given a second chance. When I was a child, though, that was hard to explain to other 5-year-olds, so I would tell kids at school that our pet alligator was a bad idea.
Now, many years later, I have used my prosthetic leg to take me many places. I’ve run a triathlon, learned to snowshoe and hiked all over the United States.
One of the most difficult hikes I did in Washington was Mount Pilchuck. I hiked it in January, and because of all the snow, the 6-mile road to the trailhead was closed. With only a mile left, I was really beginning to struggle. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the difficulty of climbing in 4 feet of snow, or my weak heart (a condition that affects many people born with clubfoot), but this climb was kicking my ass. We were running out of daylight and I couldn’t pick up the pace, so we decided it would be safer to turn around. It was really difficult giving up, but I definitely was running out of energy and we needed to make it back down another 8 miles. On our descent I started to have difficulty breathing and felt very nauseous. I wanted so badly to make it to that lookout tower, but my body was exhausted. I learned a hard lesson: It is better to acknowledge when you need to turn around than to be too stubborn to give up. I have spent most of my life trying to prove that as an amputee I can do anything I set my mind to. Giving up is a very difficult task for me.
Even daily activities can be a little bit challenging when you’re missing a leg. Those challenges are compounded while hiking. Once I add the weight of a pack and varying elevations on uneven terrain, it’s clear how not graceful I am.
There are plenty of difficulties while hiking, but it is a sport I can do at my own pace. When hiking on an incline, the lack of a real ankle can be quite frustrating. Going uphill, my leg pushes me away from the incline, and going downhill, it jolts me forward. When there are rocks beneath me, I often lose my footing because I cannot feel the instability beneath my leg. On some of our colder hikes when there has been ice, I have wiped out a few times. A trick for hiking on ice/snow is using microspikes on your boots. They give me much more of a sense of touch with my right foot!
Hiking with a prosthesis does have its benefits, though! If the gap over water is too large to leap, I can dunk my fake foot right in and not worry about wet socks or hypothermia. Another huge benefit of hiking as an amputee is free access to 2,000 federal recreation sites across the nation! The Access Pass is a free lifetime pass available to people that have a permanent disability. That gets me (and a car of four people) into national parks, national wildlife refuges and many national forest lands.
Hiking is a great way to be active and see the world around you. I want to motivate other amputees to get out and be active. That’s been an important goal for me since high school, when I started an organization called Live without Limbs to share my stories and experiences as an amputee.
At the time I saw, and I still see, a major need for amputee awareness. Growing up, I was the only amputee in my school, in my ballet class and—unless I was at Shriner’s Hospital—the only amputee I knew. I gave talks around St. Louis to local grade schools and high schools. Many people had not seen an amputee or simply didn’t know what their lives were like. I wasn’t trying to get others to feel sorry for me, but rather to inform them. I told them that putting my leg on each day was like someone putting on a pair of glasses. I needed my leg to walk like they needed their glasses to see. I wanted to spread the word about being different and not being bullied for it. I felt different from the kids around me, and they didn’t know how to treat me because I was different.
I still run Live without Limbs today and have made it more available through social media, which helps me reach more people and lead by example. I was told I would never contribute to society. I am a biomedical engineer who has 3-D printed prosthetics for fellow patients and helped them learn how to regain mobility. I was given the chance to make a difference in the world, and I took it.
Many amputees are told what their limitations are, but I believe only you can set your limitations. I hope I can inspire other amputees to get out there and see the world!
Angelina Boulicault works with prosthetics at the University of Washington. When she’s not working, she’s exploring. Follow along with her adventures at boundless-journey.com.
Nick Martinson is a computer guy by profession and a photographer by passion. You can see more of his work at boundless-journey.com.
by Cassandra Overby
From thru-hiking while blind to climbing a mountain in a wheelchair, stories of three hikers who are redefining (dis)ability.
