Sendero Group Travel Blog

Follow Sendero travelers on their adventures using accessible GPS.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


All Together Now

Cortina group hiking

The Sunday hike was the opportunity for all the No Barriers participants, speakers and organizers to hike and talk together around the Fiames National Park loop, which I had previously marked with GPS points. We attempted a semblance of order but this soon disintegrated into a Malay of sighted, wheelchairs, and blind people walking and rolling counter clockwise. Woe to anyone trying to pass against our flow.

I had a chance to compare notes with Eric Weihenmayer, Sam from Florida and Andy from Greenwich about various blindness issues and to show them how the BrailleNote GPS worked in this off-road situation. Eric was pretty intrigued with the idea of using it to kayak on his own, just a matter of keeping the PK dry. One of the sighted guides for the Milan group was Maria Franca, who has a 3 year-old blind daughter. She told me of the lack of support services both for parents and blind children in her community. Her daughter will do just fine with such a great mom.

Seven kilometers later, we all met at a big tent on the landing strip for lunch and goodbyes. We really enjoyed being part of No Barriers and meeting a lot of wonderful people, especially Cristina who shared her heart, time and friends with us. For us, Cortina and Cristina are synonymous.

In comparison, Venice does not deserve its own Blog entry. The most interesting thing for me was testing the GPS in streets only 6 feet wide and people watching in San Marcos Plaza and among the streets.

The close quarters and density of people and shops was too much of a shock coming straight from a mountain town. While Jennifer would go into a shop, I’d stand outside and compare GPS receivers while people watching. This was a low vision person’s Mecca because there were so many people and they streamed by within inches or feet at most.

Mike in San Marco Square
I was surprised that I could get GPS signals among these streets, smaller than most sidewalks and I was surprised by the variety of people. Here is my stream of visual images as the hordes streamed by:
Dogs, umbrellas, Capri pants, long skirts, halter tops, hats, bald heads, long hair, pinned up hair, pink jingly shoes, walking canes, rolling suitcases, box carts, flags carried by tour guides and close packed people following them, all shapes and sizes of people, one particularly tall svelte woman, lots of iridescent green tops and shorts, even one person head to foot in bright green, eating ice-cream, shopping bags, mobile phones pressed to the head, pigeons and more pigeons. The people and shops per square meter in Venice must rival places in Asia. What I do love here are the boats passing below our window with people playing instruments and singing on board. I understand the most efficient way to get to the airport in the morning for our return flight to California will be a water taxi. Pretty darn full 5 days in Italy. I’ll be back. Got to revisit Milan and Rome and check out Sicily for the first time.

Saturday, July 16, 2005


Shattering preconceived notions

Mike and the group hiking
Many email and verbal discussions went into determining the appropriate level of a GPS hike for the blind Italians despite the fact that this conference is called No Barriers. We kept hearing how these were city folk and they were only used to walking down hill. It was my recommendation that we have three levels of hikes, easy, medium and hard. However, once we got to Cortina, vociferous opinions on this subject abounded and I decided to sort this out once we were all together.
There are concepts about independent travel that are difficult to communicate in one’s native English, let alone in another language. It has been my experience on average that blind Europeans are less assertive, some might say more polite, when it comes to insisting on independent travel. The American sighted public certainly except “no thanks” when they offer to help whereas most Europeans insist on helping. It can come down to a mild confrontation between who insists more, the blind person wanting to do it himself or the sighted person misguidedly wanting to be helpful.

Our small group was comprised of 3 blind Italians from Milan, Marco, Luiegi, and Mauro, their sighted guides, several other sighted folks including my wife Jennifer and Cristina, a low vision woman from Florida, Sila, plus a very colorful park ranger, Jordano. He was quite the Italian mountain man dressed in camouflage and sporting a 2 meter walking stick. Jordano knew every nook and cranny of the area, every plant and animal. The next couple hours together would prove to be a question of who learned more, the blind folks or the sighted ones.

I gave a pep talk explaining how I would use my BrailleNote GPS to guide the way, Jordano would tell us about the forest and the sighted folks would let the blind people navigate on their own. Given the great trepidation ahead of time, I knew this might be the most difficult challenge of the relatively easy hike to the water falls.

In addition to the GPS, we had a few other tools for navigating. I brought an FM communication system, whereby Cristina had a microphone that transmitted her translation from Jordano’s Italian into English for those of us wearing the receivers. We could get 100 feet or more away from her. Marco had a pair of walkie talkies and he gave one to Cristina. The cane techniques being used were rather unorthodox but then again, this whole multi lingual, multi cultural adventure was unorthodox. Just picture the traditional sighted Italian mountain man and blind American with GPS and speech synthesizer walking side by side.

Mike feeling the tree with holes from the Woodpecker
Jordano and I took turns speaking, he with details about the forest, the Black Wood Pecker who drilled fist sized holes in the trees, pointing out the trenches dug by the Italian soldiers, and me, announcing a turn to the left across a bridge over the River Boite and the distance to the water falls, me in my calm way and Jordano in his animated Italian gesturing way, both of us passionate about our subjects.

