Facing Your Fears By Hiking in the Dark

dark woods at nightDoes the idea of doing a midnight hike alone frighten you—or intrigue you?

Darkness used to creep me out. I had a house in the mountains of Fairplay, Colorado for a few years, where on a moonless night it was almost completely black outside except for the glitter of the Milky Way. Walking through the house in the middle of the night to get a glass of water was nerve-wracking for me. The flat black of night through the windows made me imagine serial killers and rabid predators lurking on the porch.

One night I decided to face my fears and I took a very short walk up the road at night. After the stiffness of my initial fear relaxed a bit, I noticed some things. There were occasional comets that flashed across the sky and were quickly extinguished. I saw stars that I had never seen before—there were so many of them. I saw the haze of the Milky Way that at deceptively looks like a thin cloud in the night sky, but isn’t.

What enchanted me most were the comets, or shooting stars. I wondered how often they hurl toward Earth when I’m not watching or even aware—like during daylight hours or on the other side of the world. The Earth is constantly and dutifully shielding its creatures from a pelting of space rocks with its atmosphere. I felt the Earth as my gigantic mother, shielding me from harm.

The experience transformed my relationship to the darkness. I saw the dome of the sky above me in a different way.  It was a window onto the universe.  It allowed me to see that which was necessary, but invisible—the protective atmosphere around our planet. I saw the sky as a time machine of sorts, since I was looking at objects that sometimes weren’t even there anymore, just their light and energy making its way steadily across space and time.

Sometimes when people are alone in the dark in the wilderness, they feel fear. They fear that something “out there” is stalking them or out to get them.  They imagine bears and mountain lions hurling out of the dark to claw at them and eat them alive. That’s how I used to feel, too. But the chances of getting eaten or attacked by a predator are pretty slim, to say the least. You have a better chance of dying in an automobile accident on the way to the campground than you do while you’re sitting alone in your tent.

When you fear the darkness, what you’re really fearing is the darkness within yourself. Darkness is uncertainty. It’s not knowing what’s around the corner or behind the tree. You’re frightened about becoming lost in that uncertainty. You fear you’ll never come out, and the darkness will eat you up. It can be paralyzing, unless you can face it and be comfortable with it.

Befriending the dark means befriending and overcoming your fears.

A Contemplative Activity for Hiking in the Dark

Most open space trails and parks close after sunset. Don’t let that stop you! There may be a large park nearby with a lot of trees, or you can try to park on a street and walk to a trailhead. If you’re motivated, you can go up into BLM land or National Forest, where there are no restrictions on what time you have to be out.

(For this hike, you might try the Flatirons Vista Trail, Mount Sinitas or Chautauqua if you live near Boulder.)

If you’re not comfortable going alone, bring a friend but stay completely silent during this activity. It’s better if you go alone because the purpose of this is to befriend the darkness, and the only way to reach deep into your inner fear is to face it alone.

Bring a flashlight so you don’t trip or stumble. You start by going as far as you’re comfortable, and walk slowly. Stay on the trail, and if there isn’t a trail, stay near the road so you don’t get lost. Stop when you start to feel a little too creeped out or frightened.

Here’s the challenge: turn off your flashlight. Stand still, absolutely still, and LISTEN. Which sounds feel unsettling and which ones comfort you? Maybe the sound of distant cars comforts you now. Take mental note.

If you get too uncomfortable, turn your flashlight back on. Try to go as long as you can and relax into the scenery.

Walk a little further into the woods or trail—again, as far as you can before getting too uncomfortable, and look up and around. Really get into your feelings. What do you imagine coming out of the darkness? What do you fear? Name it. Say it out loud.

Hear yourself saying it out loud. Does it lose its power or gain power that way?

Take several deep breaths and release all tension in your body.

If you start to feel more relaxed, find a place to sit (or stand, if you prefer) and remain there for at least 10-15 minutes. Ask yourself: What do I fear?

