Thursday, September 23, 2010
A ‘Golden Ray’ of Sunshine
Although I have always defined myself as a writer, several years of my life have been spent enjoying employment at a school for the deaf, having friends who are deaf, taking classes in deaf culture, sign language, and interpreting. Yet, the harsh realities of what life is like for those who are deaf, the prejudices they have endured, how often they are misunderstood and to what extent they must simply put up with living in a hearing oriented world, had never really dawned on me until recently.
I’m not writing this as a way to encourage pity for deaf people. They are a proud community with a strong culture. They certainly do not need our pity.
This is merely an observation of an experience I have learned from and want to share.
The veracity of how they must be staunch, ardent advocates for themselves to insure they get what they need or want out of life hit me full force last weekend when I met a 33 year old deaf man from Seattle, Washington who is currently hiking the International Appalachian Trail.
He is known in hiking circles as “Golden Ray,” a name that fits his personality perfectly. He radiates positive energy and he is excited about completing the Appalachian Trail (AT) and continuing his journey to include the International Appalachian Trail, (IAT) where the hike resumes from the north side of Maine’s greatest mountain, Katahdin, in Baxter State Park (BSP) on into Aroostook county, then to New Brunswick, Canada. This is most likely the place where Golden Ray will end his hike sometime around Thanksgiving, since the snows and winds of winter will be nipping at his heels. The trail does continue from New Brunswick, tracking northeast, up and over the highest point in the Canadian Maritimes, leading north to Quebec’s rugged Gaspe’ Peninsula, crosses an eight mile long bridge to Prince Edward Island, then to Nova Scotia via ferry, and finally to Newfoundland/Labrador and Crow Head, the northernmost point of the Appalachian Mountains in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps Golden Ray plans to save that bit of hiking for another time. After he leaves Canada, he plans to resume his Appalachian Trail hike, completing a section he missed between Vermont and Pennsylvania before returning home to Seattle.
Quite an adventure for someone who has been profoundly deaf since birth and cannot hear any of the noises surrounding him on a daily basis. Sounds that might alert him to danger on a quest alone through some areas of wilderness that many hikers say are poorly marked.
Talking with Golden Ray (GR) is an uplifting experience. His attitude is that of someone who has the world at his fingertips, excited about what could be around the next corner, the next mountain, the next state, or even the next country. He does not demonstrate any thought of failure, of not living his dreams, nor does he worry that he might encounter a situation he cannot handle. He is obviously an intelligent man, yet possesses that childlike awe many of us try so desperately to find and hold on to. His smile is contagious and his eyes are full of wonder, sparkling with a thrill for all that surrounds him. He thinks the best of everyone he meets unless they prove otherwise and he seems to regard strangers simply as friends he hasn’t yet met.
He communicates with the general public via a composition notebook he carries in his backpack. He uses a second notebook as his daily journal where he writes of his experiences in elaborate detail. During the time we spent at a hiker hostel in Millinocket, Maine, Golden Ray allowed me to read some of the private entries reflecting communications with the people he has met since leaving Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Those entries reveal his willingness to initiate conversations with complete strangers, ask questions when seeking answers needed to navigate life on the trail, at a shelter with other hikers or in trail towns where he stops periodically to re-supply or find a shower and a bed for the night.
One of his fondest memories is meeting an eight year old boy, known within the 2010 hiking community as “Venado” who is currently thru hiking the trail with his father. Golden Ray hiked with them for a few days and says he enjoyed the interest the child demonstrated when wanting to learn sign language.
“Venado is a special boy,” remembers Golden Ray. “He learned the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet very fast! He wanted to share what he‘d learned in one of the trail registers that hikers can leave messages in at the shelters. His way of doing so was to form each ASL letter with his left hand and then draw that hand shape in the register with a pencil his right hand! Venado is amazing!”
(I have since spoken to Venado’s mom via Facebook and learned that his trail name is Spanish for the word deer. I’ve decided that I definitely want to meet this little boy and will hopefully be writing about that experience in the near future if I am blessed with such an opportunity.)
There were a few instances during my time with Golden Ray that made me realize just how much he must overcome in order to keep his positive attitude and zest for the life he wants to live.
A group of drunks who seemed to want to harass us as we walked down a dimly lit street late at night didn’t phase Golden Ray in the least. Their verbal attempts at intimidation were lost to him as he happily walked along toward his destination. Wanting to err on the side of caution, I suggested that we cross to walk on the opposite side of the street, avoiding close contact with them. Golden Ray was accepting of that but he never hastened his stride nor opted to change the route he had chosen. His wide, brown eyes are always alert and with the combination of my ears and his eyes, I felt confident we would have no surprises from those demonstrating obnoxious behavior. It was actually very empowering to see Golden Ray stay on course, not veer from his plans in the least.
