Why I Wandered There, and What Good It Did Me

Another true story.

I went into the western woods at sunset with only a compass: not a flashlight, not a bottle of water, not a coat.

It’s hard to say why. I had a vague idea of reaching the crest of the ridge, and seeing the last light fade from the valley. But what was I supposed to do then? I’m certain I understood I would have to come back in the dark.

I knew there was only the thinnest of margins to walk before things went wrong. When I came to that margin, I walked it for a while, sure, feigning prudence. But then I deliberately crossed it: a rill, tumbling over slick stones in twilight.

On the far side, the land began to ascend. I stopped and looked down on the faulted margin from above. I could still go back, while my eyes could still see color. But what would I do when it was dark? I could fall, sprain an ankle, and get very cold.

It was darkening already. The west sky glowed red, but the sun was gone behind the ridge. I was already cold. I ought to go back.

Back meant east, away from the sun, to greater darkness, but to safer places. East the roads were all flat. East there was light and shelter. That would not satisfy me.

I went west up the hill, the compass clutched in my hand, plastic edges digging into my palm. I walked fast.

“If I am quick,” I told myself, “I can reach the ridge and return before the light is gone.”

“You can’t,” I answered. “If you are quick, you will only be deeper in when darkness comes. Besides: what grand thing can happen between here and there that will make you suddenly want to return? It will be as bad then as now.”

But that was a lie. If I went back now, it would be in defeat. If the ridge turned me back in full darkness, who was I? No one I knew.

“I have the compass,” I said. “At least I can’t get lost.”

I went on.

This was a stupid thing I was doing. My father, who never went into the woods without enough to spend the night there and have hot cocoa in the morning, would call this a stupid thing.

Perhaps all this willing abandon came as a result of the sad dilution of that wonderful fear of the dark I used to feel in the woods alone. In the western woods as a boy with my tent and flashlight, ignorance made me a brave explorer. Back then the unknown was still big enough to hide monsters. The night was my dread canvas, and I the artist of innocent terrors: ghost birds, mushroom kings and hungry stones.

That was before I knew the things to fear were all in cities, and loneliness was the safest place you could ever be.

It was nothing but my own imagination that threatened me. In the dark you only ever scare yourself. But fear is like the worst kind of drug. To bring back the illusion, the risk of self-destruction must increase.

Was I angry at myself? I often am.

The hill steepened. I climbed faster.

My breathing rattled like pebbles in my throat. Crack, crack, crack, went the stones beneath me. The pump of my heartbeats rang in my head. I moved to my body’s rhythm instead of my thoughts’. Whippoorwills and crickets sang once at my passing, then fell silent. Soon exhilaration made me too drunk to hear them over the rush of blood through my ears. Hemlock branches loomed, reached out to brush my face and shoulders, then fell away like veils. Motion blurred the formless forest dusk out of all comprehension. I kept going. The trail twisted once, then again and again, and the compass hung from my wrist, forgotten.

I skirted an upland swamp, and searched burningly in the dark for the green lights I knew should flicker there.

A rotted branch snapped somewhere to the south.

I halted, the shiver of that old false fear tingling in my mind. I put out a hand to a rough tree-trunk, tried in vain to slow my breath, and listened. I searched the fading maze of branches.

I did not hear the sound again.

I could have been walking on a machine in a windowless room, I thought.

The compass swung wild from the lanyard looped around my wrist. I thought about the magic needle spinning in free-fall, deprived of its power because stability was lost. Could I see it now in the dusk if I tried? I lifted it, watched the graying red needle right itself and point north. How long before it went black?

I looked around me. The hemlock veils had fallen away. The horizon was lower. Faint orange encroached on the edges of the mountain’s shadow. I was nearing the top of the ridge.

When pulse and shiver had stilled, I climbed on.

I stopped atop the ridge. The night-creatures around me held their breath, waiting to see what I would do. I reached into the branches of a young red pine, and climbed. There was the sun–just a sliver in the distance when the trees thinned, but golden and warming still, if only in imagination.

When I descended, my palms were sticky with pitch, and I found that I was blind. The black echo of the sun hung in my retinas. I couldn’t see the stones.

I stood until I couldn’t hear my breathing, holding the compass up to my eyes. I had passed a fork leading north and down; I made for it slowly, fearful of stumbling. I could feel the night’s chill coming fast, though still warm from the hike and the climb. I had to go faster.

I stopped to stare at the compass every tenth stride. North, north…not enough east. Where would it lead? Out. It must lead out. No woods are endless these days. But out to where?

I went right at a fork, then right again. I stumbled twice.

Coyote voices aren’t like wolves’. Wolves’ voices are supposed to be chilling. They carry that cold bite with them from far away–always far away, on mountaintops you can never reach. A wolf howl is like a thin cloud across the moon, like a bat’s shadow on the ground–another part of that same romantic terror of the wild darkness that once was so wonderful, and now rolls off me like brushed-away snow.

But coyote voices are different. They sound like mad children. They sound…contagious. Suddenly I wanted to jibber and laugh and wail. I wished for a big, thick length of wood I could swing with both hands. My fingers were cold and slow to move; I clutched them to myself.

I couldn’t go any faster. I couldn’t see what was in front of me, and I didn’t want a twisted ankle. If I had to run, I would run uphill. Not so far to fall.

I stumbled. Stones clattered, and something big crashed away through the brush, for fear of me or the mad things, I do not know. A deer–a series of long leaps, the silences between each longer than the last, until it was gone.

Deer can fly after nightfall. I have seen it.

Humans too, when alone, take on strange powers.

I came suddenly on a clearing–thick, wet grass blue in the starlight. A mound rose to my left, something man-made–but there wasn’t a house or a shed or a rusted bedframe in sight. This shouldn’t be here. I had passed the swamp only twenty strides back–the one where the witch lights were missing.

Was this where they had gone?

I ran. I ran without regard for my ankles, without regard for the compass that swung again from my wrist like the albatross, without regard for the path that had become a rutted road beneath me. I ran from the coyotes and the deer and the whipporwills and even the crickets.
Streetlamps, such ugly and hated things, blotting out the stars with their glare, can become such friends shimmering half a mile away through dark woods.

And with that, I stood stunned on the wrong side of a stone wall, looking into someone’s backyard. The windows glowed, and I shrunk back like a wraith, all my wound up fear of the dark replaced in an instant by fear of people with territorialities and shotguns. I thought about how the glare of a light makes a window opaque when there is dark outside it. I could walk up to their windows and stare into their kitchen and they’d never know.

I took a breath, skirted the shadows at the edge of the lawn, and I was on a road–a real road, paved. A car in a driveway.

I glanced at the compass under a lightpost, shoved my hands in my pockets, and walked east.

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