Follow My Voice: A Blind Man's Journey on Kayak

A group of strangers, each with their own disability, seeks adventure on an uninhabited Mexican island, and finds a great deal more. 

Follow My Voice: A Blind Man's Journey on Kayak

Photography Matty Neikrug

Three decades ago, shortly after he turned 30, doctors told Rob Glass he had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that causes a breakdown of photoreceptors in the retinas. There is no treatment for the condition, and its severity varies between individuals—it can take years or decades to kick in, and Glass didn’t take the diagnosis too seriously. For a while, the Minnesota native bounced around academia, teaching history before finding work at a branch of the National Archives in San Bruno, California, his dream job, with a focus on U.S. naval history.

Nearly a decade after the diagnosis, Glass noticed his vision weakening. It was a slow but definite decline. Reading became difficult. He ceased driving. Within a few years, he could see only shadows. Single, headstrong and a natural introvert, Glass kept to himself. He refused to carry a cane until he’d suffered several painful collisions. Only his colleagues at the archives, who had found ways to accommodate him, knew the extent of his condition. “In a certain way,” he says now, “I felt embarrassed for going blind.”

In 2014, when a doctor declared Glass legally blind, it almost came as a relief—no longer was he in vision limbo. “Going blind is a lot harder than being blind,” he says. “You’re still trying to do the things you always did the way you always did them.” Glass started meeting three days a week with a vision impairment specialist. He was learning how to live again.

Now, at age 60, Glass is taking the learning process to its extreme, embarking on a seven-day adventure with Environmental Traveling Companions, a San Francisco-based travel outfitter for people with disabilities, and No Barriers, a disabled-empowerment organization out of Colorado. The trip—which involves kayaking, hiking and snorkeling—is based on an arid volcanic island, Espíritu Santo, in the Sea of Cortez, just off the southern end of the Baja Peninsula. The island is home to a variety of small mammals, birds, flowery shrubs and sharp-barbed cactus, but no humans. The surrounding waters contain dolphins, manta rays, tuna and mahi-mahi. Jacques Cousteau once deemed the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, “the world’s aquarium.”

It is here, on a brilliant sunlit morning, that Glass finds himself teetering off the side of an open-hulled Mexican panga boat, looking hesitant and uncomfortable. Lanky and pale, with a salt-and-pepper beard, he dons a snorkel and fins, muttering to himself, “Oh, what the hell am I doing?”

One by one, others around him plop into the sea. They insist that he follow them toward a nearby rocky islet that swarms with sea lions. “C’mon, Rob!” they cry as he wobbles and grips the panga. The water is a calm bright stretch of blue, as is the sky, and though Glass can see none of it, he can easily pinpoint the sea lions who are barking their own kind of encouragement. Marf, marf, marf!

No Barriers was co-founded in 2003 by Mark Wellman, a paraplegic climber; Hugh Herr, a double-amputee climber and visionary prosthetics engineer; and Erik Weihenmayer, a 49-year-old career adventurer and best-selling memoirist who, alongside many other feats, is the only blind person to have summited the highest peak on each continent.

 

Glass after his eight-mile solo kayak.

Though it would discomfort him to hear it, Weihenmayer is an inspiration and hero for countless individuals. Along with bagging the Seven Summits, he has kayaked the full 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, scaled the treacherous 3,000-foot Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan and completed some of the world’s most grueling endurance races. He is tall and muscular, with a handsome face, sharp chin and wise grin. He skis. He mountain bikes. He paraglides. He raises two teenagers. His reputation is one of kindness and authenticity. The only fake thing about him is his eyes, which are prosthetics. When Weihenmayer was four years old, he was diagnosed with juvenile retinoschisis, a rare congenital disease; by the age of 13, he had lost his vision entirely.

The boy rebelled against his blindness, falling, bumping, colliding, never wanting a cane or a dog. Everything changed one summer at a camp for the blind when he scaled his first climbing wall. He was a natural, discerning routes by feel while following a bell worn by a guide above. Climbing became a fixture of his life, and before long, he didn’t need the guide. He continued climbing while attending Boston College and then in Phoenix, Arizona, where he became a fifth-grade teacher and wrestling coach. (He had been a high school star.) In 1995, Weihenmayer and a team summited Alaska’s Denali, the highest peak in North America. It was a “miserable” experience, he says, but he was hooked. Soon came another mountain. Then another and another.

Eight years after that first serious climb, he took on a new challenge, No Barriers, which today staffs around 30. It is widely known for its annual gatherings—this year’s is being held in New York City over two days in October—which tend to be part conference, part festival. But the nonprofit also offers outdoor experiences like this one, often for disabled veterans, which aim to “unleash the potential of the human spirit.”

Joining Glass on our Espíritu Santo trip are several other disabled adventurers: John Greener, a retired school principal and paraplegic; Ivor Horsfall, a blind father of two adults; Josh Hancock, a 34-year-old environmental consultant and paraplegic; Roberta Spieckerman, who has multiple sclerosis and works as a counselor of troubled teens; and Weihenmayer. “I want people to go away from this trip with something in their minds that’s changed a little bit,” he tells me on our first day. “I would consider that a success.”