Jordano and some of the Italian guides began expressing concern as our group spread out along the trail and at one point; a group broke off to take a separate path closer to the river. One woman got very annoyed with Cristina, admonishing her, that we needed to stay together so we didn’t get run over by the many mountain bikes. Cristina explained that the blind people would be fine avoiding the cyclists. Jordano would get very worked up when one of us would stand too close to a ledge. Little did he know that Cristina had a climbing harness in her backpack in case we wanted to hike under the water falls.
Cristina said, “Mike, your advice to the blind people to explore on their own is working too well. I can’t even see Marco and Luiegi.” I lengthened my stride and caught up with them, far ahead of the group, huffing and puffing but not slowing a bit. We walked together in companionable silence, the language barrier occasionally broken by a mutual appreciation of the beautiful surroundings. At one point, Marco said, “Michael”, and when he caught up to me, he put my hand on his very ample stomach, communicating that we needed to slow down just a bit. I could occasionally hear comments from Cristina through my receiver, everyone had settled into their conversations and common pace partners, and was a bit less worried about navigating and more interested in getting to know each other and sharing the experience in this beautiful forest.

I marked the key intersections and vistas in my BrailleNote PK for future reference. I definitely planned to come back to this place, maybe with some Sendero Way Fun adventurers in 2006. FYI, the Italian word for path is Sentiero as opposed to Sendero in Spanish.

Christina scouting the waterfalls
After 2.5 kilometers, we reached the water falls where 4 paths converged along with many hikers and bikers. Everyone stopped to look over the railing at the thundering falls. Some brave souls traversed the narrow ledge that passed under the falls to the other side of the river. One of our sighted companions, Tony, agreed that he would give it a try and Cristina helped him put a harness on. He didn’t let on that he was a world class climber, maybe so a cute Italian woman could help dress him. A cable was anchored to the rocks for the harness to clip into in case one slipped on the wet rocks under the falls.

I wasn’t planning to leave the group to cross the falls but I decided to walk along the cable a ways to see what it was like. Ranger Jordano was more than a little hesitant about this. When I ignored his obvious Italian words to stop, he implored Cristina to stop me. Jennifer reassured me that it was a safe ledge and I worked my way passed a few people coming from the other side. I was mostly worried about getting my BrailleNote wet. Some of the Italian tourists nearby got into the act saying, “A blind person shouldn’t do this. It isn’t safe. What would he get out of it anyway?” Cristina shut them up by saying, “I’ll have you know that one of the blind people from this group has climbed Everest”, referring to Eric Weihenmayer who was at another location in Cortina giving blind people a rock climbing clinic.

I decided to turn back after 50 feet or so rather than creating an international incident and possibly giving Ranger Jordano a heart attack. Had there not been so many members of the public getting involved, and just a few of us, I might have pressed on. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day and educating Jordano and others would have to proceed in small steps. There was more gained by turning back after a glimpse of what was possible than if I had continued in blatant disregard for the group. As it turned out, this water falls incident was told and retold over the next couple days and I didn’t even have to get wet. The falls are marked in the GPS for future reference for a more private adventure.

No sooner had Jordano nearly kissed me for coming back to safe ground than he saw Marco clambering up a steep side path, nearly coming unglued all over again. Tony told me later that the smile of accomplishment on Marco’s face was priceless. Big stomach and all, Marco was the first person back to our finishing point. As we would learn the next day, we had created a monster.

The Italians went back to town for a big meal and some of us walked a short distance to the Capo Verde bar and restaurant, right there on the river for a beer, sandwich and debriefing about the Saturday hike to the falls.

Friday, July 15, 2005


The blind with GPS leading the blind without

We decided to add a little altitude to our hiking on Friday. Cristina drove us up a skinny, windy gravel road to a ski hut and chairlift called, Col To-do. We parked there at 1450 meters and began hiking straight up the ski slope. The views became more and more stunning as we climbed a good reason to stop and catch our breath from time to time. At 1700 meters, we reached another ski hut and the base of the higher chairlift.

It was easier to talk on the way down and we learned a lot about the local culture from Cristina. This part of Italy used to be Austria. At least half of the 4000 residence of Cortina speaks a dialect called Ladin, quite different from Italian. A community based organization owns much of the lands and properties of the area and is responsible for maintaining them. The mountain goat formerly common in this area got a bad eye disease, which has killed most of them off.

Mike driving the Otto Bock, huge smile on his face with his cane sticking out the front

Back at the conference center, I encountered a very cool all terrain vehicle called the Otto Bock. I asked if I could feel it and next thing I knew, I was driving it around the parking lot to the great horror of the developers. I found myself wanting a 3 meter cane or obstacle detection technology in order to take it out on the trails.

I gave my talk and then met the blind Italians from Milan who I was slated to introduce to the GPS and the somewhat foreign concept of independent travel. I learned quickly that it was their sighted guides I would have to educate the most.

