Traveling Blind 1: Chesterman Beach

This is the first of my Traveling Blind blog series in which I will explore how my husband’s sight challenge impacts our relationship and how we interact with the world we travel in. This was first published in September 2014 on a previous version of my website.  I’ve republished that blog here:

Taking time to really see

Photos and text by Faye Bayko

He stood with his back to me staring out at the Pacific Ocean his hands tucked into his light jacket, protecting them against the cold spring wind coming in off the waves. I wondered what he saw, what it meant to be legally blind standing at the edge of one of Canada’s most beautiful beaches, and whether I should tell him his shoes were about to get wet.

It was April 2009 and we had arrived at Chesterman Beach on Vancouver Island’s west coast after what seemed to be an endless drive from Alberta to find a brilliant afternoon sun reflecting off the rolling surf. My son and his girlfriend, whom we had picked up in Vancouver on the way, were already screaming with pain and delight as the ice-cold waves splashed over them and the skimboard they were attempting to ride at the surf’s edge. Robert, my partner of two years, had wandered along the wide expanse of sand left bare at low tide while I photographed the antics of the young couple.

When I caught up with him, Robert had crossed the soft sand spit which ran out to Frank Island, separating Chesterman Beach’s two crescent-shaped halves. He was standing looking across the white-capped waves to the open ocean.

“Japan must be out there somewhere,” he said.

I nodded my agreement but quickly realized he may not have been able to see the gesture. “Yes,” I shouted against the wind. I was still finding it hard to break old facial-expression communication habits and adapt to the verbal-based ones needed for life with the sight-challenged.

He reached out, took my hand, and squeezed it. “Thank you,” he said softly.

I smiled and returned the squeeze, then gently pulled him back from where the surf was rhythmically teasing the tips of his shoes. “You’re welcome,” I answered, knowing he was speaking of more than the beauty surrounding us.

Journey to Freedom

The weekend on the Coast had been planned as a celebration to mark the completion of my son Christopher’s first year of film studies at Capilano University but turned out to be a celebration of Robert’s first year of freedom as well.

Robert had suffered from a combination of extreme myopia (nearsightedness), nystagmus (involuntary movement of the eyes), and astigmatism (severe curvature of the cornea) since he was a child. This left him with less than 10 percent of his eyesight and had made it impossible to own a vehicle, a right-of-passage taken for granted by the average Canadian male, even more so by those growing up in Windsor as Robert had. So, prior to our meeting he had been dependent on public transport or the kindness of friends. Trips were rarely exploratory and always at the whims of others.

The lack of a vehicle and the ability to drive it had a deep impact on any developing a social life. He learned to avoid conversations about the frustrations and joys of owning a vehicle and experienced more than one rejection when a possible date found out he was unable to pick her up or drive them to their destination. Socially, he became frozen in the awkward Tweens.

That was until we met. There was no such rejection when I found out he was unable to drive. I loved to be behind the wheel. So, at 53, Robert purchased his first vehicle, a Kia Sportage he named Liberté, and with me in the driver’s seat started to know the freedom of being able to go where he wanted when he wanted. The trip to Vancouver Island’s west coast, however, had been a surprising test of his trust in my driving skills.

Bragging Rights

Locals living along Vancouver Island’s rugged central West Coast have long identified themselves using a hierarchy based on when and how they, or their ancestors, arrived in the area. At the top of the pyramid are those who have roots dating back to a time of shipwrecks, native villages, and fishing fleets.

Access to the West Coast in the early years was by sea or air. Then in 1959 area logging roads were joined together to create the first land route from Port Alberni to the Coast. This road, though available to the general public, was dangerous and travel on it dictated by the logging companies who restricted access to evenings and weekends. But, in 1972, with the creation of the Pacific Rim National Park two years earlier, the modern era of tourism was ushered in, and the province stepped in to complete the paving of the route known as Highway 4.

While that hard-surfacing of the road, as well as later attempts to update it, were seen as a means of making the pilgrimage to the Coast safer, it has not. Sections of the road continue, to this day, to regularly wash away, frustrating the efforts of paving crews, surprising unwary tourists, and providing new residents with a means of claiming a space in the bragging-rights hierarchy tied to that road.

When we came over Highway 4 it was obvious the patching crew had not yet done their annual duty and there was more than one occasion where I had to slam on the brake midway through yet another sharp turn-dip-turn-climb combination in order to avoid a fresh pothole.

Robert, who can only see shapes and colour differences if there is strong shadows, has no depth perception and was unable to anticipate the curves and dips of the road. He was left to blindly trust the restraint limitations of the vehicle’s seat belt as I tried to maneuver along the rollercoaster of a road.

Christopher and his girlfriend, who were in the backseat, were young enough to roll with the adventure. I was just glad we had stayed overnight in Vancouver after driving out from Calgary. I would not have wanted to drive the road at night.

The Beach

The trip, though, was worth every gasp once the road leveled out and we arrived at Western Canada’s wilderness paradise.

Walking down the rock steps from Chesterman’s Beach Bed & Breakfast, where we’d booked a weekend stay, to the beach it was the surrounding brightness that surprised Robert that first day. “The colour of the sand, the blue of the water, I could really feel the openness of it all.”

The expanse of hard-packed sand allowed Robert to walk without the fear of being constantly off-balance, a situation that happens in soft sand when his eyes are unable to tell his feet that even though they may be dipping every which way, things are basically level. He was able to take the time to gain a sense of place that is so important when traveling but which he had not allowed himself before because he had not been honest with himself or others about his limitations.

Insight

Unlike most people with a sight challenge Robert, for various reasons, had never gone to special schools or become involved with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). He had grown up in denial. He did not use a cane. He did not tell people he could not see. He had faked his way through life.

“I did what I had to, to survive,” he explained as we walked the beach. “When you (as a sighted person) walk into a room you can easily and quickly look at things and the situation. When I walk into a room, because I can’t see well, a lot of things won’t register. I have to take time to stare at things in order to figure out what they are.”

When he entered the working world, he learned quickly that staring was not an acceptable habit, so he stopped, and just took his cues from what others did or said. “If someone said there was a red ball over there, I would not know it or be able to confirm it. Maybe I’d see something red but I wouldn’t be able to tell what it was.”

During that second year of our relationship, however, Robert had started using a white cane as a communication device, letting people know that he may not be able to see them as he walked the streets of Calgary. He had also attended a job interview for the first time taking that same cane. He was not successful in getting that job, but it gave him the confidence to be more open in the next one and this time he got the job.

The acceptance in the workplace gave him a freedom to be himself while the ownership of a vehicle provided a physical freedom. Combined they provided an opportunity for a new life.
“I no longer felt ashamed,” he confessed. “Before, I’d always felt like I was just tolerated, never accepted.”

So, when he stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean that spring day in 2009, it was with a confidence in his ability to control the way he interacted with the world around him. “When I got out to the ocean I was just standing and staring. I knew I could take my time to figure out where things were.”

Gallery

Robert Tremonti strolls across Chesterman Beach in the early morning light.

The hard-packed sand and wide stretch of uncrowded beach provide legally-blind Robert Tremonti with a high degree of independence. – photo by Faye Bayko

About Author

Faye Bayko
I am a writer and photographer currently working out of Vancouver, BC.