From the time he was 12 years old, Seth Alexander’s hearing was on the decline. At first, it didn’t bother him much. He still ran around and played in the woods like any other kid. But by the time he was in college, he knew he had to do something. He’d lost the ability to hear high pitches and low frequencies, and unless he was lip reading, his hearing comprehension was at only 2 percent. Even when he was able to read someone’s lips, he was only able to capture about a third of what they were saying. Something had to change. For Seth, that meant getting cochlear implants, devices that do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear and provide sound signals to the brain.
“People have a lot of fear and concern about getting a cochlear implant,” he says. “But it changed my life. It was like night and day.”
There was an adjustment period, though. At first, all he heard was wind chimes. Eventually, his brain started to figure things out and he was able to hear things that he’d never known made sound, like cold air meeting hot when the refrigerator was opened. With the help of his cochlear implants, Seth’s hearing comprehension skyrocketed to 99 percent. But his hearing wasn’t the only thing that got a boost—so did his confidence.
“It helped me not be so isolated and get out more,” he says.
It was one of the factors that led him to say yes in 2013 when his cousin, who’d recently moved to Washington from Ohio, asked him to go on a hike. A friend of Seth’s tagged along.
“At first, I was excited about the camaraderie,” he says.
“And having a chat about anything.” The hike went even better than the guys thought it would. From the unbelievable views to the amazing feelings of accomplishment, the experience was something they wanted to repeat—and often. They decided they’d challenge themselves to bag a summit every month. Nearly five years later, they’re still going. Seth has since climbed Mount Rainier three times and is now looking at hiking internationally. While Seth’s cochlear implants were one of the reasons he initially said yes to the hike, they’ve come in handy on trail for other reasons as well.
“I can turn up the sensitivity to hear things other people can’t,” he says. “Like animal noises.”
He can also take the sound processors off.
“I normally don’t take them off during a hike,” he says. “But I do take them off when I sleep. And that’s a real benefit when we go camping. Last year the wind picked up during the night to 40 or 50 miles an hour. I could feel the tent kind of shaking, but I couldn’t hear anything. It was complete silence. I asked my two guys, and they were hearing the tent (flap) all night long. I don’t know how they got any sleep. More recently, when I summited Rainier, we were in a bunkhouse full of all sorts of people who apparently were snoring really badly. I had no idea though. That was nice.”
There are some additional considerations that Seth has to take while hiking with his cochlear implants.
“They do run on batteries,” he says. “So I have the extra weight of bringing spare batteries. Or I can charge them with a solar panel.”
And Seth does worry about them from time to time.
“I worry about losing them, about them falling in a crevasse, even though they’re really secure,” he says. “I went on a (roller coaster at) Universal Studios a couple of years ago … and they just flew off into the darkness. I was like, ‘No! No!’ I grabbed one. But when I got off the ride, one of them had landed in the hand of the guy behind me. And he had held onto it. I just gave him the biggest hug ever.” Seth hasn’t had any misadventures with his cochlear implants on trail yet. In fact, he’s getting ready for his next big adventure.
“My wife and I just had a baby,” he says. “I’m looking forward to getting my daughter out on trail.”
Barry Long grew up exploring the Cascade Mountains with his friends.
“We would go up to Mount Pilchuck and hike to Heather Lake,” he says. “We were always at Mount Si and Snoqualmie. We did all that. There was a group of us that would hike all over the Cascades.” As soon as he graduated from high school, Barry moved to a remote island in Alaska to work as a guide at a fishing and hunting lodge that was only accessible by plane or a six-hour boat ride. He spent his free time hiking around the island and watching for whales and eagles.
For Barry, it was the perfect life. Then, in 1991, he was attending a sportsman show to promote the lodge. A motorcycle accident broke his back, paralyzed him and landed him in a wheelchair. He was 22.
“In the beginning, I would compare myself to what I could do before,” he says. “And it was really negative. ... I knew instantly that I couldn’t go back to Alaska. I couldn’t do that job anymore. I could never walk again. How could I ever hike or backpack or do outdoor anything?”
Even returning to his friendships was an adjustment. Barry’s life had stopped but no one else’s had.
