I always thought losing my sight would be one of life’s most cruel punishments. To wake up in darkness, to be a stranger to Earth’s beauty, to forever miss the smiles on your mother/child/friend/lover’s face. Without my glasses, life is a blur, and sometimes I fear the totality of permanent blindness.

A few years ago, I met Sue on a desert backpacking trip I led for women with visual impairments. I remember her tiny frame exiting the van while she clutched her white cane with one hand. She was self-conscious of her new braces as a woman of 54, but nonetheless smiled as I greeted her and introduced myself as her guide. When we arrived to camp, she gently grasped my elbow as I familiarized her with the space: the bathroom, the kitchen and her tent. I tried my best to describe the vast desert valleys and green brush that surrounded us. I helped her set up her tent, pack her backpack and organize her food for our weeklong adventure. I figured the days ahead would be filled with endless talking, countless descriptions of the landscape and meticulous directions on our daily hikes.  I was prepared for a hoarse voice and tired mind.

She was a runner who had won multiple races; she told stories about professional runners who wanted to guide her in races. She was an athlete. She craved adventure. Her degenerative eye disease left her with little to no sight by the time she was in her mid-twenties. Because of this, she was experienced in navigating the rocky terrain and uneven trails we hiked. She walked faster than I could guide, she listened to my footsteps, and tapped rocks with her pole and used intuition and feeling to make her way through the backcountry.

Her excitement and curiosity never waned. She explored the waterfalls by jumping in head first, learned about the desert wildflowers by feeling them between her fingertips, and she grew familiar with the sandstone cliffs through our descriptions of the dark red stone against the bright blue skies.

We both laughed when I told her that her sunscreen wasn’t quite rubbed in, and somehow each morning her food bag would go missing. She loved morning yoga, coffee and chocolate.

After five days of backpacking in the Colorado desert with her, I realized being blind wasn’t one of life’s worst punishments. It was challenging, yes. But our final debrief of the trip made me realize we both would take away the same experience from our five days in the Colorado desert. The warm sun on our pale winter skin, gushing waterfalls in the seemingly dry desert, the endless laughter and camaraderie of five women, and sharing of life stories and dreams of new adventures. I admired her tenacity to face a life most of us fear.

Since meeting Sue, I touch the wildflowers a little more often, I pause and describe the skyline and paint a picture with words, and I walk a little slower realizing there is more than one way to “see” this world.

Stephanie Maltarih lives in Gunnison, Colorado, and often finds herself in the wild. She has worked in the Outdoor Recreation field for nearly a decade leading teenagers, young adults, youth and individuals with disabilities on adventures in the U.S. and abroad. She’s written for  Crested Butte Magazine and is starting a masters program this fall in Environmental Studies with a focus on Environmental Writing.