He told me later that when he is hiking on a trail in the middle of a dense, remote forest, he depends on his senses of smell and sight to know if there is a wild animal nearby who might be threatened by his presence. When he encounters such, he stops immediately and always a reasonable distance from the animal, giving it the right of way, not moving until the path is clear and the animal has left the area. He acts out of respect, not fear. He reasons that wild animals will not harm him, especially if they realize he means them no harm.
A second instance was when he asked a question of someone whom he thought he could get a free ride from. He needed to get from in-town Millinocket back into BSP to Katahdin Lake, where he would pick up the IAT and continue his trek north. The conversation became intensely argumentative at one point because the person providing the shuttle service needed to receive payment but Golden Ray did not understand why he should pay the man when the shuttle was going in the direction he wanted to go anyway. I assume Golden Ray’s thinking process might have related to the fact that some folks feel it is easy to take advantage of a customer who is deaf but that was clearly not the case in this situation, as Golden Ray soon realized. The matter was settled when both parties calmed down and the two compromised on a fee somewhere between gratis and the price usually charged for the shuttle.
Within the same morning a third mishap occurred, a misunderstanding at a popular, local restaurant, where Golden Ray ate meal after meal until he was full. Currently, he has the appetite of someone who has been hiking 20+ miles each day. He continually reminds himself that he cannot continue that eating style when he stops hiking because the 30+ pounds he has happily shed while hiking will indeed return.
The waitress assigned to our table seemed impatient when Golden Ray would sign what he wanted to eat and I would voice for him. I thought it worked perfectly and I was happy he felt free to communicate using sign language and not feel the need to point to the items he wanted on the menu or write notes back and forth. I was thrilled to be able to be of service to both Golden Ray and to the waitress! What a great feeling to dust off that interpreting hat and throw it back into the ring once again!
Well, the folks at the restaurant seemed agitated by his requests. The place was hectic and more than a few times he left the table to walk up to the cashier or to a waitress and ask for something he wanted. Honey for his pancakes instead of maple syrup, a pair of scissors to trim his mustache after breakfast, a straw to drink with, to order more food, etc. He would wait patiently for a waitress to approach our table but when they seemed to ignore him or were too busy to look his way, he simply walked to the front and made his requests known to the first employee he met. We waited what seemed hours to receive our bill but it never came. Groups of people were filing through the door and constantly eyeing our table, wondering why we were sitting there when we were obviously finished using it. Finally, I gathered up our things and offered the space to a group of young women standing nearby. Golden Ray walked to the front and told the cashier he wanted to pay what he owed so we could leave. Somehow, his communications were misunderstood and she thought he was refusing to pay at all! From where I stood near the exit, I noticed something seemed awry and went to investigate. By this time, the kitchen manager had written him a nasty note demanding payment. Golden Ray had absolutely no idea why she was so angry or why she had written, “YOU MUST PAY!” on a rectangular piece of white paper, shoving it toward him at eye level, then letting it drop to the counter as she turned on her heel and returned to the chaos that ensued in the frenzied kitchen behind her!
I looked at Golden Ray in an effort to assess his reaction. He was clearly unsure of what had just happened, yet remained completely calm. I explained to the extent he asked of me, we paid the bill and left. He did not let the negativity of what had just occurred ruin his day. He made it clear that he chooses to cherish every moment and doesn’t allow the negativities of the world to creep in or alter his happiness. I was in awe!
Luckily, I was able to clear up the situation later, letting the owner know what had happened before I had to leave town to make the four hour journey home.
Meeting Golden Ray was certainly an eye opener. He told me that his family is spread around the globe. I’m not sure but it seemed that in his opinion, they are not closely knit and to his dismay, they do not use sign language to communicate with him.
In the few hours I was in his presence, I learned volumes about myself. I learned how blessed I am to have someone at home who loves me, is interested in my life, my hopes, my dreams. Someone who encourages me to live out my dreams and make them my reality. I realized I have some things inside myself that I want to investigate further and work toward improving. I learned that there is freedom out there and that it is up to each of us to reach out and grab our own piece of it. I tend to become a prisoner of my stress, of the walls I put up, of the walls other people put up, of barriers that exist only because I inadvertently choose to accept them. I realized again that the need to be empathetic toward others is extremely important. I must remember that I really have no idea what another life consists of and to be patient and forgiving with those who do not show me kindness or compassion.
I was reminded once again that everyday is a gift, to be opened, enjoyed and marveled over! To live each moment to the best of my ability, to fulfill what I know is my purpose in life. To be a blessing to those people who come into my life for whatever reason, whether I like it or not. To remember that they are there for a purpose, to learn or to be learned from. To see this as yet another gift and roll with the flow of it. To be grateful for it, not get bogged down in negativities that get thrown my way and just keep moving on, enjoying this incredible journey that is my life!
© copyright TLRM September 23, 2010