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Vision quest: Blind man sets sights on hiking across the U.S.

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By AJ Vicens

Time was, Mike Shaak's life was pretty unremarkable: work, family, friends and pastimes.

Shaak enjoyed his job as a corn miller, and for fun he liked to drag race. Shaak also took pride in having lived all over the country, from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma to Arkansas. And, his two young daughters were the light of his life.

But suddenly, it all went dark.

Last year, Shaak’s retinas became detached. He had surgery, but it was unsuccessful. At age 37, Shaak was blind.

"I just stayed in my apartment for three months," Shaak said. "I drank coffee and listened to CNN. I didn't know that I had any other life."

Shaak, now 38, has come a long way since those dark days. He heard about the Colorado Center for the Blind, a Littleton-based organization that helps blind people become more independent through training and education. Through that group, he discovered Blind Outdoor Adventures, a Littleton-based nonprofit that helps the blind enjoy outdoor activities safely. So Shaak moved here 18 months ago and started on the path to enjoying life again.

But his journey is far from over.

In early July, Shaak will set out from Bear Creek Lake Park near Morrison on a solo 5,735-mile walk across the country. Shaak's journey will take him to the Pacific Northwest, then to Southern California. From there, he'll walk across the U.S. to South Carolina.

Shaak hopes that by becoming the first blind person to ever hike across the continental U.S., he can show that those without sight are capable of much more than people expect.

"I needed somehow to come to terms with it," Shaak said as he hiked through Red Rocks Park on June 17. He moved along the trails quickly that day, setting a pace that sighted people would find challenging. As he traversed the narrow trails up and down stone stairs and along rock walls, he talked about why he likes to be outside.

"I enjoy the sounds and smells," Shaak said. "I like the sounds of a creek, the sounds of the birds."

He said that when he lost his vision, his other senses didn't become more acute, but they became more apparent. He's more aware of smells and sounds, and notices different things about his environment.

"The things you need to focus on, you take for granted when you're sighted," Shaak said.

Although Shaak is more than capable of getting around on his own, several key pieces of equipment will help him on his long journey. A talking GPS device helps him navigate. Another small GPS device serves as a beacon, and allows certain people to know where Shaak is at all times. If he gets in trouble, he can push a button on the device that will notify his friends.

There will also be a support team based in Littleton to help map Shaak's course and figure out some of the logistics associated with the trip — things like what roads to walk along, where to set up camp and where to get needed supplies.

His friends from Blind Outdoor Adventures will help, along with Ken Parks, a public relations professional who is one of Shaak's friends. The advance team will try to plan Shaak's movements six weeks ahead. If all goes according to plan, the journey should take 18 months, but it could take longer as he meets people along the way.

"Hopefully this will start to change the perception that blind people can't care for themselves," Parks said. Raising awareness about issues in the blind community is also a part of the goal. Parks said that the blind community faces a staggering 80 percent unemployment rate.

"It's not that we're unskilled," Shaak said. "Because we're not."

Shaak wants to meet people along his journey and show them what blind people can do.

"It's about introducing people to a blind person they've never met before," Shaak said. But the trip is also about looking inside himself and fully coming to terms with his new way of living. Trying to go as fast as possible would prevent that.

"Then I would miss the whole beauty of the trip," Shaak said. "If it takes two years, it takes two years. I need to direct my attention inward."

Shaak's inspiration for the trip comes from several places. The idea for his journey is loosely based on "A Walk Across America," a book written by Peter Jenkins in 1979. The book details Jenkins' six-year hike across the U.S. from 1973 to 1979.

Shaak also looks up to Eric Weihenmayer, the only blind person ever to summit Mount Everest.

"If he can do that, what can I accomplish?" Shaak said, noting that his quest will shape the rest of his life. "I want the next half of my life to be different than the first half."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.

To support Mike Shaak on his journey across America, contact Blind Outdoors Adventures at 303-589-2453 or visit www.blindoutdoors.org. Also, stay up to date on Shaak's journey through the Columbine Courier, which will check in on Shaak every few weeks.