I have a thing for walking in the dark. I can’t remember when it started. As a kid, I lived in mortal fear of darkness. I went to bed at night and was afraid to go to the bathroom. An evil presence lurked under the bed. I kept my hands and feet on the bed, never over the side, afraid the beast, whatever it was, would reach out and snatch me away.
I also kept the door of the closet closed. If I went to bed and forgot, the thing in the closet kept me awake. I stared at the open closet all night, afraid to go to sleep—the bogey man living there would jump out and get me.
The monsignor at our school once told a story about a boy who cussed a lot. The boy, who was mischievous, snuck out of his house one night and walked around his neighborhood. At some point, he sat down in the curb. A figure emerged from the shadows and sat down next to him. When the boy looked up, he saw the stranger’s fiery, glowing eyes. It was, the monsignor said, Satan come to take the boy to hell.
I feared that stranger for years.
The fear abated over time, but the feeling there was something in the dark stayed with me. I wouldn’t go out of the house in the dark, and if I did, I only went with someone else. Parents, I figured, protected me from monsters and devils. Sometimes, I might venture out with a friend. Being alone in the dark was something I never wanted to experience.
Things changed in my teenage years. The earliest recollection I have about going for a walkabout at night happened at Boy Scout camp. I would go to bed with the rest of the boys after Taps played over the loud speakers placed all around the sprawling camp. The leaders walked around the tents, making sure we were in our bunks. But they had to go to bed sometime, and when they did, I carefully rose from my cot, slipped on my shoes, and walked around the campsite. More than once, I walked out to the road and past the campsites for the other troops.
A great sense of expansion overcame me when I walked out of the woods onto the open parade ground. The sky spread out overhead with the millions of stars I could never see from our home in the city. Making sure I was alone and no one was looking, I laid down in the short, stubbly grass and stared up into the sky.
One year, a camp staff member who enjoyed a particular popularity among the scouts told a select few of us to meet him on the parade ground at 11 p.m., after the leaders had gone to sleep. The four or five of us met the staff member at the flagpole in the middle of the parade ground. We walked down through the woods into a part of camp where there were no other campsites. We had flashlights with us but didn’t burn them for fear of getting caught. We hiked the half mile or so to the bluffs above the Osage River—this was in the years previous to the creation of Truman Reservoir. The moon showered everything in silver. The rive shone like a ghostly ribbon. We talked in hushed voices. After sitting on the rock bluff for a few minutes, we all fell silent.
One night, a year or so later, the moonlight fell through the forest canopy in pools of pale light on the ground. When the last of the leaders were snoring away in their cabin, I slipped on my shoes. As I was climbing out of the tent past my sleeping bunk mate, I looked out over the campsite. Something fluttered in the darkness. Frozen for a moment, I watched the form approach, illuminated from time to time in the flecks of moonlight raining down from above. When it was close enough, I recognized the creature as a luna moth, something which I had only seen in books. It was giant, about eight inches from wingtip to wingtip. It floated past me so close I could reach out a touch it. My eyes followed the moth as it moved above me, casting a shadow across my face. I felt as if I had just seen one of the world’s great wonders.
I have been camping hundreds of times. There always comes a time to step away from the fire and make my way through the woods down a trail or along a lonely road. I might hike a mile or two in the dark. It doesn’t matter if the moon is shining or not. I guess I have been blessed with good night vision, as I’ve found it’s easier to walk without a flashlight. When I use a flashlight, I can only see where the light falls and my vision becomes accustomed only to the the light. Without the light, things are dimmer, of course. I can make out only large forms and sometimes my sense of distance becomes disoriented. But I can see farther into the woods or across the plain or out over the river. I am in my element.
There’s something comfortable about being enveloped in the night. Nothing can touch me. If there’s a bear or mountain lion, they will get with or without a flashlight on. Friends of mine are always a little disturbed about walking in the dark with me. Understandably. They have never taken the time or felt the courage to take off in the woods at night.
