By Xochiti Pena, The Desert Sun

It was a bumpy ride for about 20 blind or visually impaired Braille Institute students as they sat in a wagon being pulled by a jeep as it made its way through the rugged labyrinth of a desert directly above the San Andreas Fault.

With their other four senses heightened, they got to touch, taste, hear and smell the desert around them and learn all about the natural wonder in their backyard.

The Monday tour, given by Phil La Greca with Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours, is one of several type of events the institute provides for its students to encourage independence.

“It provides an out of the ordinary activity and helps with their mobility as well,” said Felice Chiapperini, the educational programs manager with the center who joined the students on the San Andreas Fault tour.

“One of the most important skills we teach is mobility. We have an Orientation and Mobile Specialist on staff who works with students to help them regain their confidence in getting around on their own. Our mission is to empower the visually impaired to lead independent and fulfilling lives,” he said. 

For Tony Delgado, 55, an avid hiker in his youth who lost his peripheral vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, the outing was spiritual freedom. He cherished being one with nature again.

“I got off (the wagon) and I saw, even though I’m visually impaired,” he said.

The Braille Institute has six locations across Southern California. The center in Rancho Mirage opened in 1973 and moved into its current building on Ramon Road in 1990. The facility serves people 18 and older with all levels of sight loss – from totally blind to “low vision,” which means corrective lenses no longer work.

The center also trains in the proper use of the white cane, and shows the family of visually impaired persons the correct way to guide them through doorways and up stairs.

“On the tour … even those who are totally blind were able to navigate in difficult and unfamiliar terrain will little or no assistance,” said Chiapperini.

The students sat in the back of a wagon with movie theater-style seats. An open air Jeep pulled the wagon through the twisty and tough terrain, and in between the steep walls of deep canyons right above the earthquake fault system.

La Greca regaled the students with the history of the Metate Ranch property, just north of Indio where the tours take place, the shifting force of the underground plate techtonics which created the fault line, and the fascinating flora and fauna that call the desert their home.

Nidya Rojas, 34, who was born blind and has been attending the Braille Institute for almost 11 years now as a student and volunteer, said she enjoyed the bumpy outing and learning about all the mini earthquakes that occur unbeknownst to anyone.

“I’ve never ridden on a wagon pulled by a jeep. The first time I’ve ever gotten to ride in one of those. It was bumpy. I felt a lot of bouncing around. I could smell the horses and other plants along the way,” she said.

The tour stopped alongside a steep canyon wall so the students could feel the tall rock and explore.

“If you touch it, all the dust falls off. Do you feel it?” La Greca asked as students caressed the side of the canyon.

The students took a break underneath a patch of date and tamarisk trees, also called salt cedar trees, and were handed tree needles to taste.

“Salty!” some exclaimed.

“My favorite part was really listening to our…. guide telling us all the different things about the plants and mountains and the formations,” said Braille center student Cheryl Tice.

In the past, the center has organized trips to the mall, the local parks, and the Marilyn Monroe statue in Palm Springs.

Until this year, Braille Institute volunteers had organized a golf day for students at a local nine hole county club. The event was canceled this year due to the declining health of the organizer, so Chiapperini was grateful when the Red Jeep folks stepped up.

“We are a non-profit at Braille Institute so we depend on the generosity of our donors and also the businesses in the community to help bring these type of experiences for our students,” said Chiapperini.

To see more photos and video of the experience on Desert Sun’s website, click here.