Randy Pierce and His Guide Dog Quinn, Founders of Vision Quest
Meet Randy Pierce and his guide dog Quinn, founders of 2020 Vision Quest. Together, they are climbing all 48 of the rugged 4000+ foot peaks in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Read more about the 2020 Vision Quest project and follow Randy’s inspirational journey from a wheelchair to walking to conquering the White Mountains’ highest peaks.
The Journey and the Destination
It is an interesting challenge to attempt to sum up my life journey. Primarily, I guess I think of myself as exceedingly fortunate and I know that doesn’t entirely jive with the expectations of people who don’t know me well. I find that I have within myself all of the attributes that allow me to fully appreciate a wide variety of life experiences.
I have a richly diverse group of friends with whom I savor rich and diverse adventures and, better still, I can find adventure in all types of activities. Somewhere along the path, I discovered that, for me, enjoyment and fulfillment lie more in the Journey than in the Destination.
Growing Up in New Hampshire
I was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, where I live presently, though I spent many formative years growing up in the tiny town of Colebrook, New Hampshire. We moved around a little, but our family was reasonably close and my brother Rick and I remain very close to this day. I think I get a fair bit of my determination from my mother, Georgia, and a lot of my social drive from my father, Bud.
My family inspires me in different ways and certainly, like most families, we had our challenging times as well. Challenge, to me, is something from which I draw strength and thrive upon. I could probably do with a little less challenge sometimes, but most of the time I’m setting my own goals because it fuels the fire that burns within me. Where some people may see obstacles, I choose to see opportunity instead.
I graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering. After college, I went to work in the Network and Communication industry for Digital Equipment Corporation. Although I was reasonably strong in science and math, and my problem-solving nature led to my engineering degree, I always appreciated both writing and history as aspects of education from which I derived tremendous personal reward.
The Mighty Quinn and Fiancee Tracy (not necessarily in that order)
I’d be entirely remiss at this point if I didn’t mention two of the most fantastic parts of my life. My marvelous guide dog, the Mighty Quinn, is an integral part of my life. He is not only a tremendous asset in our teamwork and partnership, but he’s amazingly loving and fun as well.
He’s hard to overshadow, but we’ve managed to compromise by successfully integrating my wonderful fiancée Tracy into the “pack.” We will be wed on 10/10/10 and I could not imagine a more fortunate person than I for having her as a friend and life partner!
The Onset of Total Blindness
I am totally blind and have been since the year 2000, when my very last bit of mostly light perception faded away. I have an as-yet unknown neurological disorder which began an aggressive assault on my optic nerves in 1989, when I was 22, soon after I graduated from college. It was an episodic condition that spanned 11 years and left me with optic nerves that were/are completely dead; as a result, I have absolutely no vision.
I’ve now spent half my present life with (but also half without!) significant vision loss. I’m 44 and pretty happy to note I’ve never seen a grey hair on my head despite any conflicting reports from some of those aforementioned friends!
Even after I became blind, however, I continued to experience neurological problems. Beginning in late 2003, two subsequent episodes assaulted my brain, one of which resulted in my spending 1 year, 8 months, and 21 days in a wheelchair. You can likely surmise how I feel about that time by how accurately I measure it!
Due to nerve damage in my cerebellum, which is the balance center of the brain, I had severe vertigo that caused me to experience constant falls. I would lose awareness of even the sensation of “falling down” until I struck the ground and received a painful reminder of what “falling down” felt like. Since I could not stand for more than 10-20 seconds, I had to remain in a wheelchair at all times.
His Neurological Challenges Continued
It was challenging during those years because my doctors and I didn’t yet understand that I was experiencing a neurological episode related to the same condition that took my eyesight. My doctors thought that perhaps an aggressive post-concussion syndrome was at work. As my condition worsened, I had to endure a barrage of medical tests that tried to diagnose and assess the severity of my situation.
In February of 2005, an MRI finally revealed the impact on my brain. By the summer of 2005, we began a series of six surgical procedures, called trans-timpanic injections, that were intended to boost the nerve signals that reached my damaged cerebellum from my inner ear.
The trans-timpanic procedure involves going through the ear drum to inject a potent neural-enhancing steroid into the vestibular nerve, which carries the balance signal from the inner ear to the cerebellum. This would, hopefully, help my inner ear send a stronger signal to “teach” my brain’s damaged balance center (the cerebellum) to “hear” the balance signal more clearly.
After each procedure, my balance improved. After extensive physical therapy, I began walking again in early 2006, with the assistance of forearm crutches. By December, I had begun shorter periods of walking with a hiking stick for support and my falls became less and less frequent. As you might imagine, my time in the wheelchair made me acutely aware of the precious gift of the simple act of walking.
