I stood there, facing the tree, and thought about the best way to navigate my way around it. I reached a decision, based mostly on chance, extended my white cane and tentatively took my first step…
And walked straight into a tree branch.
When I first lost my sight I was taught how to navigate using a white cane. But somehow I never developed the skill. For the past 26 years my guide dogs have been there to assist me when I needed help.
Then Fiji passed away in October this year. Facing the option of once again only going out when family or friends were able to help me wasn’t palatable. Neither did I wish to stop being as active as I had become. Which meant I would seriously need to work on my white cane skills.
Last weekend I decided it was time to start pushing my boundaries. I picked up my white cane and started navigating my way through a route Fiji and I travelled often, from my home to the station in Zandvlei.
The first stage of that walk involved travelling up the road, past an overhanging tree, and then stepping onto the pavement when I reached the intersection. I managed that okay, although I admit I spent quite some time tangled in the low-hanging branches of that overhanging tree.
The next stretch was a little more challenging. First, because I was on thick grass. And because I would have to find several obstacles like drainage troughs and driveways. At least I knew they were there. But you can imagine my shock to discover a huge tree I had never encountered before. That was the tree around which I had to navigate.
I’d also never known about the small boulders that one homeowner had placed on the grass to stop people parking on his pavement. Somehow Fiji and I must have navigated our way round those as a matter of course. Likewise with the face-height electric cable that I bumped into when I stepped back onto the pavement. I mean, presumably they had always been there but Fiji simply avoided them.
Walking the first part of that route taught me a few things. It taught me how much of my dog’s work I had taken for granted. I had always seen that route as being straight-forward, when in fact I was simply unaware of what was around me. It made me appreciate my guide dog even more.
It reinforced one of the main differences between using a guide dog and a white cane. A guide dog is trained to safely avoid obstacles to the best of their ability, where a cane is most effective when you use it to locate the obstacles before you reach them. I had known that, but somehow it became more real to me on that walk.
Finally, it forced me to confront the truth that my cane skills are worse than even I had realized, and that it was going to take a significant amount of practise before I would be able to confidently navigate the world independently using a cane. Which I admit was something of a rude awakening for me.
Ultimately, I know I will need to repeat that walk in the near future, slowly extending it until I can travel all the way to the station and back. I’m sure I will learn new things on each stretch of the journey, and hopefully my skills will slowly start to improve.
So, want to join me on one of my exploratory walks?