Ranger Kathryn's Arches

May 8, 2012

A different way to see a park

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:17 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

He walked into the visitor center with a long white cane and his son at his side, heading for the 4′-by-8′ relief map of Canyonlands National Park. I ambled over to welcome them.

For the next ten minutes I had the privilege of seeing my park as a blind man does, and helping him see it as I do. We both came away richer.

Nerve endings in fingertips number 2500 per square centimeter, the most dense concentration in our body. Here: Green River, Hardscrabble Hill, White Rim Road all stand out on our exquisite relief map.

To answer his question “What’s the terrain like?” I guided his hand to the 43-square-mile mesa top that projects above all the surrounding canyons and had him feel its island-like quality. We spoke of pinyon-juniper pygmy forest, grassland, and gently undulating landscape laid down as ancient sand dunes. His fingertips explored the sheer cliffs that drop a thousand feet to the middle level of this district, where old uranium mining roads lure mountain-bikers and 4WD enthusiasts. I wondered what pictures were forming in his mind.

To his inquiry “Where does all the water go?” I asked him to feel for the lowest part of the map. He traced the Colorado River and Green River with his finger as they meandered lazily through thousands of millennia of sandstone deposits; I described where they meet in the center of Canyonlands for the rush to the Grand Canyon. My own hand passed along the waterways in wonderment.

Moving to another side of the table, the sensitive nerve endings in his fingertips discovered the incised canyons and rock spires of the Needles District as we talked about the people who inhabited that area eight centuries ago. Tales of Butch Cassidy and his outlaw gang hiding out from the law in the Maze District accompanied his exploring the labyrinthine canyons to the west.

On a nearby table, the ridged keratin spiraling away from the top of the bighorn sheep skull disclosed Canyonlands’ ecology. While he will not see this majestic mammal, he knows it’s here and might pick up hoof-fall on the talus slopes below our overlooks. Likewise, his cheeks will discern the tiny breezes that I ignore, sight being the sense that dominates. He’ll hear the vast miles of openness; he’ll know south by a sun-warmed face.

Satisfied with their orientation, son and father went forth to explore. I watched them go, deeply warmed by this duo’s anticipation of adventure and discovery in wild places, and by their refusal to let an impairment be an obstacle.


[N.B.: The thousands of images that came up when I googled “white cane,” or “white cane + wilderness,” were entirely urban. Leave a comment about pushing your own limits and what came of it.] 


  1. I’ve recently begun experimenting with night landscape photography, using only the ambient light from the moon and/or the stars. I ran across an eBook online entitled Seeing the Unseen by Alister Benn. It’s a terrific title, because you really do see things (in the photographs) that you can’t otherwise see. And, of course, that set my mind to thinking about what other things are around me that I may be missing with my limited senses.

    Comment by Ron Carroll — May 8, 2012 @ 8:09 am | Reply

  2. Well, at least he has his son as an “interpreter”. If the son can translate what he “sees” effectively, then the father might get a sense of the beauty that surrounds him. Vision is, of course, its own language – that’s why we make photographs. If those images are any good, we can sometimes share the wonder of these places with those who have never actually been there. This man, as you say, will at the very least feel the openness of Canyonlands and, if he’s lucky, he will probably be able to smell it as well. If the son is a good “translator”, he will also “see it” in his mind’s eye.

    Still, it’s some of the nuances that he’ll miss. The sun playing on Mesa Arch at dawn. Or the incredible beauty of Delicate Arch near sunset in Arches. Or peering down into Canyonlands from Dead Horse Point SP as the sun comes up. Iconic images, to be sure, but jaw dropping.

    Actually, I can’t recall having ever seen a blind person in a national park. I’ve noticed many in wheelchairs, but I don’t remember ever seeing anyone who was obviously blind. But maybe that’s because it was something that I didn’t expect to see. In any case, I’m very impressed by this individual. What a unique experience.

    Comment by Paul Maxim — May 9, 2012 @ 6:56 am | Reply

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