By Jerry Audet
The darkness was especially murky and complete on this new moon night; the woods were silent and still. The light from my headlamp stopped abruptly in front of me, inducing the feelings of being closed into a tunnel.
Distracted and distant, fishing wasn’t going to happen tonight; and so I was already walking back to the car.
As I walked, I was adrift in my mind, fully devoid of any awareness of what was going on around me. Trapped in my head. When I get stuck on thoughts, problems, like I was on this night, I have the ability to completely separate myself from reality and go within.
The tunnel of light, silence of the woods around me, and my own careening mind gave me the feeling of claustrophobia. I decided to risk a bruised toe and flip off my light, attempting to escape into the dark.
Clicking the button on my headlamp plunged me into blackness deep enough to make me stop. I stood frozen, letting my eyes adjust. Once I could vaguely make out the sky line and the path in front of me, I started to walk again.
As I walked, I felt the forest closing in on me. But not with malevolence. As I walked in the dark, I felt I was becoming part of the landscape; not something alien passing through it. I melted into it, just another passing animal in the night.
Fear of the dark is something we feel biologically. But just like anything else, we can psychologically train ourselves to not be afraid. I am not afraid of the dark anymore. However, I couldn’t help but feel I had been walking with my light on, not so that I could see, but so I could push out my surroundings. Now, in the quiet night, I could feel the dark enveloping me and drawing me back to the present.
Being out in the forest at night is not something people go looking for. It is something to be avoided; like getting your feet wet. When I talk to “normals” about my night-fishing adventures, I often get many raised eyebrows and empty stares. They are usually quick to change the subject; out of boredom, or confusion, or disinterest I’m not sure.
Light off, I continued to walk in the total darkness, feeling my mental focus going outwards even further. Pushing off the path and into the forest. I could now hear little chirps and squeaks in the underbrush I hadn’t noticed before.
I walked through a small depression in the trail, and was enveloped by a soft spot of cooler air. It reminded me of something, a feeling of sometime long ago. It was a memory of a smell and a feeling; but I couldn’t pull it into my present. Instead, for a few breaths it just hung around me like a presence.
Then, in the distance, a coyote let out a few fleeting yelps and a single short howl. There was a momentary pause of utter silence, and then the woods erupted in the calls of a full pack.
A smile crossed my face, and the memory crystallized.
I was transported back to being 11 years old. Living in Vermont, my bike was my life. I could go anywhere, as long as my legs could handle it. There was no traffic, no street lights. Just endless dirt roads, and friends who lived miles and miles apart. If I wanted to see them, before I could drive, sometimes it meant I would have to bike 10 miles. I never really had a curfew. No one worried about anything like kidnappers where I am from. You, literally, knew everyone. So, often I would be coming back at sunset, or even during the dark. For a kid with a big imagination and no flashlight, this sometimes took a fair amount of bravery.
There was a spot I used to pass through that was a small valley with a stream at the bottom. My friends Alana and Izzy- two neighbors that were practically sisters to me- used to always say that’s where the coyotes would get you at night. I guess someone saw one there, once, although I had never seen one- and haven’t yet in the 23 years my parents have lived there.
When I would get to the crest of the hill before the tiny ravine, before I plunged down the other side, I would slow to a crawl and take a deep breath, preparing myself for the assault at “coyote valley”. I would then launch myself down the hill, pedaling as hard as I could and shifting quickly, until my feet spun to a blur of motion. I would sail through the valley, and even in July, it would often be filled with cool, wet fog which would stick to my eyelashes and create a sheen on my arms and legs. I would drop into it, and it would blur my vision, making motion seemingly stop. I would careen along the dirt road, rocks and gravel shooting in all directions, absolutely positive a pack of coyotes was closing in on me from all sides in the mist. My lunges would be burning as I reached the hill on the other side, and I would stand up and pedal as hard as I could until I reached the crest again. Once at the top, I sometimes would be dizzy from effort and breathing hard enough to cause a stitch in my shoulder. However, once I “knew” I had survived, and was safe at the crest, I would again begin my leisurely ride home.
No head lamp; no cars. Just bird calls of late evening and tree frogs.
The calls of the coyotes dwindled to a single individual again, who seemed to be trying to chide the group on, and then suddenly it was completely silent.
I started to walk once more. I had completely forgotten the problems of only minutes ago.
Just another animal in the woods at night.