The Grand Canyon is perhaps the most visually stunning place on the planet. But does it feel the same if you can’t see? A group of blind teenagers are on a two-week trek and rafting adventure at the bottom.
Near the edge of the Grand Canyon Esha Mehta listens to distant thunder and feels cool rain fall on her face.
“My vision of nature comes from the sounds, then I make up what I imagine it to look like,” Mehta says.
The Philadelphia native has been blind since birth. But Mehta bares no grudges. In fact she can’t stop smiling. She and nine others have been hiking the Grand Canyon and they’re about to launch on a river trip down the Colorado River.
Mehta and 16 year-old Alex Follo listen to their sighted peers talk about the layers of rock, the colors, the size.
“They’ve described it as vast,” Follo says. “They’ve also described it as very, very deep, wide and large. I’m trying to picture it.”
Follo hopes by the time he’s done rafting through and hiking 10 miles out of the canyon that he will have an idea of just how vast it is.
Follo uses his cane to navigate the streets of Tampa, where he’s from, but in this unexplored territory he relies on his guides to get around.
Fifteen-year-old Rory Dunn is one of those guides. He carries a bell and gives directions on windy, and sometimes steep trails.
“We’re coming up on an area with a lot of ankle rollers so if you can kind of sweep with your trekking poles.”
Dunn’s bright blue eyes meticulously scan the trail for any danger.
The group is part of an expedition developed by Grand Canyon Youth, the Park Service and Leading the Way – a program led by Eric Weihenmayer, the only blind man to summit Mount Everest. Weihenmayer still climbs and gives motivational speeches like this one posted on his Web site.
“ I think there’s a blurry line between the things we cannot do and the things that we can,” Weihenmayer says. “And the most exciting aspects of our lives is when we’re able to become a pioneer and blast through those lines.”
That’s just what happened for 16 year-old Jeremy Monsanto, who says hiking the Grand Canyon has boosted his self confidence.
“Just because I’m visually impaired does not mean I should let myself down, rather I should push myself even harder,” Monsanto says.
Just as Weihenmayer did, Monsanto is gradually going blind due to a genetic disorder. He says it’s like looking through a pin hole. So he’s making the most of what little sight he has now.
“Seeing the Grand Canyon was breathtaking,” he says. “I saw a raven swoop down. You could hear the air move across its wings. I also saw an eagle for the first time. The landscape was just amazing. When you look at it in a picture it’s just a picture but when you’re there it’s something different.”
Monsanto is trying to prepare himself for the day he goes completely blind. He’s learning how to read braille and how to use a cane. He’s also creating memories like this one at the Grand Canyon that he will cherish in his mind’s eye long after he’s lost his sight.