Beginning to Walk Again with Quinn
While my initial experience of blindness put me, for a time, at a very low point, the New Hampshire Association for the Blind led me to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which then led me to the Mighty Quinn and yet another major step forward in my life.
In June of 2006, Guiding Eyes for the Blind met with me to evaluate my walking and determined I could benefit from a guide dog with additional awareness of my balance situation.
I arrived at class at Guiding Eyes in Yorktown Heights on October 17, 2006 and spent just under three weeks in a very successful training program with Quinn. We returned home in early November.
In my months of walking with a hiking stick for support and a cane for mobility, I was walking too slowly to truly work on, and improve, my balance. I liken it to riding a bike: at the slowest speeds, you wobble a bit, but if you can add just a little speed, you can find your balance.
Walking with Quinn gave me increased speed (and freedom!) to walk at an almost-normal pace, which actually allowed my brain to begin relearning the act of walking! By the following September, I was able to put away the hiking stick and cane and walk with enough stability to be healthy and safe without them.
The Great Hiking Adventure Begins
Interestingly, it was the hiking stick, the tool that led me out of the wheelchair, that would provide the roots for one of my next great adventures.
I’d hiked frequently as a boy growing up in the northern reaches of New Hampshire and while that had not been a part of my life for some time, hiking seemed as if it could provide the perfect symbolic link to my return, helping me achieve forward movement and ever-increasing heights.
In June of 2009, I decided to pick up the hiking stick once again and take Quinn to a mountain trail to see how he would react to leading me up a more challenging terrain.
Quinn was amazingly, absolutely, overwhelmingly astounding! There are not enough superlatives to describe how well he managed to guide me through some very impressive challenges on the mountain! Our mountains, along with our story, began to escalate at this point and so did my appreciation and enjoyment of this newest adventure.
Working and Hiking with Quinn
Typically, a guide dog and handler interact with each other by the feel of the dog’s harness and a series of known rules. While a cane for mobility is about object detection, meaning tapping and locating any intervening object with a sweep of the cane, a guide dog is about object avoidance.
Quinn will use his understanding of the rules of safe travel to simply walk around obstacles that we encounter as we walk together. His mission is to keep us walking on a straight line of travel. Certainly, Quinn wouldn’t want to guide me out into a busy street to avoid an obstacle, but when a simple swerve can suffice, we effortlessly walk around the obstacle that we encounter and then continue on our path.
When the obstacle cannot be avoided, Quinn’s role is to “show” me the obstacle by stopping before it. At this point, my job is to understand that he is stopping for a reason and to scan with my foot or hands to locate the obstacle, which could be a curb, a pothole, or even a low-hanging branch for my 6′ 4″ frame!
Quinn recognizes a potential danger for me and ensures that I am alerted to it; until I am, he will not proceed with our walk. It is called “intelligent disobedience” and it’s fun to realize that he is wagging his tail eagerly as he awaits my success at finding his warning and then praising him for his attention to his job!
That is our normal interaction on our routine journeys along streets, sidewalks, and inside public buildings. Imagine when that everyday world changes and is even magnified by the uneven terrain of a boulder-strewn mountain trail!
When Quinn and I hike together, we don’t encounter the standard range of curb or stair heights; instead, we deal with a wide array of steeper climbs with unpredictable angles, edges, and dangerous drop-offs. Quinn had to learn to judge the best way to show me more precise foot placement, and he did this by angling his body and using an exaggerated pausing of the harness position while I made the step.
We both learned how I could best read the angle of the harness handle to judge the height of a step as high as 36 inches, which is a leap for Quinn. What follows that step might be a stony ridge, a knee-bashing protrusion, or a dangerous plummet. Quinn cannot simply move to the terrain feature and then pause for me to evaluate it; instead, he has to give me prior warning, which required the development of yet another level of understanding between us.
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.
The Birth of 2020 Vision Quest
In 2009, I had the chance to meet and speak with the blind adventurer and mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, an impressive man in so many ways. His achievement of being the only blind man in history to reach the summit of Mount Everest, along with reaching the highest peak on every continent (the Seven Summits), is absolutely and appropriately legendary. After his talk, we arranged to meet again and took a short hike together several months later. We have kept in touch ever since.
Erik’s climbs were more technical than the White Mountain hikes I had been undertaking, but his talk inspired me and led to the idea that I could climb all 48 of the rugged 4000+ foot peaks (the “48,” as they’re called) in the New Hampshire White Mountains.
I envisioned this project as the perfect way to illustrate the beliefs and abilities that have supported me so well throughout my own life. I also saw this as a way to raise funds for, and give back to, the New Hampshire Association for the Blind and Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which had given me my first steps forward in learning about the fullness of life available to me as a blind man.
And so it was that 2020 Vision Quest was born! I reached out to several friends and the project has continued to grow astoundingly since that time. Their help and our teamwork has led to the belief that we can all “Achieve a Vision Beyond Sight.”
