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Opening a wider path to nature. Unusual hiking trail gives a sense of independence to the disabled

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Nine-year-old Ian Gayton, who is legally blind, can tell you what it feels like to pet a salamander (``kind of soft and smooth'') or hear the South Yuba River, which ``sounded like the ocean.'' Ian learned firsthand about the wilderness last summer, as a member of the first overnight camping trip by disabled youngsters on the Independence Trail. For good measure, he also got to hammer some nails, wade in a stream, sniff wild orange blossoms, roast hotdogs, and sing campfire songs in an action-packed expedition.

The hiking trail, located six miles north of Nevada City, attracts some 4,000 visitors a year, including about 200 in wheelchairs. About six-tenths of a mile of the trail's total 2.5 miles is equipped with a ``tapboard,'' which blind hikers can negotiate with canes.

Made by recycling an abandoned ditch which once carried water to gold mining operations, the trail is the brainchild of John Olmsted. A plant ecologist, he got the idea for a wilderness hiking trail for disabled people in 1965, while guiding a woman around San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. ``She asked if there were any trails in the mountains she could go on,'' and Mr.Olmsted described the problems of negotiating a wheelchair through switchbacks that zigzag across steep terrain.

Four years later, when he noticed the gentle grade of the old canal, the idea of using it to create a path for wheelchair hikers ``hit me like a cartoon character when the light bulb lights up over his head,'' Olmsted says.

He and his wife Sally (the two have since separated) founded a nonprofit organization to buy land for the trail, calling their group Sequoya Challenge, after the scholarly Cherokee chief who recorded the language of his tribe. ``He was born lame, so he was a disabled person,'' Olmsted explains.

The first investment in land for the trail was made in 1975, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation became a partner in the project soon after, allowing use of some public funds for land purchase. In addition, Olmsted has successfully rounded up donations of labor and materials from numerous groups, especially the California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs, Telephone Pioneers of Pacific Bell Company, Redwood High School, the California Conservation Corps, and Milhous Boys Ranch.

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