Woman wants to see all 59 national parks before going blind

By Erin Negley

For The Associated Press

LANCASTER, Pa. — Laura Griffith hiked the rocky trails along the coast of the Channel Islands. She rode a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, paddled a kayak down the Rio Grande and led a group on horseback in the Northern Cascades. She’s seen the crystal blue waters of Crater Lake and the cactus blooms of Death Valley.

And there’s a lot more sights she wants to take in at the country’s national parks.

“I want to see the parks before I go blind,” Griffith says.

During the past two years, the Manor Township woman and her husband, Gordon, have explored nearly 40 national parks. They have about 20 parks left in their quest to see nature’s majesty from coast to coast.

Laura Griffith has retinitis pigmentosa, a degeneration of the eye’s rods and cones. The genetic disorder causes night blindness, light sensitivity and a shrinking visual field.

Griffith, who grew up in Boston, was diagnosed when she was 18. She first noticed something was off when she’d lose sight of friends entering a dark theater.

In her late 20s, she noticed more pieces of her vision disappearing. First it was her upper vision field that went, and then more around the edges.

Now 64, her remaining vision is foggy, like a faded photograph. Her depth perception is off as well, making uneven terrain a challenge. Colors also are starting to fade, moving her to stop buying navy or off-white clothing.

“I can’t tell them from the black and white,” she says.

Why wait to travel?

Their national parks journey started a few years ago, when Gordon Griffith, now 69, was looking forward to his retirement from Franklin & Marshall College so they could start traveling, he says.

” ‘You’re going to wait and take me to the national parks,’ “ Laura Griffith remembers telling him. ” ‘And what, you’re going to describe them to me?’ “

Instead of waiting for retirement, Gordon Griffith planned a seven-week trip. They started at Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior. They went on to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and then traveled south into Colorado. While there are more than 400 national park sites, including battlefields, historic sites and memorials, the Griffiths stuck with the designated national parks.

They’ve done two more seven-week trips since then, and they have it down to a science. Besides being the driver, Gordon Griffith is the planner, making

reservations and itineraries. That leaves plenty of time for Laura Griffith to tend to her gardens at home.

Their second trip, which happened in the spring, started at Big Bend National Park in Texas and then took them through the Southwest and into Southern California.

Their most recent trip covered the Northwest, with a side trip to Jasper and Banff national parks in Canada, before moving on to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

They arrive at each site with a plan to see the sights, do something active and seek out the water features Laura loves. They like to ask staff and volunteers for pointers.

The Griffiths met with LNP recently at Valley Forge National Historic Park. They came with a plan and stopped at the visitor’s center to ask about accessible trails.

It was a beautiful, crisp and bright fall day. However, that’s not the best weather for Laura because of her light sensitivity. At some parks, she’s learned to wear two pairs of sunglasses.

Through the years, Laura Griffith has gradually made concessions for her eyesight. First, she gave up driving at night. About a decade ago, she stopped driving completely and left her job with Lancaster General Health’s Well Spring humor program.

The couple also decided to move from their home near Marietta to live in a less-isolated area.

Wide range of sight

At Valley Forge, Gordon Griffith describes an earthen fort and the re-created huts, just like the ones soldiers lived in during the Revolutionary War. He’ll point out something and Laura Griffith will focus.

“It’s like trying to spot an eagle with binoculars,” she says. “You look all over until you get it in your little spot of vision.”

Laura Griffith says she wishes people understood the wide range of sight.

“What people don’t understand is there’s blind and there’s sighted and then there’s a huge range in between,” she says. “When you’re vision-impaired, yes, I can still read an iPhone.”

That phone is another tool she uses. The Seeing AI app on her phone reads the text of a sign to her out loud. The app stumbles over a few words, but shares most of the story of the site that’s included on the sign.

‘Something special’

So far, the Griffiths have seen just about every park in the continental United States west of the Mississippi River. Every park has something special.

“I think my favorite visual sight was Crater Lake,” Laura Griffith says. “Which was an immense, spectacular blue lake, big enough even for me to see enough pieces of it to get a vision of this giant lake.”

In the Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the couple took a ferry and hiked along the cliffs, where they could look down at the birds.

They stayed overnight on the bottom of the Grand Canyon, smelled the mud pots at Lassen Volcanic National Park and spotted wildlife along the way, including bison and prairie dogs.

There’s so much to see.

“Every park we visited. I would turn to Laura,” Gordon Griffith says. “I don’t know if we’re easily impressed. I don’t know what it is, but, man, that was really great.”

Exploring with all senses

Laura Griffith has been disappointed by how few vision-impaired travelers she spots on their travels.

“Even if you can’t see, you can hear the mud pots and smell the sulfur and hear the water as you ride down the Grand Canyon,” she says. “There’s so much you can do. And if you have any vision at all, you can see those sweeping views. Or you can see small spots.”

More often than not at parks, accessibility means only wheelchair accessibility.

“There’s now a technology called audio description, where someone narrates what’s on (a movie) screen between the dialogue,” Laura says. “I get to hear the whole story of what’s on the screen. Unfortunately, of the 35 parks we’ve visited, only about three of them had audio description.”

So, she’ll leave a note at each park asking for that technology to be installed.

The best vision

Next up for the Griffiths are the parks east of the Mississippi.

Since the last trip, Laura Griffith’s right eye is faltering faster than the left.

“That is, if they don’t cure it,” she says. There is ongoing research and talk about the Federal Drug Administration giving preliminary approval for a treatment for a related retinal disease. She’s waiting for more research on retinitis pigmentosa. It’s frustrating to wait for the research, but it’s heartbreaking for her to see the disease progress in one of her sons. The disease advances quicker in men. Laura’s vision has stayed stronger than men afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa. She thinks about this during her trips with Gordon. “Part of me says, ‘If I came here 10 years ago, I could have seen so much more.’ But then I slap myself and say, ‘But thank goodness I’m here now to see it,’ “ she says.

“In a few years I might not see any of it. I have to remind myself all the time, this is the best vision I will have for the rest of my life, so I had better appreciate it and use it.”

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Online:

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Information from: LNP, http://lancasteronline.com