Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 11, Number 2
Randy and the Mighty Quinn:
A Blind Man and his Dog Hike the White Mountains
By Patti Rutka
Velvet emerald moss layered the Rim Junction trail in Evans Notch at the Maine and New Hampshire border. Golden shafts of light wound through the velvet like a ribbon. My eyes took in the beauty, but my left knee complained like the Tin Man squeaking for more oil as I slogged on. The seven and a half mile hike up Burnt Mill Brook, a tributary to the Wild River, was hard enough for me; how on earth would it be possible for the blind Randy Pierce and his dog Mighty Quinn? And yet, they were hiking the forty-eight 4000-footers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. If you’ve done any hiking, and in that area of the world, you know it’s challenging terrain. But blind and with a dog? A person must have the heart of a warrior to undertake such a Herculean task.
I could hear Randy’s inspiration when I talked with him by phone in the early spring of 2013. Randy is the founder of 2020 Vision Quest (http://www.2020visionquest.org), an all-volunteer charity created to raise money for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, as well as Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a school for training guide dogs. He got the idea after talking with blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmeyer, who was the first blind person to climb Everest. I’d like to think working with Quinn inspired Randy, too.
Quinn is a nine-year-old golden tawny lab with soft dark eyes, a black nose, and a seeming smile on his gentle face – smiling perhaps because of the close bond between himself and Randy, perhaps because he gets to spend so much time in the wilderness – but whatever the reason, you can tell he’s a happy dog. His job? To help Randy navigate through his unseeing world, whether it’s on a mountain or going for a daily walk in Nashua, NH. Randy pointed out to me that Quinn is two feet tall to Randy’s 6’4”. If you were to translate that to human terms, it would be like having a normal-sized person guiding an eighteen-foot-tall person. Naturally, Randy and Quinn have had to develop an exquisitely sensitive communication for Quinn to safely guide Randy over the rough footing and winding paths on the challenging trails of the White Mountains.
Randy lost his eyesight in 1989 from an undetermined neurological disorder that destroyed his optic nerve; a mitochondrial disease tied to a copper deficiency is suspected, he told me. His vestibular system, therefore his balance, was affected as well. Because he was falling down a lot, he spent one year, eight months, and twenty-one days in a wheel chair (yes, he was counting) until trans-timpanic injections of a neural-enhancing steroid into his vestibular nerve helped him regain his ability to hold himself upright.
Shortly thereafter, enter Quinn. After three weeks of training with the dog who helps him not just detect impediments but avoid them as well, Randy realized he had reached a “base level of freedom,” he says, that he had not had in the wheelchair. Though I couldn’t see Randy over the phone as he described this to me, I didn’t need to: I could hear the gratitude in his voice. How does the dog-and-man pair manage on trips that stretch beyond the corner store, on the rugged trails that I dogged my way up and over?
“The depth of Quinn's crouch tells me the height of his jump; the height of his jump tells me how high my own step upward must be. It's a constant back-and-forth communication that allows us to have the speed to succeed and the caution to be safe in ways which are so subtle as to be almost be invisible to anyone who is observing us work together,” as one website relates about the pair who communicate so effectively.
Before he became blind, Randy used to run a lot. Quinn has helped Randy regain that freedom too, accompanying Randy in a recent Portsmouth Market Square Day Race with 6,000 runners. For that event Randy and Quinn were asked if they’d mind starting in the back of the pack, but Quinn is so competitive that they passed ninety percent of the runners that day!
When they’re not hiking or running, Randy delivers the message of achieving through adversity, speaking to 22,000 students a year, ranging as far north as Bangor, Maine. It’s easy to tell he’s as jazzed about his speaking engagements as his hiking forays.
“There’s never a wrong time to share the powerful message that the power of nature can help us reach into ourselves to reflect, on silence, on camaraderie. What we’re doing has so much richness,” he related to me.
Randy listens when he hikes. He “listens” to Quinn’s helping guidance. He hears the wind in the trees. He hears through his own internal reflection the value of standing up straight and pushing forward with the help of others. That inspiration is as beautiful as the emerald green path I saw high in the mountain reaches of New Hampshire.
Patti Rutka lives and writes mostly at a coffee shop in Southern Maine. She is the author of “Jairus’s Daughter” and “Salomé,” Wipf and Stock Publishers 2010, available on Amazon.