Aug 13 2010
Last night, Dave, Christine (a new hiking friend) and I went on a night hike in the foothills of Boulder. We had scheduled this hike a month ago for the purpose of dealing with our fear of the dark in the woods, predatory and nocturnal animals and our own internal demons. When I say “we” I mean Christine and I—not Dave—who is a typical guy and doesn’t get spooked by ambling around in the creepy dark of wilderness.
I didn’t know that last night, coincidentally, was prime viewing for the Earth’s annual pass through the Perseid meteor shower. We were excited to include this into our agenda and decided, at the last minute, to hike much further west of Boulder than we had originally planned in order to have darker skies.
We still had a sliver of twilight left as we headed out on the trail. Ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot at the trailhead. A small herd of deer were grazing nearby. We spent the entire drive up to the trailhead talking about the dangers of grizzly bears up in Yellowstone, where Dave and I had spent time last week, as well as the perceived dangers of mountain lions and black bears. Bears are dangerous when you startle them or get between a mother and her cubs. I said that there’s really no chance of ever startling a mountain lion. They know you’re there, even if you can’t see them. They’re stealthy, observant creatures who are normally very reclusive. Black bears, on the other hand, can be easily startled if you’re downwind and quiet, but in my personal experience they’d much rather run the heck away from you than pounce on you when they see you. Grizzlies are a different story, but there aren’t grizzlies here in Colorado.
Our discussion of predatory animals persisted at least 20 minutes into our hike, which indicated to me that we were still a bit on edge and nervous about hiking around in the dark, despite being rather loud and in a group. There’s just something about how the trees and boulders became these black, one-dimensional shapes heightens my level of awareness and anxiety. As it began to get darker and the last of the sunset faded, we saw a large, mountain-sized storm cloud far to the northwest, from which occasional lightning flashed across the sky. There were no bird calls. No squirrel chatters. Just the shrill reee-reee-reeee of crickets in the tall grass around us.
I started to lose my sense of depth perception with the loss of light and started to stumble on the rutty trail. I didn’t want to turn on any headlamps or flashlights yet, because the trail was still mostly visible as a dark gray strip under our feet. Christine let me use one of her hiking poles to feel out the ground like a blind person. Occasionally we’d hear the distant barking of a dog or the rumble of a large airplane overhead. Otherwise, it was soothingly quiet and windless.
We decided to stop where a large meadow opened up the sky and allowed us a good view of the stars. We sat right down where we were standing and leaned back on our backpacks to watch the sky. The Milky Way was faintly visible—a subtle stripe across the sky that resembled a thin white cloud. If I looked in one spot long enough, I would see twinkling stars and then one faint, non-twinkling star move slowly across the sky. These were satellites, some bigger and some smaller, or perhaps some further and some closer.
Then, quick as a flash and just as bright, we’d see a meteor streak across the sky. The streak lasted less than a second, bright and dramatic like nature’s roman candle. It was thrilling, perhaps as thrilling as spying a bear from a safe distance, or seeing the crouched shape of a mountain lion stalking a deer from a half mile away. The night became all about contemplating the things we so rarely see: a popular hiking trail at night, meteor showers, bears and mountain lions.
I couldn’t shake the feeling of vulnerability, sitting on the ground and surrounded by the tall stalks of grass in that meadow, with the black silhouettes of mountains and hills all around. What was watching us? Would something dare come out of the grass to investigate us? I was worried because I had a precedent for this.
Earlier this summer I was in Ridgway, Colorado with my daughter and we went for a walk in town after dark. Ridgway doesn’t have a lot of streetlights, probably for good reason. They want to keep light pollution down because the night sky there is black and spectacular. We were walking through a town park, barely able to see the trail in front of us, when an animal appeared and approached us in the darkness—a large, furry, light-colored animal with a long snout. Before I knew it was a dog, I screamed, and then I yelled at the poor thing, unsure if it was friendly or not. It must have been, because it slunk away, dejected and frightened too.
Perhaps that’s the experience that was steaming through my subconscious as I sat there, trying to relax and enjoy the night sky.
After a while, it started to get cold, so we headed back to the car. I want to do another night hike again soon. This is different than being in a tent while camping. This is different from walking alone in my neighborhood long after dark. This feels more raw, more primitive. It’s like I’m privy to a secret world that most people don’t get to experience. Dave suggested we do a full moon snowshoe hike up near Brainard Lake in the winter. As much as that freaks me out to imagine, I’m going to do it. I’m going to open myself up to the possibility. I like challenging myself this way, leaning into my feelings of anxiety and creepiness to see what lies beneath.