Once, my good friend Joachim and I were camped out on Douglas Creek just before it flowed into the North Platte near the Colorado border. He had come all the way from Germany to visit me while I was at the University of Wyoming. He had never been in such a remote place before. At one point, well after the sun went down and we could hear the mountain lions roaring in the distance, I told him it was time to take a walk. What, he said, go for a walk? Sure, I said, you can’t get lost. We’ll stay on the road. If you can’t see it, you can feel it under your feet.
We walked down toward the North Platte. Wind shushed through the pines surrounded us. We could hear the river in the distance. We walked down out of the woods onto the floodplain. The ambient light showed us the way. We could see the peaks in profile against the stars. Somewhere nearby, a porcupine snuffled through the sagebrush. We stood by the side of the river and took it all in in silence. At once, we decided it was time to head back. When we came into the orbit of our fire again, Joachim said it was one of the most beautiful experiences of this life.
We had hiked together in the dark before. One night we lit out from his house in the tiny village of Wawern, near Trier in Germany. We hiked up through the vineyards to the top of the huge ridge above the village and vineyards. The village lights spidered out in neat lines along the road through the valley. Bright knots of light indicated where the waterworks and electrical transformer station were. After a while, we walked into the woods on top of the ridge. We had no flashlights. Joachim was anxious. Just follow me, I said. We stumbled along on the empty forest floor. Except for our footsteps in the duff and on the fallen twigs and sticks, the night was completely silent. Soon, we broke out of the woods above the village of Ayl.
Coming back home a couple of hours after we left, we shucked the mud from our shoes and sat down in the darkened living room. Do you ever feel afraid of the dark? he asked. All the time, I said. Maybe that’s why I do it.
When I lived in Trier, I would often walk the streets at night. The windows of the houses glowed warm and with secrets. What were the people doing in there? How did they conduct their evenings? What time would they go to bed? Sometimes I walked so long that when I turned back toward my room most of the house lights were off. My footfalls echoed down the street. I felt connected to the sleeping people. I paused in front of store windows and the darkened rooms of restaurants and coffeehouses that were so busy during the day. Walking in the pedestrian zone in the old part of town, I felt like the whole city was mine.
As I returned to my room, I never bothered to turn on the lights. I had five flights of stairs to climb in the darkness. The sounds of my steps and my breath bounced off the walls and down through the stairwell. By the time I fumbled my key into the lock of my room’s door, I felt tired and good. I would sleep well.
When I walk around my neighborhood at night, I regret Kansas City has so many streetlights. I stick to the alleys, where I feel the safety of the night. If I can’t see anyone, I think, no one can see me. I get to see and watch people in their houses. I’m not a voyeur. I don’t seek out the sensational or prurient. I am looking for connections with the people around him. I like to see my neighbors go about their business, watching television or doing the dishes. They are not so different from me, I think. They have cares and worries. They have to take out their trash and vacuum their carpets. They hug and kiss their kids the way I do.
Sometimes, I walk downtown in the dark, nothing but the occasional bus or cab breaks the hum of air conditioners and industrial sounds. The hotel windows are dark. The offices are empty.
Walking in the dark calms me. It makes my cares and worries small and insignificant. It renews my spirit. I always look forward to the neighborhood at night, just to experience the contrast of the day, when the streets are filled with people, cyclists, runners, and dog walkers. No one walks their dogs at 2 a.m. No one I know seeks out the night. In the twenty years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, I have never come across another walker in the night.
As I walk at night, I’m sorry we try so hard to chase away the darkness. The streetlights irritate me. They don’t make me feel safe. The dark is safe. There’s no on there to get me. No fiery-eyed strangers stalk me. My fears and anxieties disappear. I am free of worry. I feel alone but not lonely. I have the comfort of knowing no one but me knows the secrets of the darkness.
Now, I think, I am the stranger who will sit next to you on the curb. The light you see in my eyes, however, will be one of contentment.