Hidden trail details help a blind man see

Posted: Tuesday, September 07, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Jerry Eastham woke up blind one morning eight years ago. It wasn't a total surprise. His father went blind. So did every one of his 14 older siblings due to a rare genetic condition that honeycombs holes in the retina.

Until that time, Eastham made his living as a track welder on the Alaska Railroad. He was 55 years old the day things went dark. All the usual parts of life, from getting dressed to picking up some fruit and bread at the grocery store, turned into ordeals.

But over the next few years, he learned to get by, to tell the direction he was headed by the feeling of the sun on his face, to cross the street based on the sound of traffic, to safety pin his socks together before putting them in the laundry so he could guarantee a match.

These days he's occupied with church and doctor appointments and playing the electric bass in his bedroom. He can get himself to Carrs on Boniface Parkway, Costco on Debarr Road and the post office off Bragaw Street. On occasion, he makes a trip downtown on the Number 15 to visit the Arby's in the Fifth Avenue Mall. And as many as five mornings a week, he wanders miles in wooded Russian Jack Springs Park, with nothing to guide him but his memory and a white cane.

On Thursday morning, as usual, he clicked a one-two rhythm across the pavement in front of his East Anchorage apartment building, on the way to the woods. He could tell, by the smell of wet leaves and the coolness on his skin, that it had just rained. He guessed the sky was overcast. He can see shadows, spotty shades of black and gray, he explained to photographer Marc Lester and me as we followed him down a muddy path. That helps him tell the difference between asphalt bike trail and shrubbery.

Eastham began taking walks in the Russian Jack trails three years ago, on the suggestion of a driver for AnchorRIDES, the services that helps disabled people get around town.

"Before that, I never even knew there was a park there," he said.

A friend talked him through a trail map, and then he started experimenting. He memorized the number of left turns and right turns, and the amount of time it takes to get where humming of traffic dulls and the sound of Russian Jack Springs comes in clear. When he got lost, he followed his ears to the nearest street, and then asked for directions back home. Now, he walks about five miles, looping through Nunaka Valley, around Cheney Lake, along Baxter Road, up Northern Lights and back onto the trail into Russian Jack Park.

"People are totally different back here," he told us as we walked across a bridge over the creek. "You can meet people. Out on the street, I very seldom get a 'hello'."

The wooded trail system is safer than walking along the streets, where on more than one occasion a car making a right turn has almost flattened him, he said. But the trail also has its hazards. There's the chance of getting lost. There are big off-leash dogs. Once in a while somebody who seems drunk or crazy surprises him or yells at him. He doesn't carry anything but a cell phone set to dial 911 at the touch of a button, so he doesn't worry about getting robbed. He does worry about a collision with a biker.

"The majority of them whiz on by at 30 miles an hour, and don't say squat," he said.

And there are moose. Lots of moose. On Thursday, he clicked past two of them, a calf munching leaves 15 feet off the trail and a bull 175 feet away in a muskeg. He didn't see either.

He has a dozen moose encounter stories. One day, alone on the trail, he detected a big shape that was maybe five feet away.

"I knew it wasn't a horse," he said.

It was a cow moose, he decided. He sensed what he thought was a calf nearby. He froze for a moment. Then he started backing off. His heart beat hard.

"I just talked to her a bit and asked her how she was doing and snuck on by," he said.

Eastham speaks with an accent from West Virgina, where he grew up. His father was a coal miner. He told us how he came to Alaska in 1977 and worked in the railroad business for 30 years.

"I was one who loved to work," he said.

We followed him off the bike trail onto a muddy trail that cut up a hill to a small clearing where a weedy concrete pad was all that was left of an old picnic shelter.

"Can you smell the cranberries?" he said. I closed my eyes and inhaled. Pungent and bitter. Fall on the way.

Eastham's hearing isn't perfect, but since he lost his sight, smells tend to get exaggerated, he said. The scent of wet leaves, newly cut grass in the park's golf course, and creek mud, the cranberries are landmarks on the trail. We kept on down the hill. A group of young men, maybe a college ski team on a training run, pattered by us, chatting to each other. I asked him the hardest part of getting by without his sight.

"Reading," he said. He used to like historical fiction. Books on tape aren't really the same. He can read a little, very close up with the help of a hand lens, but it's not the same either. He carried the lens with him in his breast pocket.

He raises some eyebrows from people when he uses the lens in the grocery store, he said. Especially in the meat section at Costco, when he has to lean deep into the refrigerated cases, peering like Sherlock Holmes to find his desired cut.

He has less than two months before the trails and roads get too snowy for walking. Then he'll head south to be with his children. Being blind can make a person more dependent, he told me. But walking in the park on his own has just the opposite feeling.

We got to another bridge. He paused and looked over into the clear water.

"See how the light shines here?" he said, pointing out the way the light played on the surface of the water, another detail I hadn't noticed. "Sometimes you can see fish - what I think are fish - go across, and then I can see it rippling."

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