See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 1: The Sounds of Silence


Humans, like bats, can echolocate. Some blind individuals can echolocate well enough to bike ride on mountain trails.

Photo: John Ker

for Hi-Torque Publications

Model: Daniel Kish


        It’s a beautiful afternoon in the hills of Mission Viejo. A light breeze provides relief from the high sun, and cools my already moist face. The sound of birds mixes with the breeze rushing through the oaks. And as the sun warms their needles, the pines give off their familiar scent.

        “Is everyone ready?” Daniel, our guide asks. “Remember to stay behind each other, but not too close.”

        Meagan, who is new at this says, “This is kinda scary. But fun!”

        “Fun until you crash into me!” Brian says. We all laugh.

        As we leave the safety of Brian’s driveway, we enter the street and hear the plastic pull-ties we’ve connected to our bike frames clicking against our tire spokes. The sound is very much like that made by the baseball cards kids fasten to their bike wheels to make a faux-motorcycle sound. But today this clicking sound has a very adult purpose.

        “Now Meagan, follow the clicking of my wheels so you stay on the side of the road” Daniel says.

        We turn a corner and I look up at an imposing, apparently endless upward slope. I think that I wish I were in better shape. I also think that, right now, I am the least fortunate one of our group. I am, after all, the only one who can actually see how much effort we’re about to exert. My companions, Daniel, Brian, and Meagan, are blind.

        I reach the top of the hill first, while Daniel and Bryan stay back to instruct Meagan. As the three of them climb the hill and get closer to me, I start to hear sharp intermittent clicks – different from those of the bike wheels. These sharp clicks are emanating from the mouths of Daniel and Brian, who are using them to hear what I can see. They click with their tongues, about once every two seconds, so that they can hear the sounds reflect back from nearby curbs, shrubs, parked cars, and other obstacles. This method of navigation is known as echolocation, and it enables Daniel and Bryan to lead these mountain bike excursions. They both click using the side of their tongues, as if coaxing a horse to gallop. And they often change the loudness of these clicks depending on their surroundings. Right now, their clicks sound pretty loud, but they blend nicely with the sounds of the clicking tires and squeaking bikes.

        Finally we reach the trail head and begin our official mountain bike ride.

        “Here comes the hard part!” I say to Bryan.

        “Not for me,” Bryan responds. “I prefer riding around rocks, trees, and shrubs rather than the cars, running dogs and kids in the streets. Mountain biking is more relaxing for me.”

        And this seems to be reflected in Brian’s echolocating, which is now more sporadic than when we were riding on the street.

        As we ride, I ask Brian, “So what parts of the trail can you perceive from echolocating?”

        He responds, “I can hear the sides of the trail where the brush meets the dirt. I can also hear if there are any big rocks or trees in or near the path. All the important stuff about the trail – except maybe the horse droppings. I use another sense for that.”