By Alyson Ward
Michael McCulloch has always been an adventurer. As a boy, he rode his bike fast and flew off steep ramps; he jumped off the roof using a sheet as a parachute. But he most liked to climb to the top of a cottonwood tree his dad had planted in the yard.
When a thunderstorm rolled through, he’d clamber into its uppermost branches and close his eyes, pretending he was at sea, the wind splashing water against his face. “After a little while I would hear my mom calling, ‘Michael, get yourself in the house before lightning strikes you!’” he recalls.
McCulloch is now 64. He has lost his vision, injured his knee and retired from an aerospace engineering career. But he still loves a good adventure, and so far nothing – not blindness, not his ensuing depression, not a torn meniscus – has curtailed his daredevil exploits.
McCulloch still kayaks, jogs, hikes, cycles and skydives. Last summer, he hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, traversing the 14,000-foot mountain passes with the help of guides. Next, he’s planned a hike through the Grand Canyon that includes a seven-day rafting trip down the Colorado River. He tracks his adventures on his blog, SeeNoBarriers.org, and one day hopes to produce a documentary film.
“I really love being up in the mountains – just the sense of it,” he says. “When I’m hiking, I can hear nature itself – of course, birds and other animals, but there are times when there’s just wind blowing through the mountains. When I feel that – the wind rushing on my face – or when I hear the sounds of rustling grasses, those senses kick in and allow me to enjoy the things I used to be able to see.”
To McCulloch, it’s important that other people with vision impairments know that they, too, can have adventures. They can hike and ride horses, kayak and skydive – it just takes some assistance and determination.
McCulloch started losing his vision in his late 20s due to glaucoma.
“My mother went blind in my teenage years, and her mother, my grandmother, also lost her vision due to glaucoma,” he says. “I kind of knew it was in my genes.”
“It was a real slow progression, losing my sight,” McCulloch recalls. Until about 2006, he still had one good eye and could drive, work and read. But since then, he’s been legally blind with light perception, able to see only some shadows.
“At that point, I got really depressed, thinking my life was over. I wasn’t going to be able to do anything anymore,” McCulloch says. “Some days, I’d just sit at home in the dark all day long.”
But after several months, he decided he needed to figure out a different way to live.
“I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing,” he says. “I wanted to figure out alternative ways to do the things I loved.”
McCulloch got active with local disability support groups; he even founded iBUG Today, a group for blind smartphone users to help them make the most of the adaptive features on their devices.
But life really changed when he got involved with Achilles International Houston, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with disabilities stay active and get involved in mainstream sports. Achilles pairs people with able-bodied athletes to work out weekly. Many of them prepare for local races; others try swimming, axe-throwing, kayaking or Crossfit.
McCulloch enjoys running 5K and 10K races. “They’ll pair me up with a sighted guide, and we’ll use a leash and run side by side,” he says.
In April 2018, McCulloch started training for a trip to Peru to hike Machu Picchu. On training trips to Colorado with friends, he practiced hiking long distances, uphill and over rough terrain at high altitudes.
“I’d been having some knee pain,” McCulloch says, which he had managed with occasional steroid shots. But about a month before his trip to Peru, he got bad news: He’d torn his meniscus and had virtually no cartilage beneath his right kneecap.
McCulloch consulted with a couple of doctors, then decided he wouldn’t cancel his trip. He’d hike Machu Picchu with a torn meniscus, wearing a brace and taking some pain medication to minimize his misery.
“I chose to do that,” McCulloch says – and he’s not sorry.
“I waited until like two days before the trip” before he told his guides, McCulloch says. “They were worried that we weren’t going to be able to go at all, but I assured them I’d gotten several doctors’ opinions that everything was going to be OK.”
In June, McCulloch traveled to Peru with his guides and spent several days hiking the Classic Inca Trail, the most famous (and most crowded) trail at Machu Picchu.
The trek was a challenge for McCulloch and for his guides.
“Sighted people often think if they take a wrong step on the trail, they’re certain to fall to their death,” he says – and he hiked it using just his trekking poles and verbal directions from his guides.
As soon as he returned to the U.S., McCulloch scheduled knee surgery with Dr. Evan Meeks, an affiliated orthopedic surgeon with UT Physicians who operates at Memorial Hermann hospitals.
“We got him cleaned up and repaired,” Dr. Meeks says.
McCulloch, who’s now doing physical therapy at the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute, needs to build back some strength after surgery, but Dr. Meeks sees no reason he won’t be able to hike the Grand Canyon or go cross-country skiing in 2020.
McCulloch has known blind friends who died too young because of inactivity and poor diets. He wants to inspire other people with disabilities to go out and get healthy and experience new things, even if they need some assistance. He believes that “anything is possible, one step at a time.”
“He’s a huge inspiration for me – and I hope for other people – to not let things hold you back,” Dr. Meeks says. “Find a way around it. Adapt and just go for it.”