Say the answers out loud. The answers may change or stay the same. Keep saying it until you feel you have gotten to the core of what it is you’re really feeling and experiencing, or until you’re no longer able to remain in place.

Return to your car or home when you’re ready.

When you drive home, consider at what point you felt different and completely back to normal after your moment in the woods. Was it when you got back in the car? When you turned on the car stereo? When you returned home and turned on the lights? What makes you feel safe?

You may surprise yourself and feel comfortable in the dark. Or, you may find yourself feeling creeped out a bit longer than you thought. The key here is to realize that the woods are no different or dangerous in the dark then they are in broad daylight. What changes is your perception, and often that perception is masked by your internal fear and uncertainty.

Winter Hiking with Children

Bear Canyon Trail
Skye pauses along the Bear Canyon Trail

My daughter’s winter break is winding down and the day after tomorrow she’s going back to school for the last half of sixth grade. It was a beautiful winter day today, sunny and mostly clear, calm, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I took her on a one-hour walk along the Bear Canyon trail, directly south of NCAR in south Boulder.

I started thinking about what kinds of contemplative activities we could do together along this hike that I would recommend later for parents and their kids on similar winter days. The most obvious ideas came first—asking her to tell me what she thought the animals and insects were doing this time of year. She’s 12, so her answers came easily and with a lot more sophistication than I expected. She named a burrowing insect that hibernates in winter, and described what prairie dogs might be doing when it’s cold out and the ground is covered in snow (“mostly hanging out in their deep burrows, coming out occasionally to try to find grass”). We saw birds flittering about, but not as many as there are in the spring and summer. Even though we didn’t hear any insects, she did spy one lone grasshopper warming himself on a large boulder.

Everything is quieter on a winter hike. The snow muffles much of the ambient sound anyway, but the silence is mostly due to the low population of birds and insects this time of year. The sound of the water trickling through the half-frozen creek underscored the quiet and felt soothing, like listening to a fountain.

Up ahead, only minutes after we started on the trail, Skye pointed out the two cone-shaped hills below NCAR and asked if we could climb to the top of the tallest one.

“It’s bigger than it looks. It’s also harder to walk up there than it seems.” I warned.

bear canyon hill
Skye summits the first hill south of NCAR

She didn’t believe me until we were much closer and she realized that the hills were quite steep and quite tall. But she wanted to try, so I stepped back and watched her as she trudged upwards. She made it as far as the first summit, looked around, then beckoned me.

“Come up here, mama!”

No thanks, I said. I’m not in the mood to suck air on that steep walk up. I’ll just stay down here and take photos…

This gave me an idea for hikes with older children such as Skye. They already have an idea of what animals are doing in winter and may find the activity of talking about that a little anticlimactic, but Skye’s desire to scale the hill was interesting. I asked her why she felt she wanted to get to the top, and how she felt when she was there.

She said she wanted to see all the way around, and when she got up there, she felt tall with achievement. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Into the Wild” when Alexander Supertramp scaled the rocky hill above his campsite near the Salton Sea.

animal tracks in snow
Animal tracks are easily seen in snow

When she returned to the trail I asked her to look around and tell me where she would love to explore, if she could. She pointed up at a north-facing slope on the other side of the creek, where animal tracks led into the trees.

“I want to go there, because it looks mysterious. I want to know what’s on the other side of that hill.”

We couldn’t go there because we couldn’t cross the creek, and neither could any other hikers, so we knew that the tracks crossing the slope could only be wild animal tracks—most likely deer or fox tracks, maybe coyote. The tracks were everywhere. That’s one of the features of hiking in snow that’s fun for kids—seeing where animals roam around in the fields and forest when no one is looking.

We were just about ready to turn back when the trail narrowed and was enveloped in shadow. Skye wanted to keep going because she said she loves darkness. I asked her why and to describe the kind of darkness she’s referring to. She said she likes dark woods, small rooms, or going outside after sunset. I kept asking her how it makes her feel and what it reminds her of, and why it soothing to her.

