When I was a child, I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I grew up in the suburbs of southwestern Washington, surrounded by streetlights and mini-marts. The world of my youth was one where we imagined ourselves in the mountains as we chopped at blackberry bushes with sticks, but were always home by the time the streetlights came on.
I never experienced REAL dark, except on summer visits to my grandparent’s property near Colville. I remember trying to sleep on the couch in the grandparents’ house, at the far end of the house apart from where everyone else was asleep. I laid awake there dreading the dark outside, tormented by the stories I had overheard of UFOs hovering over the property years before.
After high school I became enthralled by the woods and mountains. I went hiking every weekend and explored the Gifford Pinchot National Forest with my friends. When we started doing overnight trips, I found myself staying near the fire as the sun went down, always piling wood on just before bed, the crackling of the fire my only consolation against the unknown dark woods.
I tried not to think about what was lurking in the dark beyond my light.
Last weekend I met friends in Leavenworth and climbed in the iconic Icicle Canyon. We spent the day on rocky crags which lined the canyon walls, then retreated “up valley” to sleep in our trucks. The first night the wind was a constant presence, blending into the sound of whitewater from the creek below.
As I cuddled into my mummy bag, I remembered my first trip to Leavenworth 13 years before. I drove up the canyon amazed at what I had found, the beauty unexpected. I pulled off in a little gravel wide spot along the road and cooked dinner over Icicle Creek, trying to hide from the Chinook Winds.
At one point during the night my husky, Jackson, began to stir in the back of my 4Runner and soon began growling at the rear window. I woke up, searched for my headlamp and with aliens and UFOs on my mind, shone my light up the asphalt. I saw nothing, but Jackson was getting more spooked.
I grabbed my pistol and again pierced the darkness with my light. Out of the small bushes whipping around in the wind, I watched a small bear dash across the road and disappear into the trees. I felt like an idiot. I must have looked like Barney Fife, my pistol shaking in my hand in front of me.
To me, the woods at night no longer belong to two-legged creatures.
I don’t lie awake terrified about aliens anymore. Though I still hang pretty close to the fire after nightfall. Maybe that’s a natural human instinct.
I’ve tried trail running at night. Every little noise seemed amplified by the dark, as if the absence of light left the air empty, allowing noise to travel unimpeded. I tried running with headphones on, focusing on what was in the beam of my headlamp and unable to hear the night noises like pinecones falling, or deer running off. Then I started imagining a cougar chasing me. Every little flash of some weird shaped boulder in the beam of my headlamp seemed malevolent.
My wife, Karen, had an experience last week which is what started me thinking about all this.
After a stress filled day at work last week, she decided to go for a hike on a trail near our house. She hurriedly grabbed her gear out of the house and raced off. She sent me pictures of her enjoying the sunset and said she was on her way home.
As the dark started to thicken, I received a phone call from her. She was lost, her headlamp was in the truck, and her phone was almost dead. She had our 120-pound husky with her, so she wasn’t too worried, but we made plans that if I hadn’t heard from her by a certain point, I was coming to get her. I never made it to that established check-in time, the dark was now total, and I was worried about her.
I raced to the trailhead and, geared up with headlamp and pistol on my hip, began hiking in towards where I thought she might be.
The trails in that area are a complete disaster. When I first started hiking in that area I got lost, over and over again, in broad daylight, so I had no idea where I would actually find her. I started running down the main trail which soon branches out in every direction. My yells finally received a reply, from far off.
I followed her yells until I found her, on a small trail, unable to hike anymore without tripping on something or puncturing her leg on a broken branch again. She was miserable. Scared and angry at herself. The ONE time she forgot in her haste to bring snacks/water/light/gun!
As I laid in the back of my truck up Icicle Canyon, I thought about the dark outside the canopy. Everyone had gone to sleep, the sounds of their voices drifting off into their own trucks. I laid the tailgate down and lay exposed to the dark beyond, looking out into the night sky. I curled up way down in my sleeping bag and almost fell asleep before I decided to have my pistol close.
I pulled it out of my backpack and stashed it next to my sleeping pad, you know, in case of aliens.