I led the ten of them into the center of Cortina, explaining through Cristina how the technology worked and how I was finding my way. One of the guides was very nervous when I was walking backwards. I explained to her that my backwards cane technique is pretty good and it is very practical when guiding a group to walk backwards so they can hear what you are saying.

Mike leading the group from the conference

Like all good adventures, we ended up at a bar where we could become better acquainted. The blind people were hungry for information about how I navigated and about all the technologies I knew about from talking microwaves to talking cell phones. We worked our way around the language barrier, finding common ground in many of the challenges we all faced.

We made our plans for hiking together the next day and said ariva derche. I set the Cooperativa Department store on my GPS as the next destination to find some gifts. A mere 7 kilometers or so since we set out in the morning, we concluded an incredible day with a nice meal with my friend Sile from Ireland at La Tavernetta, with another comfort meal of Casunziei and red wine. My favorite way to experience a new place, walking, eating, walking, drinking and eating some more.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


Checking out hiking possibilities and marking GPS points on trails

We walked over 15 kilometers, 10 miles, on two separate routes Thursday. The first was right out the back of our hotel, the Trieste. After a couple miles, the pavement and benches gave way to gravel, all very well maintained. If walking or biking wasn’t enough exercise, there was a par course too. Apparently, this trail was formerly a railway bed and it goes all the way to Austria. I could really picture cross country skiing on it some winter.

We are told mountain storms can appear out of nowhere but so far, shorts have been in order. It was stunning in the morning to be walking up this trail with the sun reflecting off the spiky crags all around us. I am told they look like teeth. Other times, we were in a tunnel of trees and it felt a little chilly.
Later in the morning, we hooked up with a Cortina local, Cristina Oberhammer, who would show us some other trails and be our translator when we lead the blind Italians on some hikes. She took us to an area called Fiames where the National Park began. We walked along the Boite River. I was amazed how few people were around given the nice weather and summer holidays. Once we crossed the River for the return part of the loop, we didn’t see anyone other than a few bathers on the other side.

Mike standing on a bridge

We had a bit of a quandary when the bridge where we were supposed to cross back over the river was washed out. Cristina got on her mobile phone and the director of the park told us of another bridge further down river.

Over the course of our 2 plus hour walk, Cristina told us all about the mountain climbing traditions of the area. Even her 65 year-old father walks 25 kilometers 5 days a week. She pointed out the one peak where overly ambitious climbers often had to be rescued by the crack helicopter team.
I now have the path intersections and bridges marked with GPS points. Cristina told me that the alpine guides actually have accurate GPS maps of the entire area.

After more wandering around town we concluded the day with a wonderful local meal at Hospitali, next to the oldest church in the region from 1200 and something. I tried a local ravioli called Casunziei with a beet rout and poppy seed filling. The dessert was equally unique and tasty. Hospitali even had an Italian home brew of my favorite liqueur from the Alps, Genepi. This one was called Genepero. I definitely have this point marked in my database for future reference.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


No Barriers, Dolomiti, Exploring the Northeastern hills of Italy

The No Barriers event features world class mountain climbers who happen to be blind and disabled sharing their skills and attitudes with others. I was invited to show how GPS navigation takes away some navigation barriers, helping blind people to hike and explore the Italian Dolomites.

Flying with a GPS unit running gives one almost as much contact with the ground as one gets when driving. Out of San Francisco, we headed for Frankfort Germany via Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Canada, Greenland and more, with a heading of 33 to 40 degrees North. When you hear names like Joe's Towing in Garden Valley, Idaho, or the LDS Church. One gets a sense of the real people you are flying over. They are not so anonymous. I wonder what the farmer in his field thinks as a jet passes far above him. Does he know I am wondering about him too?

We flew 25 miles away from Cascade Idaho where I did a presentation last year and coincidentally, over Cascade Montana as well. Macintosh Insurance in Boise gave way to places in Montana like Goat Creek, Deer Creek. Lots of mines and wells out there too.

The first leg of the trip from SF to Frankfort took 10 hours although once in the Frankfort airport the next day, it seemed like it happened only in the blink of an eye.

On the next leg from Frankfort to Venice, the city names and places below us became unrecognizable let alone pronounceable, first in Germany and then into Italy. I have never used the GPS in Italy before so I was pleased to find an address match for our hotel in Venice as well as in Cortina, 79 miles Northeast and much higher in altitude.

The drive from Venice to Cortina took a couple hours, very windy roads with stunning valley and mountain peak views on the second half of the journey. We passed through several small villages before we reached Cortina D’Apezzo at 1300 metres.

Mike exploring around, stopping long enough to pose for a picture in front of a mountain range in Cortina

We took no time to succumb to jet lag, taking a shower and hitting the streets right away. This quaint town is full of bike paths, pedestrian streets and many shops and restaurants. There is lots of history of course with Italian and Austrian influences. At any point, we could stop and look up to see one of dozens of mountain peaks surrounding Cortina.

We hooked up with some of the other No Barriers participants for dinner, a high school student from Greenwich CT, Andrew Johnson and his uncle. That is always the best part of an adventure like this. The people make the places!


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