This could be a question you might ask your older child on a hike. Ask them to look around, especially if you’re in a location where you can see far down valley or up at the mountains. Where would they like to explore, assuming there could easily get there or fly up there? Why? How does it make them feel to look at it?

When I’m taking a walk or jogging in the morning and see a dark, misty cloud cover the Front Range mountains I’m drawn to them the same way Skye was drawn to the shadowed hills on the other side of the creek.  I want to be there. I want to explore that mystery, to be in the middle of that gray darkness, to feel what it must feel like to be surrounded by shrouded peaks. There’s something comforting and thrilling about it that compels me to stare at it until I feel it in my bones.

Our walk today was brief. Just enough time to breathe in some fresh air and see what nature is up to this Monday in January. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hiking with my child it’s this: keep it relatively short. Have a reward at the end. Today, it was lunch at Subway.

Contemplative Hike for Couples or Friends

Couple hikingWho This is For:

This activity is for couples or friends who would like to spend time together in a natural setting to release stress, experience beauty, and improve their mood. The reason this hike is “silent” is because it increases awareness of your surroundings and puts less pressure on each individual to maintain a conversation while trying to enjoy the setting.

The diad conversation after the hike builds intimacy in a safe way.

The Activity

Arrive together at a trail or park where you can wander for at least an hour or two at a slow to moderate pace. This activity is best done in a place where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic, dogs, frequent passers-by, or vehicle noise. An ideal location would be a forest trail, a mountain trail, a beach early in the morning, or a large park on a weekday morning when it’s not very crowded.

Once you arrive, set a simple intention on what you will do on the hike. An example of this may be:

“My intention is to avoid thinking about that fight we had and just enjoy being close to you in a beautiful setting.”

or

“My intention is to try notice what it’s like to feel close to you without needing to tell you what I’m thinking, or to just communicate non-verbally.”

Speak your intention out loud to each other, then agree that once you pass a certain “threshhold” — the trailhead, a tree, a rock — you will begin in silence. You will not break the silence during the entire walk, communicating only through non-verbal means, such as gentle touches, pointing, or facial expressions. Agree on how long you will walk and at what time you will turn back (wear a watch).

Once you step over the threshhold, walk close together. If you pass another person, you may greet them by nodding or smiling, but try to maintain silence.

Notice how it feels to spend this much time together without speaking. Look around and give your attention to the trees, the birds, the sky, the ground. Notice your thoughts as they come and go, approach, and pass.

What thoughts keep coming up? How does being silent around your partner feel? Like a relief or like torture? What do you wish you could say?

After you cross back over the threshhold, find a comfortable place to sit and sit opposite each other. This is the second part of the activity.

There are only two rules to this part of the activity:

1) No matter what the other person says, you can only respond, “thank you for sharing.”

2) You don’t discuss or talk about this part of the activity later. This creates a sense of safety about sharing and promotes honesty.

One person begins by asking, “What part of the hike was most difficult for you?”

The other person responds, but the person asking the question can only say, “Thank you for sharing.”

Here are some suggested questions to ask:

1) What kept coming up for you as you walked?

2) What do you wish you could say to me while we were walking?

3) What did you enjoy most about taking a silent walk with me?

4) What did you enjoy the least about walking in silene with me?

5) What thing did you notice in nature that you most wanted to talk about with me?

When you’re finished, agree not to talk about the questions or get defensive about the answers later. Agree not to talk about the details of the hike itself too much. Return home.

What This Activity Evokes

This activity is a way for couples or friends to spend time in nature in a way that builds awareness of both their internal and external state. Not only are the individuals asked to enjoy their surroundings, they’re also asked to contemplate how they feel about being silent around their partner. The silence can feel good, or it could be discomforting, depending on the relationship. This comfort or discomfort is a point to be examined.

The diad exercise after the hike is a way to discuss what happened in an honest way, without analyzing too much or over-discussing it.