The Team and the Hikes
The core team of our all-volunteer charity is composed of seven incredible people. There are many additional people who help us with web development, marketing, fundraising, social media, finance, technology, and of course hiking.
We like to emphasize community development as a strong component of our project, and often talk of “Team 2020,” which is composed of people who join our effort in any fashion: donors, sponsors, social media friends, and fellow hikers.
One of my favorite parts of our program is providing presentations to children that challenge preconceived notions about human limitations, particularly for blind persons. Whether it’s the many ways a blind person may read, participate in sports, or work in a variety of fields, my message is powerful: I diminish the notion of “dis”-ability and instead emphasize human potential and the power of “ability awareness.”
Our inaugural hike was on July 4-5, 2010, on Mount Washington, the biggest, most challenging mountain in the northeastern United States, and whose summit has claimed the unofficial title of “home of the world’s worst weather.” We had a film crew capture the excitement of the hike as we achieved the summit and discussed our hiking (and other) philosophies along the way.
Since then, we’ve climbed Mount Hale, Mount Tom, and Mount Field. On September 11, 2010, we also climbed Mount Liberty as part of Flags on the 48, a program that honored those who died on September 11, 2001 by flying the American flag atop all 48 peaks in the White Mountains. You can track our progress tackling each peak on the 2020 Vision Quest blog.
Safety and sensibility are always primary components of our approach. These are not easy hikes and there are times we will have to turn back prior to reaching a summit or take alternative transportation down from the summit. The mountains are old, and over time, nature and the elements have created massive boulder-strewn trails with fissures, cracks, crevices, ledges, washouts, and slides. These features are serious challenges for a sighted hiker, and a blind hiker must pay even closer attention to where and how to place a foot for each step of the long journey.
But these hiking and terrain challenges produce some marvelous rewards as well:
- Listening to the rustle of the wind through the forest as a symphony of subtle sounds produced by various types of leaves and assorted trees;
- Feeling a wild Gray Jay land on my hand to eat a piece of dried fruit from my fingers;
- Hearing the awe in the voices of my friends as they struggle to describe the beauty of a sunset as it falls over range after range of mountains below us.
We are also building a community on our 2020 Vision Quest web site, on Facebook, Twitter, and through adapting new technologies, such as GPS and video, in which we hope to share our stories and the inspirations we discover along the journey.
Frustrations, Passions, and Triumphs
Along the way there have been plenty of triumphs — and frustrations. I think, without question, my lowest moments came when I was confined to a wheelchair, uncertain how, or even if, I could turn around my health’s downward slide.
I was also blind-sided (no pun intended) by the collapse of my first guide dog Ostend, who died suddenly in 2005 when a cancerous tumor that had been growing undetected in his heart caused it to split in half. Even as his own heart was broken, so was my own. I was more devastated than I ever could have imagined. Ostend was from a different guide dog school, but he paved the way for me to move forward and become ready for the Mighty Quinn.
But there are many passions and triumphs in my life journey, too.
I delight in, and benefit from, my regular training in the Martial Arts, in which I hold a second-degree black belt under Grandmaster Robert Lamattina. I’ve been involved in dart leagues, medieval reenactments, and I regularly host Bardic events in my own home. “Bardic” is a medieval term that describes an event in which the sharing of stories, poems, songs, and music fill an evening with mirth and merriment.
I have tremendous fun with family and friends as we follow the New England Patriots, which led to my being named “Fan of the Year” and enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A video of my fandom was even nominated for an Emmy Award! In fact, as a result of my football fandom, I traveled to the White House to meet with President George W. Bush on an April afternoon in 2002 in the Rose Garden of the White House during the Cherry Blossom Festival. Both were amazing experiences!
I reflected on many positive things when, on Independence Day of this year, I stood on the peak of Mount Washington, one of the most challenging and dangerous mountains in the United States. I stood there with my amazing guide dog, my loving fiancée, and a group of stalwart friends, thinking about how five years earlier I could not stand on my own, let alone climb such a magnificent mountain.
That moment perfectly encapsulates the core value in my approach to all adversity and the theme of the book I’ve written and hope someday to share with the world:
“We do influence much of the adversity that occurs in our world, but we do not have complete control over it. We do have complete control, however, over the choices we will make in response. It is those choices that will have a far greater impact upon our lives than any adversity ever could.”
We have only just begun and there are many mountains ahead of us, both literally and figuratively. Each of these challenges will develop the strength of our community and hopefully entice a few more folks to learn, grow, and “climb” with us to the “summit” of possibility.
Where you can find Randy online:
On his web site: http://www.2020visionquest.org
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/2020VisionQuest
On Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/2020VQ
Where you can find Quinn online:
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/MightyQuinn54