camping site

Into the Darkness

by Michael Roth

I love hiking. There is just something so satisfying about seeing beautiful places while walking through them. It is a wonderful way to get exercise, travel to interesting places, and clear my mind and get lost in my thoughts. While I'm not likely to set any sort of records, I do tend to take my hiking pretty seriously. I like to hike fast, far, and without many breaks. While I usually prefer to hike with other people when available, most people can't keep up with me when I am really doing some serious hiking. At times I also just need some solitude, so I end up doing a fair amount of hiking by myself.

Since I was working long hours almost every day, 6 days a week, and couldn't really afford to be really tired, my one chance to go on a long hike was Friday night, which meant I went on hikes with the plan being to do a good portion, or even all of the hike, after dark. It is a really weird feeling leaving a parking lot heading out into the woods, alone, on a moonless night. It certainly takes some getting used to. So, after a couple of these hikes, I decided that I needed a headlamp, and my wonderful parents actually bought me one as an early birthday present. So me, being an adventure lover, and armed with an exciting new toy, I decided to plan a bit of a challenge -- Mount Defiance. As far as "mountains" go, it's a bit wimpy, but as far as hikes, it's a significant challenge. Six miles out, with just a bit shy of a mile of elevation gained, then six miles back, losing all the elevation again, thus leading to a total of twelve miles -- not exactly epic, but keep in mind this is after a full day's work.

So that was it. The phone call simply confirmed my suspicions; there was nothing planned for tonight. Friday night is usually a great night for various social events. Normally I might be disappointed about spending the evening alone, but not tonight. Tonight was different -- special. I was going hiking. I had actually begun to gather together the required supplies before I received the call. It's always good to be properly prepared for a hike, especially when going on a long hike, alone, at night.

Sometimes my OCD makes it hard to actually leave, but after re-double-checking a few times to make sure I had everything, and making sure I knew how to get to the trailhead, as well as familiarizing myself with the trail itself, I was ready. As I went out the door, a voice told me I didn't have to do the whole hike, that I could come back whenever I wanted. It was the voice of my Mother. While she didn't verbally object to my hiking activities, I don't think she was really excited about them either. After reassuring her that everything would be fine, I got in the car and drove out into the fading twilight.

It takes about an hour from my house to the Mount Defiance trailhead. Because of my quick thinking, that is more than enough time to question whether or not I really want to go through with this hike. I'm not sure I fully understand why I do things of this sort. I suppose it is partially to prove that I can, and especially in this case, too many people knew about it for me to back out before I started. It's always a bit of a shock when I actually get to the trailhead; one of those moments that make me question if what is happening is real. After a brief trip to the restroom, I adjusted my pack, ran my belt through the sheath for my SOG SEAL-pup, and put on my headlamp. I just stood there looking at myself in the cheap mirror, gave myself a quick, silent, and somewhat helpful pep-talk, and then left the last oasis of light and safety, heading out into the nether.

Sometimes it takes me a few minutes before I feel comfortable hiking at night, other times it takes more like an hour. This was not either of those types of nights. It didn’t' seem to matter what I did, or how long I hiked for; I just couldn't relax. There is something slightly disquieting about being alone in remote wooded areas at night. There are certain categories of things it is unadvisable to think about in such situations. Most notable is any carnivorous creature larger than a shrew.

The trail really was rather steep. As I hiked I was planning and thinking about how impressive it would sound to describe how difficult this trail was, especially considering I had never even hiked it during the day! Aside from the uneasy feeling I couldn't shake, the hike really was going very well. While I didn't know exactly how fast I was hiking, I felt like I was making pretty good time, considering the steepness, darkness, and general craziness of the hike. After hiking for perhaps 80 or 90 minutes, I heard something. Sort of a twiggy type sound. Then I came around a the corner and saw an eye ahead on the trail, looking at me. I froze. My heart was pounding. I quickly unsheathed my knife. It may only be a 5" blade, but it's a lot better than nothing. I just stood there, trying not to panic, and wishing I had brought my SRK instead (a slightly bigger, and MUCH sturdier knife), or perhaps a katana. It felt like an eternity, but I eventually realized that I was facing none other than the greatly feared and little understood.... star shining through the trees. I guess I am a bit jumpy at times, but that's understandable, right? After a moments contemplation, I decided to continue on and finish the hike, although I must admit, I kept my knife drawn and ready for instant defense from any other constellations that I might happen upon.

Even though I continued to hike at a decent speed, the time itself seemed to be taking an eternity to go by. I don't actually remember many details of the next part of the hike. Just your typical ridge following switchback type trail, going through the woods. And then I came to a large open boulder field that the trail crossed. It was a nice change of pace, being much more open than the woods, it allowed me to really see where I was. The trail traversed for a while, and then slowly turned to head up more of the hill, back towards a wooded area. I noticed I could see quite a few stars through the trees ahead of me, so I was at least nearing another false summit. There were two especially bright stars that caught my attention. I stood there resting for a moment, wondering how far I had come when… oh... shoot... the two bright stars moved together. At that moment I would have given anything to get instantly off the mountain. While not incredibly close, this creature was large, and didn't appear to be afraid of me. It seemed curious more than anything. It would look at me for a minute, then duck behind a tree or something, only to come out the other side and look some more. It felt like it might be coming closer, perhaps trying to sneak? My best guess of its identity is a cougar. Nothing else in this area seems to fit with everything I saw. At that moment the amount of fear I experienced was overwhelming. It felt just like a nightmare, except I knew I wouldn't wake up, and I didn't. I understood there was very little chance of it attacking me, and especially with my knife already drawn, even that wouldn't be a death sentence. I still felt mind-numbing, paralyzing fear. It was all I could do to keep from all out panicking. After standing perfectly still for about 3 years, I finally pulled myself together and began slowly backing away...

Hiking alone at night a significant distance from civilization is not something that I can in good conscience “officially” recommend.

I eventually went back to do that hike again, this time during the day. It took just under four hours. It’s a great hike, but a bit anticlimactic.

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