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Spring 2006 Table of Contents
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The Dillon Chronicles: Reflections on Our Morning Walk

by: Dr. John M. Slatin, Director of Accessibility Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, Texas with contributions from Dillon

Abstract: An adult who is blind describes in rich detail the route he and his dog guide take on a morning walk.

Key Word: family, blind, visually impaired, Orientation and Mobility, dog guide, personal experience

It's a beautiful morning. It was in the mid-50s when we woke up, and by now it's in the low- or mid-70s. Sun's out, and it's very bright; there's a light breeze, and the air smells good. Dillon and I just got back from a short walk. This is the third morning in a row we've done this: yesterday and Thursday we went around the block, first walking east to Duval, then turning south for a block, then west onto E. 34th, north onto Tom Green, and east again onto E. 35th Street, and up to the house in the middle of the block. Takes nine or ten minutes. It was so gorgeous out this morning that I wanted to do something a little different, extend the walk a little. So instead of turning onto E. 34th St. I told Dillon to keep going; we crossed 34th and went down to 32nd.

Each block is so different. From 34th to 33rd is a long block. At the southwest corner of 34th and Duval there are hedges growing out over the edge of the sidewalk just as you come up to the top of the curb cut, where the nubbly part of the wheelchair ramp begins; Dillon stops and waits for me to find the branches with my outer arm, then moves forward. In a minute he stops again to let me find the raised part of the sidewalk with my foot, and does so again a few steps further on. A few yards later we have to stop for an overhead branch hanging directly in my path; there are others just to the east of that one, so Dillon waits for me to tell him what to do. I duck low and tell him to go forward, and we continue on to the end of the block. It smells like fall. We pause at the corner of 33rd so I can listen for traffic; there isn't any, so we cross.

This next block has a completely different climate. There are plantings on either side of the sidewalk—trees and bushes and ferns, some at knee- or thigh-level, others at eye-level, each a decision point for Dillon and for me. He sort of goes on tiptoe through this part. We haven't walked this way for a long time, and he isn't sure I'll remember, so he takes it slowly, not quite trusting me to dance with him as easily as I used to. We come out the other side, and in a few steps we're at the downcurb into the alley that bisects the block running east and west. Unlike the alley that runs along the east side of our house, this one is well paved, with real curbs on either side (so much for people in wheelchairs), but it's still an alley as far as I know. It's not as interesting on the other side—just a straight shot to the corner past ordinary lawns. There's one small patch of sidewalk where someone has put in a flagstone walkway; it's slightly uneven, so Dillon stops to remind me.

The next block isn't just a different climate again; it's a different world. The entire block from 33rd down to 32nd is occupied by one huge house on a huge lot, with a brick-and-ironwork wall/fence abutting the sidewalk. And it's on a small hill. There's no curb cut (again) on the southwest corner, and there are two more steps going up to the sidewalk after you step up on the curb; the first one's at a slightly awkward distance from the corner, about a step and a half; even knowing it's there, and even with Dillon leading the way, it's awkward. The other side of the street is even worse—it's a good deal hillier, and there's no sidewalk at all. Behind the big fence are two dogs that set up a frenzied barking as Dillon comes up the stairs and we stop for him to let me feel the branches coming out over the sidewalk. One of the dogs sounds pretty big and has a big bark and a low growl; the other one sounds smaller, with a higher-pitched bark and more frantic running back and forth. Both of them follow us all the way past the house, until they come to the far corner of their yard. I had been expecting them so wasn't as upset or annoyed as I sometimes get when they surprise me on the way to or from campus. But of course Dillon's on alert, trying to keep an eye on them and remember that he's supposed to be guiding me, too. We go past the wheelchair ramp that leads to the bus stop for the #7 southbound, and get to the corner. There's no real street here, though maybe there was once; it's a sort of driveway/parking area. Capital Metro put in a wheelchair ramp here too, a year-and-a-half or two years ago. I check my watch; it's been about 10 minutes since we left the house. Though I'm feeling good, my breath is coming shorter, and I figure this will make a good place to turn around and go home so I don't run out of steam on the way back. So that's what we do.

I love that walk. I've done it hundreds of times in the nearly seven years we've lived in this house. It's my route to and from campus—down Duval to San Jacinto, then down San Jacinto to E. 24th Street, and across to my office in the FAC. It's a terrific walk: every block is different, with different smells, different textures underfoot, different patches of shade and light, different sounds. Some are lined with small private houses (some of which are occupied by students). There's a big apartment complex or two, a pizza joint where students often sit drinking beer on the porch in the late afternoons as I head for home, and there's a Laundromat, a Subway franchise, and a bar/burger joint, the Posse East, that's been there forever (There used to be a Posse West, too, around 24th and Rio Grande, but that's been gone for years). And that's just the stuff north of campus.

Not only is each block different, but each trip is different too. You can't step in the same river twice, as the saying goes, and evidently you can't quite walk on the same sidewalk twice, either. Because Dillon is so beautifully trained to stop, or at least slow down for changes in elevation, overhanging branches, etc.—anything that might trip me up—a shift of just a few inches to right or left of where we walked last time can make a difference in what he encounters_a bit of sidewalk angling up over a tree root, a branch coming down, a gate open in a fence.

It's been a long, long time since we did that walk, or even that part of it. It felt wonderful, like a rediscovery of my neighborhood and a re-expansion of my world. Dillon seemed happy and proud. He loves doing guidework, and I haven't given him nearly enough of it over the past three months, and even before that, because Anna had been dropping me off at the office a lot after we'd gone out for breakfast. So there was a lilt in Dillon's step, too, and a definite wag in the tail when we got back to the house and I told him what a great dog he was.

Writing this, I'm reminded of how liberated and excited I was when I first went out to San Rafael back in 1998 (Tuesday will be the seventh anniversary of the day I left for Guide Dogs, I realize!) to get the dog who turned out to be Dillon. On my first walks with Dillon I was startled to recognize how much I had slowed down in the preceding months and years, as I wrote in the Dillon Chronicles.

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Last Revision: September 1, 2010