If you would prefer to have this article read aloud, press the play button below:
In a little more than a week, I’ll be hopping a plane to Denver for the wedding of one of my closest friends, John. When we were 18, John and I threw on our backpacks and headed off on a cross-country hitchhiking trip. We were young and fearless and craved the excitement of the road. My flight to Colorado for the wedding will be a three-hour direct flight, but this trip scares me much more than our hitchhiking adventures ever did – It will be the first trip I will take alone since I became legally blind.
The last time I traveled by myself was in January 2020 just as the Coronavirus was sweeping through China. On a business trip in London, after meeting with customers, I spent a couple of days walking, riding the tube, and taking lots of street photographs throughout London. Soon after returning, the world started to shut down, and like everyone else, I went into a year-long lockdown. I entered that lockdown with my vision mostly intact, but by last summer my eyes started to fail due to a genetic disease, and by December I was legally blind, forcing me into early retirement.
My cross-country hitchhiking foray as a teen was the first of a series of adventures that I would take in my late teens and early 20s. I was not frightened by the idea of sleeping under a highway overpass, catching rides with long-haul truckers who proudly brandished their handguns, or arriving in a major city without knowing a soul yet somehow finding a place to stay for the night. During those years I would hike for hundreds of miles alone in the woods, thumb my way around North America, and spend most of a year living out of a bread truck. Even in my 50s I still had that wanderlust, spending weekends heading out on small adventures over the backroads, exploring, hiking, and taking photographs. My grand idea for retirement had long been to get a small trailer that I could take around the country on my photo expeditions while my wife worked as a university professor. But last September my eye doctor informed me that my vision had deteriorated to the point where I was no longer allowed to drive.
I was born with a rare genetic eye disease called Stargardt Disease that currently has no treatment or cure. Most people with the disease are legally blind by the time they are in their early 20s. For some reason, the retinal time bomb that took my central vision did not go off until I was in my late 50s. The collapse of my central vision was fast and furious, and because it occurred while I was on lockdown, barely leaving our large yard in Western Florida, the challenges that I would face as a visually disabled person were not yet readily apparent. I did not have to worry about crossing busy streets, reading signs in airports, or navigating a subway during rush hour. As painful as it was to lose my vision while on lockdown, it was less scary when my world was merely the size of our half-acre yard.
Because John’s wedding coincided with the start of the college semester, my wife won’t be able to attend the wedding with me. At first, I was fine with this – how hard would it be to fly from one place to the other, grab a taxi, and stay in a hotel? But the more I thought about the trip, the more nervous I grew. Normally a thrifty traveler, the thought of switching planes alone in a busy airport like Atlanta, with potentially a very short layover, filled me with dread. So spending more, I booked a direct flight from Pensacola to Denver. After booking the flight, I asked John for a hotel recommendation. He told me about a lovely lodge in the woods, at the end of a dirt road, just the kind of place that I would normally be enchanted with. But my new reality required that I find a hotel that had access to restaurants within easy walking distance and that required a minimum of crossing busy streets.
When my wife and I got married more than a decade ago, John did a reading at our wedding. As John’s own wedding grew closer and no reciprocal request came for me to do a reading, I was hugely relieved. Then recently I received his request to read a short Jewish blessing – Oy, I was equally honored and terrified. A talented writer and poet, when John read a poem at our wedding, he barely glanced at the written poem in his hands and he mostly looked out at the audience as he read. For me, I will not have the option of reading the blessing from the printed page. Yes, it’s merely a paragraph long, but I picture myself stumbling through it and losing my place, my stumbling turning to an awkward silence as I fumble, all eyes on me.
Asking for help is not a towering strength of mine. Many years ago when installing an electric garage door opener, I confidently ignored the bolded and underlined instructions to not attempt the installation alone. Two collapsed two-by-four braces and one near decapitation later I walked away believing my dangerous actions were a sign of strength of character and not the terrible weakness that it was. The world presents us with the lessons we need to learn, and so venturing to Colorado as a newly blind person will present me with many opportunities for personal growth. The wedding venue is many miles away from the hotel where I will be staying. There will be numerous activities and events I will need to make my way to, and without a car to drive it will be a challenge. There will be airports to navigate, streets to cross, menus to read, a blessing to be recited. On a call with John when I learned that the wedding would be up in the mountains far from my hotel, I grew nervous. “I will need help” I quietly said.
When I was 18, I stood in a truck stop in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and hastily scrawled “DENVER” on a paper bag. I walked to the onramp of Interstate 25 as the sky grew dark, stuck out my thumb, and felt no fear. Forty-two years later, suitcase in hand when I board the plane to Denver, I will be presented with the opportunity to overcome the fears that I never felt all those years ago.