“When I first got out of the hospital, my buddies would go do all of the things that we had always done. They would go hiking. They would go to Lake Kachess. They would go up to Pilchuck. And they just wouldn’t tell me. There were no cell phones back then. So here I was, trying to call everyone and I was like, ‘Where did everybody go?’ They didn’t want to tell me because they didn’t want me to feel bad that I couldn’t go. Finally, one day I said, ‘I know I can’t go. But don’t leave me out of it. Just let me know what you’re doing and maybe I’ll come with you and just hang out.’ ”
Barry’s friends did one better. They started carrying him to the places that weren’t wheelchair accessible, from campsites to summits. As much as the accident had been a game changer, so were those adventures. They gave him hope that one day, he might return to life as he knew it.
“Getting back out there helped me realize that this was just the way that it was and it was going to be okay,” he says. “And that was a huge lesson.”
As he grew stronger and regained more of his independence, Barry started getting outside in his wheelchair. He stuck to paved paths at first. His progress was slow, and his eyes were opened to trail challenges that he’d never noticed before. Elevation gain made his arms ache, narrow trails weren’t wide enough for his wheelchair and stairs stopped him in his tracks. Most trailhead restrooms weren’t wheelchair accessible and Barry’s tires were always going flat. Inevitably, he’d have to ask for help.
“(That was) one the most humbling lessons for me in all of this,” he says.
Most of the time, the hikers Barry encountered on trail were happy to help when asked. But he also noticed that people were often uncertain or uncomfortable when it came to asking him if he needed help pre-emptively. That discomfort—and the challenge of offering help without being demeaning—was something Barry understood.
If there’s a right way to handle the situation, Barry says it’s to always err on the side of offering help—with “offering” being the key word. “Don’t ever be afraid to offer help,” he says. “(But) always give the disabled person the option to say no.”
Slowly but surely—and with lots of help—Barry started to master hiking in his wheelchair. He advanced from paved paths to dirt trails, which had their own challenges. Pea gravel and bark swallowed his tires; his normal wheelchair wasn’t built for crossing streams. And he bumped into people’s misconceptions about trails and disabilities. People expected him to stick to ADA-accessible trails when he craved the challenge of the backcountry. Trails are not one size fits all, even for the disabled. While most ADA-accessible trails were too tame for him, a young man in the prime of his life, they were perfect for other users, from older folks to families to quadriplegics.
To better access the kind of trails he loved, the adventurous ones, Barry bought a wheelchair that was made for unpaved surfaces—and tricked it out. He’s perfected his system over time.
It’s now been 26 years since his accident, and Barry still loves getting out on trail. These days, most of his adventures involve his 11-year-old twins, his wife and the family dog. But for him, hiking still means freedom—the freedom to be independent, to be active and to be himself. His journey has taught him a lot.
“Overnight, I found out what the word ‘can’t’ is. Many people kept telling me that I can’t do things anymore, that I wouldn’t be able to do things, that my life was going to be different. Well, obviously my life was going to be different. But I didn’t like the word ‘can’t’ and I don’t like it when people tell me what I can’t do … In all the years I’ve been in the chair, I’ve learned that if I want to, if I choose to, if I ask for help … I can do anything I want to.”
Learn more about Barry at talkandroll.com.
There wasn’t much about the outdoors that Trevor Thomas didn’t like as a kid. He started skiing when he was 3, a hobby that turned into a love of all things extreme. The more adrenaline, the better, whether it was downhill mountain biking, skydiving or racing Porsches. There was just one thing he didn’t do: hike.
“I tried hiking once or twice,” he says. “But I didn’t get it. It didn’t have that rush to it. I thought it was boring.”
As certain as he was that he didn’t like hiking, Trevor was also certain about another thing. He was going to avoid the family curse: poor eyesight. Then, at 35, it got hard to read, then hard to drive at night. It was time to get his eyes checked. He figured he’d end up with glasses or contacts. Instead, the optometrist said he needed to see a specialist. “And that’s when my world changed, pretty much overnight,” he says.
Trevor visited several specialists and tried a handful of procedures, all of which failed. Eight months after his initial eye exam, Trevor was completely blind. He met with social workers who painted a discouraging picture of high unemployment for people who are blind. They said he probably would always be dependent upon other people. As his new reality set in, Trevor sank into depression. “I was angry,” he says. “I was devastated. All I wanted was to be a productive adult again.”
