2002.09.04 On a walk into the night

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

I was making my way to Adrian about 2:45 last Wednesday morning. The paper was printed late and I had to fetch it in the middle of the night so that everything could get addressed and mailed on time.

This happens every so often, and when it does, I listen to the Art Bell radio show on my way to the press room. Art features an interesting parade of people who might be best described as those on the fringes of science.

That night, yet another expert was talking about sasquatch. He has no doubt that a species of animal exists that’s neither ape nor human. It’s large, it smells and it’s remains are never found.

A long series of advertisements was about to begin so I switched back to a public radio station that offers the British World Service news, an all-night show of news and features from around the world.

I changed just in time to hear the announcer introduce the next segment, in which a man named Chris Yates would set out at nightfall for a stroll through the Wiltshire countryside in the south of England—without a flashlight, or torch, as they say. I never went back to sasquatch.

When Yates set out from a pub, it was still twilight and the birds were loud. That soon changed as the excerpts from his walk continued. Eventually, the midnight bells were heard from the village and the dark closed in around him.

I knew I had to do a similar walk. It didn’t take much to convince my friend, Brad, to join me on a stroll along the Bean—without a torch.

I’ve been along the Bean at night before and I know it really never gets dark down there. There are too many factory lights, store lights and street lights. But when we first reached the start of the path, everything looked very black.

There was only the slightest breach in the line of trees to even suggest a path, and as we stumbled down the hill into the trees, I began to wonder if this idea was feasible.

Maybe our eyes hadn’t yet adjusted, but I remember that first stretch as the darkest. Lights are fairly blocked out. There didn’t seem to be a path in sight. But I think some sort of instinct took over.

We crossed the little makeshift bridge over the now-dry drain leading out of Valentine’s Swamp and I said to Brad, in the lead, “I think there’s a fallen log right about here.” Sure enough, another step and he was up against it.

Chris Yates, who walked from dusk to dawn, said he was quite afraid of the dark as a youngster until he wandered out into his grandmother’s garden one night. The mysterious became magical and he grew to love the dark.

Other senses take over in the dark. Brad and I noticed the feel of every stick we walked on. Slight changes in elevation became magnified. Odors would come and go. Temperatures would vary slightly. The night was alive with crickets and frongs. And what else?

The path curved over toward the creek and the night sky became visible. An amazing display of stars. Small spots of light in the creek turned out to be the reflections of stars, but the little lights along the path were glowing larvae of some sort.

Looking up, leaves were outlined against the sky; looking ahead, our eyes strained to see. It wasn’t dark enough to shut out everything, but there wasn’t enough light to really focus on anything.

Eventually I had enough of following Brad’s white shirt. It seemed too easy so I over the lead. It’s surprising how often the path is visible as a faint light ribbon through the trees, but it’s even more surprising how we found our way through when there was no hint of a path, when I felt completely lost. A few more hesitant steps and I headed down a familiar hill. I had my bearings again.

Yates believes there’s an ancestral uneasiness about the night, probably something to do with avoiding predators.

“No matter how much I love the night,” he says, “there’s this other sense that tells me I shouldn’t be here.”

Perhaps it’s as simple as this, he says: If we didn’t avoid the night, we wouldn’t survive it.

Brad and I survived our walk into the night and now I want to do it again—alone, without a torch. I walked the overgrown path the next day in the light and wondered how we ever made it.

    – Sept. 4, 2002 
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