It was an ordinary curb in southwest Baltimore, but to Michael Hutchison it felt like a cliff above the unknown. For minutes on end, his white sneakers flirted with the concrete edge as he contemplated the canyon beyond - a torrent of traffic called Patapsco Avenue.
Hutchison was intent on bettering his fears. For the first time, he would try to cross all eight lanes of that canyon, aided by a long white cane, months of training and his teacher, Mario Carranza, trailing behind. Blinded by a stroke four years ago at 38, he badly wanted to win back his freedom.
Cars, buses, motorcycles and tractor trailers zoomed by. Hutchison held his ground on the southwest corner of Patapsco and Washington Boulevard. Now and then he shook his head, unsure of himself.
Most of us cannot fathom stepping into the shoes of someone who, after a lifetime of seeing, must make sense of a world shrouded in darkness. It's a process that Carranza, blind himself, teaches - cane travel training - at the nonprofit Blind Industries and Services of Maryland.
Despite lingering on the corner, Hutchison felt real urgency. The sooner he could make his way anywhere with a cane, the sooner he'd regain mobility - being able to go wherever you want is about as basic as it gets.
Carranza insists that mastering a cane is "not rocket science." You have to "shoreline" - track a wall or boundary - with the cane. You have to discern traffic patterns using sound. You have to tell east from west by feeling the sun on your head (assuming it's shining). You have to align your shoulders to go in a straight line from curb to curb. You may have to ask passers-by for directions on occasion. You definitely have to stay calm and reason your way out of scary jams.
And you have to practice, a lot.
Carranza, 29, prefers the cane to using a guide dog because it is a cognitive tool whereas a dog is a visual aid. Born blind, he goes everywhere with his fiberglass cane. "The biggest obstacle," as he puts it, "is how you let fear control you. You can sit there and say, 'I'm not going to cross the street today because I'm too afraid.' "
Hutchison had admitted feeling anxious. A former chef and welder, he left his wife and seven children behind in Hagerstown to attend this state-subsidized residential program. He'd nearly canceled the day's planned crossing because of a spike in his blood pressure, a concern, given his past strokes. But around 3, he'd set out wearing a pair of black sleep shades to block the faint light perception he retains in one eye.
Now he stood at Patapsco and Washington. Some 20 minutes after arriving, he seemed on the verge.
"I'm ready," he announced.
"You got it," Carranza said.
But he still wasn't ready. Another traffic cycle or two passed.
And then he did go. When his ears told him the light had changed in his favor, he stepped off the cliff and into the canyon. Sweeping his cane back and forth, Hutchison walked at a fast clip. He slanted south, though, because he failed to keep his shoulders aligned.
Seconds later, he reached the concrete median. Success. Four lanes to go. Now he was on an island.
"It's hard to see what's going on," he said.
"Listen to your traffic," Carranza urged him. Easier said than done. Just as hybrid cars are quieter than typical gas-powered cars, big trucks and buses can mask the sounds of car engines, causing a disorienting cacophony.
A dump truck clattered by. Spooked, Hutchison changed his footing, again throwing off his alignment. Only this time when he started to traverse the remaining four lanes, he veered north. His path took him straight toward the cars and trucks heading eastbound on Washington Boulevard.
Carranza sensed danger right away as the cane taps grew fainter. "Stop!" he shouted. "Stop!"
Hutchison halted with only feet to spare. Wth Carranza's help, he reoriented himself and crossed.
"I gotta get it down now, that's all," said the student, seemingly unfazed.
But he had to get back across Patapsco. On his return, he bumped into a van idling in a turn lane. His instructor gently reminded him to detour around its front bumper.
Once again, Hutchison stood on the southwest corner. It had taken him an hour. Clearly he had needed help, but he had crossed.
Hutchison put it simply: "I did it."