A friend took him to hear Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind climber to summit Mount Everest. “After his talk, I knew that someone who was blind could do the things I used to do,” says Trevor.
The two spoke after the event.
“He said, ‘You know, I’m not a superhero. You and I are no different. You’re going to have to ignore what the sighted world tells you. You have to find the strength to go out and prove them wrong.’”
Trevor decided to do just that. So he began testing his limits in the outdoors. It didn’t take long to prove someone—himself— wrong as he discovered that he loved to hike.
“It was amazingly freeing,” he says. “(And) terrifying. I couldn’t get any of my instructors to take me out on the trails. They thought it was too dangerous for me. So I decided to do it myself. … Being on trail was actually the one place where I could feel normal. I didn’t have my cane with me. I had trekking poles. So people didn’t instantly see the signs and apply the stigma to me. I was just another person. That’s initially what got me hooked. I could actually do something for myself.”
After a fascinating conversation with an outdoor store employee, Trevor decided to do something even more audacious: thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT).
“I don’t know what possessed me to do it at the time,” he says. “Now I look back and think that maybe the trail called me. (I wanted) a life-changing experience.
The AT is a challenging trail. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only around a quarter of the people who start each year finish. But that didn’t deter Trevor. He was determined to do the hike—alone and unsupported.
The preparations were immense. (To this day, Trevor spends an hour in planning for every mile he hikes.) For most long-distance hikers, training, prepping gear and organizing resupplies are the biggest considerations. Trevor had to do those things, but they were eclipsed by gathering information about the trail—difficult without a braille guidebook. Instead, a friend read a guidebook to Trevor.
Trevor perfected a host of other skills. He learned how to “read” non-braille trail signs with his fingers (oftentimes a splintery job because of old wooden signs) and judge distance based on how many times his trekking poles hit the ground. He learned to sense the condition of the trail through his shoes. He also developed a system of “seeing” his environment—based on the sounds he hears, he can sense what’s around him, from branches to rocks.
Once he was on the Appalachian Trail, he perfected his methods. Whenever possible, Trevor would touch the things around him, especially landmarks like a shelter, to verify where he was. He’d also check his location when he met other hikers. If he was uncertain, he’d wait for someone to ask. At one point, he waited seven hours. He had other challenges too. He estimates that he fell more than 3,000 times—he once fell 78 times in a single day.
“Long-distance hiking is probably the most high-adrenaline sport that I’ve ever participated in. … There are so many factors that are beyond your control,” he says. “I (knew) that every step, every day, every mile on trail could be my last.”
In October 2008, Trevor became the first blind person to complete a solo, unassisted thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He wasn’t done. “Before getting off the AT, I knew I’d do the PCT,” he says.
And he did, in 2010, this time with a hiking team because of the added dangers of the trail, including mountain passes, river crossings and other challenges, such as finding water caches. Since then, he’s also thru-hiked the John Muir Trail and the Tahoe Rim Trail with his team. In 2012, Trevor received his first guide dog, Tennille, the first guide dog trained to work in the backcountry.
“[Tennille] has opened up a whole new world for me,” he says. “She’s given me more independence. I can now hike the trails that I was not able to hike alone. She’s enabled me to hike faster, which means I can cover more miles in a day. My fall ratio is much less. My injury ratio is much less. Not to mention that she’s a wonderful companion to have. Sharing the experiences with her is really great. She adores hiking. She gets extra-excited when I get her gear out and she knows we’re leaving.”
For Trevor, thru-hiking is not just a hobby; it’s his job. Trevor is a sponsored athlete and the world’s only professional thru-hiker who is blind. When he’s on trail, most people don’t even believe he’s blind, let alone a professional thru-hiker.
“I think the most common response is, ‘Well, there’s no way you can be blind because you’re out here, hiking, and by yourself,’ ” says Trevor. “I used to take offense to that but now I’m like, well, that’s just the way it is. The more I’m out and the more people hear about me, the more that’s gonna change. More people are gonna say it can be done.”