In a dark wood

One night, when I was in high school, I went hiking off the Blue Ridge Parkway with a few friends. It was a warm summer night. I don’t remember what prompted the expedition, exactly, but it was something to do. Something different.

In Waynesboro, Virginia, the Saturday-night choices felt limited. We could go to the movies, but we’d seen them all. We could go to the Waffle House, and maybe Ben would be working that night. He offered us more patience than we deserved. He’d let us hog a table all night for the price of a few cups of bottomless coffee. We were lucky to have a place like that, but the coffee got us wound up and we ran out of things to talk about by 1 am.

Or, we could drive over to Staunton, a neighboring town, and join the procession on the Avenue. A mating-season ritual among Valley humans, it involved driving in slow, smoky circles around the mall (Note: To my younger readers: in the dark and ancient times, a “mall” was a place that served as an IRL combination of Amazon and TikTok. Depending on the mall, some of the sketchier parts of Reddit and Tumbler could be found there too. ) and hanging out in adjacent parking lots. It was a way to people-watch, to catch up, to blow off steam. You hoped to connect with someone — a new friend, a new hookup, a new partner — with your smile, your body, your truck, your hat. Whatever did the trick.

But we didn’t have trucks worth showing off — and even if we had, we’d have lacked the confidence to try. We called ourselves misfits, but, really, we hadn’t hatched from our shells yet.

So we met at a trailhead off the Parkway and took our first steps into the woods. One of our group was a more experienced hiker who’d spent some time on the Appalachian Trail, and he led us along with a chipper pep talk about how fun it was to walk in the woods at night. The other three of us nodded and said sure and followed, although we were nervous. We chattered on and on. Snarky teenagers in an unfamiliar place, filling the woods with our restless presence. But as we walked, we grew quieter. I began to see our surroundings better.

At night the woods look black and impenetrable from the outside. Once you step over the threshold, their interior opens up, a scumble of dark blue and aqua tones. There were fireflies. Swaying lanterns, hung through the forest. A million yellow stars, come down to guide us.

My eyes adjusted and I could see the trail ahead more clearly. It was not all that dark, really, at nine or ten o’clock on a summer night. The sun had just ducked below the horizon. Or, I should say, the horizon had just swung past the rim of the sun. The air was a dense cobalt with maybe a rim of magenta.

The woods were not quiet. What must have been a hundred billion crickets made a racket that seemed to vibrate the whole atmosphere. Their cousins, the cicadas, joined in, even louder, a coffee-grinder buzz layered over the crickets’ digital-watch-alarm chirps. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, moles, whistle-pigs, foxes — various nervous furry things scurried and rattled the leaves around us. Bullfrogs and spring peepers and toads and sleepless birds joined the chorus. Bats were shouting over it all, too, no doubt, clicking at ultrasonic frequencies to map out a radar picture of the woods, its every leaf and twig and fluttering moth and mosquito.

We didn’t voice it but we knew there were also bears around. The black bears that inhabit the Appalachians are typically shy and elusive. They are not known to be aggressive. But I felt vulnerable anyway. I was very aware, at that moment, of being a small creature in a place I was not adapted to. My eyes were nearly useless in the dark. My ears and nose, laughable. No fur, armor, claws, or sharp teeth. I stumbled on the unfamiliar trail.

But we adjusted, gradually, as we moved through the dark woods. I found I could rely on my feet to feel the ground and tell me about the terrain — its texture, slope, grip, and temperature — even when I couldn’t see it well. Sounds and smells told me about branches, leaves, rocks, water, and animals nearby. Where my eyes fell short my other senses helped to fill in, giving me a fuller picture of the space around me. They “extended” my peripheral vision. For the first time I began to appreciate the ways that my hearing, smell, and touch inform my eyesight. They do an awful lot more than I’d realized.

Eventually, we reached an overlook: an outcrop that formed a “balcony” on the precipice of a steep drop-off. A sea of trees and fields — the Shenandoah Valley — stretched out a thousand feet below. The sky was a blue-black dome above it all. I felt the cool humidity of the night air against my skin. I felt a hush that gathered in the open air. I felt an odd sense of remote invisibility, as though I were a part of the sky itself, watching the valley below where all my fellow humans slept, packed away in their tiny boxes.

I’d somehow slipped through a hidden doorway to a margin outside humanity. The towns below looked so tiny and distant and maybe trivial. The people went their diurnal way, following the threaded roads between their boxy dens in the glaring sunlight, switching themselves off as night fell and the lights in their houses went out, one by one. A galaxy of fireflies on the valley floor.

I felt, for a few moments, that there was some bigger picture I could glimpse here, that I could somehow inhabit all the space around and outside our human world. Maybe I could see more than just our tiny sliver. The mountains, the heights, the sky, and maybe beyond.

We all lingered there, silent.

Eventually we snapped out of our trance, and grew tired. We started to walk back. But I had a lingering feeling. Part of me wanted to stay. I wanted to try and see more. The darkness that night hadn’t blinded me so much as it revealed all the things lost in the sun’s glare. I had a new appreciation for the mythological stories we’d translated in Latin class, the gods and humanity always striking deals, trying to surpass one another’s boundaries. I wanted to come to some understanding with the stars.

But I was bumping up against my own limits. I was also a diurnal creature. The little human-storage boxes down below served a purpose, and I needed to lay down in one soon. But it was nice to have had a glimpse of the margins, to see into the darkness at the edge of town, as Bruce Springsteen called it.