Fear of the Dark

Hearing voices in the rain, hallucinating in the fog.

It was getting late and rain was starting to fall.

The inside of the car was dripping in condensation. GPS dropped out. I had only a vague idea where I was. Even cached maps won’t save you when you lose the sky. I had neither sky nor cache. Deep in the mountains so far that the roads were guesses on the map anyway. Switch to optical navigation: use your eyes.

The steep drop off to my right presaged a long messy fall, trees and some water at the bottom. Lots of death for the car. The road ahead had a look about it like I didn’t want to keep going. Mud everywhere. Who knows how far into the hills it would go. To my left the low hulk of a ruined old log building lurked bleached white and creepy, a ghost of an old skeleton. It looked like something from the 1800s. A welcome sight for someone once, maybe. But whoever erected that building was long dead and I was getting worried about my own chances.

The rain turned into rivulets on the road, trickling in little flashes in the headlights. The GPS insisted that I drive another two miles up the road and make a U-turn. On those kinds of forest roads, a four mile round trip could take two hours or more. It could be after midnight before I got back to this spot. That’s assuming not getting stuck in the mud, not going over a cliff. I used the clearing by the ghost building to turn around. I silenced the GPS and started back the way I came.

Coming back down the road I saw a turn I’d missed on my way up, only about a half mile back. The GPS had thought I was on another part of the mountain entirely. The turn should have been marked, but the sign had been knocked down. I drove down a black hill, almost blind. The rain was pouring buckets, beating down on the car in the extra fat heavy drops that concentrate under trees. I spotted a park table beyond sign board. I backed the car up next to it, crawled into the sleeping area, and dug in for the evening.

There was no cooked dinner. I uneasily ate some packaged food. Went about my business. I played a game on my phone where you send text messages to an astronaut crashed on an alien planet. We shared similar fears, trapped in our ships waiting for morning. His planet got very cold at night. In my world the rain didn’t let up. For a long time I didn’t sleep. I just lay in bed, listening. I kept hearing things. Like someone was walking up and down just outside the car. Whispering, talking, laughing. I knew no one was out there. Right? Just the rain. I didn’t see anyone when I came in. But I didn’t know. They could be out there. No. Just the rain.

After dark, before dawn.

On a different mountain road I pulled up into a wide dry clearing among huge old pines. I parked next to a table, by a sign that said “Wilderness.” Didn’t look like anyone had been there for at least days. Twilight was just starting to fall. I was alone. The forest seemed infinite. Darkness gathering all around. Impossibly still. Quiet like the air was being sucked away, carried on the last rays of the sun. So quiet I could hear the blood rushing in my brain. Twilight was fleeting. Dark was coming fast.

Before setting up for the night I decided to make tea. A cup of water boils fast on my little burner. I dipped the mesh ball into my tea leaves and scooped out enough for a strong cup. I take Genmaicha with me everywhere I go. Green tea with brown rice. It’s good every day. The water boiled and the steam of the tea calmed me down just a little. The darkness was still gathering fast, almost complete. When I clicked the stove off the impenetrable silence returned. I hurried to get ready before night fell completely.

Why was I so scared? A primal feeling, fear of the dark. I didn’t have time to explore the forest. I was on unfamiliar ground with only the safety of my car and any camp I could make. The irony of my fear confounded me. I had chosen this exact spot because I wanted to find a dark place. Somewhere far from light pollution and cities. At the midpoint between places, the absolute middle of nowhere. Now I’d succeeded in getting there and instead of relaxing and enjoying my achievement, I was hurrying to set up my camp for the night. I realized that I had no idea just how dark it was going to get. I locked the doors and holed up for the night.

Some time after midnight I woke to a warm glow overhead. My body felt paralyzed. Like I was high on drugs, hallucinating, but all I’d had was the tea. Clouds moved through overhead. They glowed like the glow in the city, like looking south in Central Park when the rain comes in low over Manhattan and the sky is irradiated like a ghostly daylight. But I wasn’t in the city, I was far away in the quiet forest in the middle of nowhere.

I made myself get up. I looked again at the sky. The clouds were radiant, but not from city light. Behind the clouds I could see the stars, so bright that I’d mistaken them for city lights. The clouds weren’t reflecting human light back down on me, they were backlit from the stars.

Morning after the rain.

In the morning, in both places, I woke to friendly forest sounds. Sunlight filled with green on all sides. After the rainy night hearing voices, the forest was soggy and steaming and lush in the morning sun. I had indeed parked next to a table by a fire pit as I’d hoped, and I saw some neighbors camped out on the other side of a little hill. No one had walked around my car in the night, the only footprints in the mud were mine. Everywhere radiant and beautiful. The trees sometimes rained fat drops down on me while I made breakfast in the chilly damp morning.

I walked around the forest for a while, feeling touched by the divine. Like the depth of my fear at night became the depth of my gratitude in the morning. Grateful that the forest wasn’t some monster readying to kill me in my sleep, grateful to be alive in such a beautiful place. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. It was as if I had to be afraid on the wet muddy roads, in the deepening darkness, to feel as happy and alive as I did on those mornings.

After those first nights, the forests stopped being scary. I could sleep easy, or stay up late. I would cook a real dinner in time to watch the sunset, and not fear the twilight. I could explore and orient myself, learn the terrain. In the day I’d pay attention to exactly how much light I had left, and be mindful of how much I could get done. When the stars came I’d be ready for them.

Every time I’m late getting to a new place, I feel the fear. Now I accept the fear because I know I’ll be amazed in the morning.