Saturday, September 27, 2008

Hiking in the dark

Sometimes I end up walking, misjudging the distance, and the hike turns into a night hike without planning for one. Occasionally we have planned to walk in the dark. When I was young, living in a small town, the electricity would go off regularly. Sometimes we would be sitting in the movie theater when the lights went out and the movie came to a grinding halt. We would all sit there and clap and yell, but eventually the novelty would wear off and we would file out and walk home. I had to walk up a long hill and it is amazing how dark it is outside with little or no ambient light. The only way I could make sure I didn't fall in a ditch, was to walk with one foot on the pavement and one foot off on the side of the road. It was so dark I really couldn't see my feet.

Maybe it was the darkness of the Colorado Plateau that made me unafraid of the dark and let me know that if you keep walking you will eventually get home or fall into or bump into something. It didn't really matter what happened. One of the more memorable dark night episodes occurred at the Dugway Proving Ground in the salt desert of Utah. At the time, I was being trained as an Army Ranger and I guess they thought it might be a good idea for us to wander around in the dark for a while, just in case we ever had to fight in the dark or anything. So they loaded us all up and trucked us out to the salt desert. It is dark out there at night and I would assume that they chose a night when the moon was supposed to come up pretty late. We were put in teams of two or three and given a compass bearing and a distance. We were supposed to find the next compass bearing and distance at the destination.

We took off in the direction we were supposed to go, walking out across the almost flat and very empty desert. When we had gone the distance, we found the next set of directions, but there was one small problem, back in those pre-digital days, it was too dark to see the directions, or see our compass or even tell what time it was. Every team had a different goal so we weren't all standing around in a group, but we could hear for miles and everybody was having a similar experience. We were on a tiny little hill, mostly just a rise in the ground, and couldn't see a thing. We could barely make out our hands in front of our faces. Looking to the East, I could see a glow on the horizon. I figured if we waited long enough, they would get tired of waiting for us or moon would come up and we would be able to read everything. It is quite interesting standing in the middle of an almost flat desert waiting for the moon to rise. It is amazing how slow the earth turns.

You can probably guess that the moon came up, or I probably wouldn't be telling this story. I can't remember what happened exactly, but I think the organizers got tired of waiting for everyone about 1:00 or 2:00 am and turned on a light and we all walked towards the light, got in our trucks and road back to the base. This must have been some sort-of standard Army experience because from time to time over the years I was in the Army, they would haul us out into the (fill in the blank) and let us try to find our way to (fill in another blank). The novelty of these experiences didn't last long, because before I was in the Army, I had already spent a considerable amount of time wandering around in the desert in the middle of the night. One time, we even swam across Saguaro Lake in the middle of the night. This is not an endorsement for doing things that aren't too bright, in the middle of the night in the desert, but it does cause me to think.

Usually, I start to think about these experiences when I read about someone who wanders away from a camp and gets lost. I could never figure this out. If it were daytime, you can see for miles in the desert and it would be hard to walk far enough so that you couldn't see where you started. Even in the night, there are few clouds and you can almost always see some kind of star which instantly tells you the direction. Even if you can only see a few stars, if you wait a while you can see them move and tell the major cardinal directions. Anyway, the wind always blows from the same direction in the Arizona and Utah at the same time of the year, so even if you can't see anything, if you can feel the wind you know what the directions are. If directions are important that is. It seems like from the time I was young, I had a map of Arizona and Utah in my head and I always knew exactly (or pretty close anyway) where I was.

One time I got disoriented in the middle of the night at Camp Geronimo, near Pine, Arizona. I was walking back to my camp and thought to take a short cut over a hill. When I got over the hill, I didn't know if I had come out above or below my campsite. I walked into another campsite and asked them the number of their site, which, by the way, none of them knew, and finally got an answer and immediately turned and walked to my own campsite.

OK, back to being lost. When I was in the Army in Kentucky and Washington state, I finally realized that with all those trees and bushes, if you got disoriented, it could take a while to find some way to see the sky or anything else for that matter. At least, I could now sympathize with some of the people that got lost.

One of my memorable night hikes was into the Superstition Mountains with a full moon. It was bright enough that we didn't need flashlights and I mostly remember walking through the huge cholla forests, it was like being on another planet. It is interesting but I can remember almost every foot of every trail I have ever hiked. (What a burden!!)

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