Saved by a Nose
by Mimi Winer
Wayland, Massachusetts

When I could see, I relied on my eyes to guide me. Even after my sight marched itself down the path of low vision to legal blindness and beyond, as long as I had a glimmer of light to steer by, I considered myself a navigational expert. I did, that is, until my sight reached the end of the path and I encountered total blindness. My little "glimmer" vanished, to be replaced by flashing strobes, lightening streaks and rainbow concoctions. Besides making it impossible to know whether the light I saw was in my eyes, or from the real world, these dazzling displays streaming across my scrambled retinas, turned this "always prepared" Girl Scout into a miserable wimp.

During the years before I became blind, I loved taking solitary strolls on nearby country lanes. I especially liked it when the neighborhood cleared out for a holiday weekend. An overabundance of cars and people tended to disturb my tranquility. What joy when my fellow travelers were only the birds, the wind, and the natural world surrounding me. Would I dare venture out again with my long white cane as my sole companion?

After a period of brooding, enlightenment arrives. "Aha! It's time to dump those worn-out visually oriented techniques. I have been relying on them for too long."

The blind community gives me suggestions, and I discover others on my own. I think about traffic sounds, sunlight on my face, and the changing terrain beneath my feet. Perhaps I can get around with confidence in the great outdoors after all. With my head held high and my cane in its proper position, I start my walk.

Although I may look competent, I need reassurance. "Mimi," I mutter, "Don't forget the traffic noises from that distant highway. When you round the corner, the sounds are supposed to be behind your back. And if you get lost or disoriented, don't panic. As a former Girl Scout, you know you can use the sun like a compass. Remember, if you are heading north, it will warm your right cheek in the morning and the left in the afternoon."

While I travel along, I think of additional techniques. I notice that my driveway has a distinctive downward pitch, different from my neighbors'. And the various textures under my feet, such as gravel, tar and drain covers, provide information too. If all else fails, I can wait for a passing walker or car and ask for help.

The weeks and months pass, and I gain further confidence. One morning I open my door for my walk. It is unbelievably quiet. The entire town must have cleared out for the long weekend. With only Mother Nature to accompany me, I am certainly about to embark on a solo adventure.

My perfect day almost turns into a disaster. I am so busy swinging my cane, listening to the birds, and immersing myself into the universe, that somehow, I have managed to get turned around, confused, lost, and with no clues to help me. The sun is hiding behind the clouds. The traffic on the highway is nonexistent, and there are no local cars to rescue me. As for those usually helpful walkers, they must have all taken off for Timbuktu.

No clues at all. No familiar terrain. Only bird calls. I walk back and forth--following various shorelines that lead to nowhere. After an hour of wandering aimlessly, I lose all enthusiasm. The incessant chirping of the birds and the rest of that nature stuff are driving me batty. I yearn for a noisy, smelly gas-guzzler to come honking onto the scene to save me.

The birds have disappeared. An eerie silence surrounds me. Then, I hear a sudden rumble of thunder. How am I going to find my way home before the storm breaks?

I sigh and breathe deeply. Instead of a foul-smelling car, I inhale something delicious. My nose twitches expectantly. "Aah." I let out a sigh of relief. I wonder why nobody ever notices the sweet, wafting odor of the ripening Concord grapes, which grow wild around here.

I know exactly where I am. The grapevine is about a mile from my house, a walk which usually takes me 15 minutes. After breathing deeply of that heady perfume once more, I tip my cane in the grapevine's direction, and turn myself around. I arrive at my front door in record time, just as, with a crash of thunder, the downpour begins.

Saved, by a nose!

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