There is no happier clan than the sea lions of Espíritu Santo. Free of predators and surrounded by prey, they play endlessly, spinning through the sea, tossing starfish around like chew toys. One morning, our group swims to their little isle, which sits off Espíritu’s northern tip, under a large rock arch where the depth drops to 20 or so feet and the walls form a narrow tunnel. There, the sea lions shoot straight for you, torpedo-like, only to dart aside at the last moment, passing with a slight rub of slick fur or a friendly nibble on your flippers.

 

Mar y Aventuras guides Manuel Bojorguez and Angel Leon carry Josh Hancock ashore

Glass finally does take the plunge. A guide leads him as he reaches out with a fist, hoping to make contact with one of the animals. It’s like a slow-motion game of tag. Weihenmayer is also being led and when he hears that Glass has joined in he lets out a “Hell, yeah!” that echoes off the rocks.

Eventually, Glass succeeds, grazing the belly of a bright-eyed pup. Through his snorkel he emits a muffled hurrah, keeping his face underwater, pushing further and further with his fist. And what a joy it is to see: the darting fur, the bubble storm, the outstretched arm—the image of a man who wants more.

“I’m not quite ready to say that going blind is the best thing to ever happen to me,” Glass tells me one morning as we finish our coffee. “But I’m doing things that I didn’t do when I could see.” We’re on Candelero Beach, a spit of white sand that serves as our home base for the trip, our two long rows of orange tents stretching across it. He and the rest of the group are readying for their first big paddle, eight miles south, to observe a colony of frigate birds. Glass is wearing his signature Giants cap, frayed beyond repair, a life jacket, tiny red shorts and his permanent but subtle grin. “This is my adventure cap,” he quips, pointing at his head.

Glass, too, has refused to be beaten by his disability. “Like most people, I went through the bitter and angry stage,” he says. “But I’ve always loved challenges, and I knew that being blind would provide plenty of those. I might as well enjoy it.” In San Francisco, he joined a disabled sailing group. Later, he took a trip with a blind travel agency to Europe, then stayed for three extra weeks, traveling alone through three countries. Horsfall, another blind member of our trip, raises his eyebrows while listening to Glass describe his European odyssey. “Wow! I’d never do that,” he exclaims. Glass smiles broadly at the compliment.

On this journey, however, Glass’ struggles can be obvious. By far the newest person to blindness in the group, as well as the only one to come alone, he often stumbles over things or fails to find some needed tool. Twice he falls backwards in his dining chair. Offers to assist seem to agitate him. He might groan, “Oh, let me do it.” A few miles into the paddle, with the heat and the wind, after many others have turned back, Mark and Diane, two of our group leaders, ask Glass if he wants to stop. “No, I do not!” he bellows. “And don’t ask it like that again—I am not bailing.”

The group, down to six kayaks now, paddles on. The Gulf is like a wide spill of blueberry juice; the red cliffs of Espíritu are big cuts of hard biscuit. Leading the way is Carlos, a guide from Mar y Aventuras, an outfitter in La Paz, the nearest city on the mainland. Close to the front is Hancock, the environmental consultant who is wide-shouldered with a full curly beard and a striking face. Two years earlier, he had lost all feeling below his hips in an ice-climbing fall, and a year after that outfitted a Sprinter van, packed it full and headed west. He traveled for a year, looking for somewhere to settle down but also learning again how to do the things he loved—skiing, mountain biking, surfing. In the kayak, he is strong and competent, calling out directives like, “Aim for that mountain,” and sometimes, “No, the other one.”

Nobody but Carlos is prepared for the frigate birds. Thousands dominate the sky above a wide shallow cove. Soaring high on thermals, they form giant black spirals, flapping hardly at all. Found throughout the tropics, frigates can sustain flight for weeks at a time on wind currents. They cannot swim. They are kleptoparasites, thieving food from other seabirds. Nearing the mangrove shore, where many more are gathered among rancid nests, there is an audible tap-tap from the male birds’ swollen gular pouch, which is candy-red like the legs of the Sally Lightfoot crabs that crowd the mangroves. Someone asks Glass, “Rob, can you hear the frigates?” and he replies, “Oh, yes. They’re quite loud.”

Resting on the sand on the final evening, Weihenmayer, who has mostly hung back during the day’s activities, alludes to Glass’ outburst during the kayaking session. “People with physical disabilities don’t want five people rushing to help them out,” he says. “It makes them uncomfortable.”

What Weihenmayer doesn’t discuss—and doesn’t have to—is the way Glass bounced back from this uncomfortable episode. That afternoon, in what felt like a great triumph, he paddled around the nearby Isla Ballena in a solo kayak. It was no easy feat. Buffeted by wind, waves and current, he had difficulty following the guide ahead of him. But by sunset, he appeared through the chop around the corner of the cove, finally reaching shore as the group cheered him on.

That night, with the group gathered round the dining table, Weihenmayer hands out coins inscribed with the No Barriers logo. Each person is meant to stand and present the coin to another who has inspired them on the trip. “I’d like to give my coin to Rob,” Weihenmayer says.

“Listening to you paddle into our cove today was the highlight of my trip. You made me so proud to be here.”

The group erupts into applause as Glass accepts the little metal coin, bows his head over the table and cries.