Dispatches from the Middle of the Night

I woke myself mid-night from a dream I don’t remember, that was fast becoming a nightmare. I didn’t check, but I know the watch from the level of quiet: between 1 and 4 a.m. Awake and uneasy, shreds of dream still twining my thoughts, I considered what that hour is like from a tent pitched in the wild.

Writing about hiking – which is turning out to be writing about a lot of things – makes me nostalgic. Yesterday I stopped in the middle of a piece to text my father, to remind him of that time we had to cut short our backpack in the eastern Sierra because of early September snow. I wanted to talk about our next trip, too: there’s nothing planned, it’s been awhile. My hunger to sit on boulders and talk carefully about philosophy was suddenly too strong to bear alone.

Dad offered the information that a friend had suggested camping on the Channel Islands. (My father lives near Ventura, California.) He’d thought I should go too, since I’ve brought it up before. Every year or so, in fact – probably ad nauseum – since I spent a long weekend on Santa Cruz Island, doing archaeological survey for the National Park Service.

So I imagined, awake and alone, the presence of immense night around my single tent. The land quiet, the sea never so, the stars huge or veiled, depending. The throat-catching noise of some animal – mouse, fox, wild pig – or just the wind, and the way it takes my frightened heart a full minute to stop drumming.

It’s an experience I equally crave and quail from. When you’re there, it’s inescapable, which is possibly why my nightmare – I was trapped – recalled it so strongly. Alone in my tent, I never fail to wonder what the hell is wrong with me. Waking in the dawn, or sitting here in my library on a cool morning filled with the swish of cars and the patter of city rain, I feel both relief and longing.

Relief

***

My extended family camps for a week every summer in the coastal redwood forests of northern California. We use a State Park campground set along a beautiful green river, complete with flush toilets, hot showers, and plenty of other campers. Night there is different, and also the same.

Late in the evening, children are tucked up in sleeping bags, and adults are sipping their last glass of wine around a dying fire, thinking about final preparations for bed. This is the time I zip open the roof of my tent, and let the rhythms of settling night settle me, too.

Reflection of firelight on the understory of tan oak. Tall straight redwoods reaching into a darkling canopy: trunks as big as Manifest Destiny, as old as Protestantism. Fir branches snap in the fire, late voices murmur and shush each other. Humanity fades, and the river reclaims the night.

Invariably, I wake to its mid-night rushing. The fog has rolled back, if it’s early enough, and stars peer through my mesh walls. If I’m very lucky, the moon is near to full, pearlescent with promise. I watch as long as I can, and then I zip myself out and fumble for my sandals – because of course, I have to pee.

Since childhood, I’ve made it a game to walk invisibly through the forest at night. I am not invisible, of course; watching wildlife surely scoff at my efforts to be silent. But I step consciously, breathe lightly, and count myself lucky when I reach the cinderblock bathroom without hearing anything but my heartbeat. Unless the moon is dark, I use no artificial light.

It’s a tense journey, always: what if I cross paths with a bear? Even a raccoon would startle me. I know, because I once gasped at a cooler I mistook for one. While everything else sleeps, fears wake in deep nighttime. More than once, I’ve exited my tent out of desperate need alone, convinced I was about to walk through occupied territory.

And more than once, I’ve stepped back into the night, and instead of heading straight home, made a slow circuit of the campground. Why? Not because I did not fear, that’s certain. Because I was spellbound: the moon was full, or the fog was rolling in above the redwoods, the night breeze rising and falling. Or because I was afraid, and I needed to feel it.

Strolling a mostly-paved, densely populated campground loop in the slumberous dark is not the same as walking into the midnight wilderness on Santa Cruz Island without a light. For one thing, I would not do the latter. Campground walks allow me to ride my surging adrenaline, and come to terms with it, without the deeper danger of losing my way. I feel alone out there, but I have only to shout, and I will not be.

As a child, I used to cross the river after darkfall with my cousin. (In summer there’s a footbridge.) We’d wobble across the murmuring current, and walk into the deep hush of an old-growth redwood grove, where only the deer and the flying squirrels may make camp. Of course, that hush is full of creakings and flutterings, and without a light beneath the stars, your vision works only in faintest grayscale. I remember few particulars of these expeditions. The feeling of unspeakable awe, of personal challenge – and of having each other’s backs if something went wrong – was the real point.

***

I looked deeply into the night, when I was younger. Grown, I have only once ventured across the river to see in gray and in fear and trembling. With each year, it is more difficult to convince myself that my midnight circumambulations are worth making. I cannot tell if I have lost or gained by this. I stay warmer, that’s for sure.

Home, awake in the darkest hours after a bad dream, I know only an echo of all this that enters my memory. All the same, the loneliness, even with my husband sleeping beside me, runs deep. Sometimes I rise, pad camp-quiet to my library, and watch the moon, lights off. I wonder, and I am afraid. Sometimes I make the necessary trip only, and snuggle back under covers, even if I cannot fall asleep.

Night is lived on the fulcrum between the weight of awe and the reflexive push toward comfort. Member of a diurnal and gregarious species, any human knows the feeling. Awake at night, we alone populate the known world, and hold back the unseen.

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5 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Middle of the Night

  1. I must add: just one time a few years ago Tara, you and I ventured at night across that usually wobbly footbridge, over the murmuring river, into the creaky darkness of that old growth redwood forest. It was magical, frightening, mysterious. The grove we know so well in the day time was the same, yet very different. The darkness was profound on that windy night, the creaking and swaying of the redwood forest seen only in shades of gray, scary and oh so impressive. I was glad you had my back. That nighttime walk has haunted my dreams more than a few times over the intervening years.

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  2. I love this! I like feeling secure in my camp bed, listening to the quiet around me. And before that time, walking carefully around our campsite by the light of a lantern, making certain all is cleaned up and secured for the night. As I do this, I feel the presence of the redwoods that surround me in the dark, giant living sentinels, knowing they keep watch in their coastal forest world tonight, and every night. All is well.

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