This topic has been knocking around in my head for a few weeks now. It started on an evening I was standing in the yard of my suburban home – a yard lit by decorative solar lights and a decidedly undecorative & overly-bright street light. (There’s a 4-lane arterial behind our home.) Despite all this human-created light, there was a quality to the darkness that reminded me of night in the backcountry.
In civilization, we almost never experience true darkness. My home is in an area that routinely experiences powerful wind gusts; developers bury the powerlines to homes and only the large-capacity powerlines are above ground. In the dozen years I’ve lived here, we’ve experienced two power outages that lasted more than a few minutes: one was about 45 minutes long, and the other was a few hours. Despite the extreme temperatures we have in both summer and winter, I don’t believe we’ve had rolling brownouts. In other words, we are almost never without electricity. It’s never really dark.
I have very limited depth perception, night vision one would expect from a member of the AARP set, an over-active & very creative imagination, and an atavistic fear of the dark. This is not a great combination for navigating in darkness, but I don’t need to worry much about it. Every time I turn on my headlamp for a late-night pee in the backcountry I cannot help but think of our ancestors. They had much better skills at navigating in darkness, but that didn’t remove their discomfort with it. Our eyes are made for the light, and we’re at a distinct disadvantage to nocturnal predators. Morning’s twilight was cause for rejoicing. For my Christian ancestors, the night was especially terrifying – the realm of Satan, as evidenced by morning prayers: “Thou hast shielded me against the terrors of the night, the snares of the devil, the noisome pestilence, that walketh in the darkness, manifold illness and disease.”
Despite all this, I’ve had nights when I found the darkness peaceful. On my last backpacking trip, I made camp the first night in a heavily wooded spot near a forest road. I was trying to get the weather forecast on my InReach, so I walked to the road. I stood in the road while eating dinner and hoping the InReach would communicate with its satellites. The sun set around 7 p.m., and moonrise was nearly two hours later. I stood in that road, watching the sky shift from soft blue to salmon to purple to deepest, darkest blue to near-black. Jupiter & Venus pricked holes in the darkening sky and as the palette grew darker the stars joined them. I started making my way back to camp without turning on my headlamp, but almost as soon as I got back on the trail I turned it on. No sense in risking tripping over something and ruining my trip on its first day.
This trip was different in that I decided to wake before dawn each day. I’m a bit of a slowpoke while on the trail and I take a ridiculous amount of time to get out of camp in the morning. Factoring in civil twilight, there was only about thirteen hours of light each day. I knew I wanted to hike around fifteen miles each day, and with it taking me nearly ninety minutes to get out of camp I needed to get an early start to have the night’s camp set up by 6:30. One morning, I woke well before my alarm was set to wake me. I left the warmth of my down cocoon in my hammock and started my day. The moon was as close to being overhead as it would get, but being several days past full and hidden behind clouds meant it did little to light my heavily-wooded campsite. It was this greyness that I was reminded of in my backyard. Standing there, next to the the grape vines & berry plants, I was transported back to the chilly morning on the trail.
I doubt I’ll ever be completely comfortable in the dark, and absent an emergency I doubt I will ever attempt to hike at night. It’s not in our diurnal nature. I’ve directly challenged my discomfort: several years ago, I ran a 12-hour overnight trail race. I did it specifically to tackle my limitations – both the physical (my eyesight & lack of depth perception) and the mental (my imagination and my chimp brain’s fear of the dark) – in a safe environment. (The race is a short loop – about 2.3 miles – and it has a party atmosphere. You’re never too far from the base or another person. I think I only ran one or two loops without encountering another person away from the base area.) I saw and heard things that weren’t there, but because I knew I was safe it was okay. That experience has made me more comfortable with darkness in the backcountry.