The Impartial Dark

By Green River Preserve

The desperate need for caffeine filled only about half the contents of my consciousness as I dragged myself numbly across the gravel path to Boysville, through a symbolic haze of fog and impenetrable dark. If my ache for something caffeinated — anything caffeinated — was muted at all, it was due to the shocking and contemptible sound of 8-bit electronic iPhone bells still ringing in my ears, just moments after a brutal 4:00 am wake-up.

It helped that today was my favorite part of the whole summer. If I could ever make it to Little Tree – the youngest boys’ cabin which I’ve adopted as a Mentor – it would be time to begin the most difficult and rewarding trial of the three-week session: a three-mile hike, mostly uphill, in the dead of night, in near total darkness and silence.

Leading three-weekers through this rite of passage is a great privilege, one that always demonstrates to me why this session is the best part of the summer. Plus, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” I managed to squeak once I reached Little Tree. One incredulous look after another met my eyes, accompanied by groans and squints and protests in sleepy gibberish. Before long, our shoes were on the right feet, our water bottles filled, and we set off through the waxing moonlight.

We were heading for Pretty Place, a chapel at Camp Greenville three miles along a ridge to the south. If we made good time, we’d reach the chapel for a beautiful sunrise. Shedding our first layer of jackets (night hiker pro-tip: always dress like an onion), we wound along the Iron Gate Road up into the mountains.

If you ever walk a forest trail in darkness, you’ll probably first notice how prone human ankles are to twisting in uncomfortable directions. Or you might be haunted by your imagination running wild, when the deep, slow fear of the unknown and unseen that builds in your mind until you’re absolutely positive that pile of branches is a Dementor or a werewolf or a camp director. (It’s not. It’s just a pile of branches…it’s just a pile of branches.)

But hike in a silent column with a hundred of your best friends, and different kinds of lessons appear. When all you can hear are the swishing of pant legs and the steady march of booted footsteps in every direction, beyond the thin suggestion of objects in the moonlight, your mind drifts toward the sounds of the trail.

How, judging from the crunch of footfalls, the trail must snake to the left up there, or turn from the gravel road. How there’s a subtle difference in the cadence of a forceful breeze and a river crossing. How a scrape, or a thud, or a splash warns of obstacles ahead. How the panting of your neighbors might mean it’s time for a break. How a blackberry bush sounds when its spiny stems snap to packs and pant legs like velcro.

And then you think: How many people know the sound of a blackberry bush?

Just a few moments from Pretty Place, I noticed that the sky had been shifting into daylight. It wouldn’t be long now until sunrise. It had gotten just bright enough for me to tell the twins Chris and Connor apart (knowing each of them for four summers helps — another reason why three-week is the best), but not bright enough to keep me from tangling myself in a rather large pile of branches (Dementor? Werewolf?). To the east stars were fading, and we could see Greenville through the trees, glittering on in the distant blue twilight. We walked a little faster.

At long last we reached the chapel at Pretty Place and filed into cold stone pews. (Night hiker pro-tip: sweat is also cold. This is when you add those layers and bundle up.) To the hum of a Native American style flute, we gazed into the hazy blue yonder and waited.

At 6:27 am, our planet spun to just the perfect degree, and the night finally scattered into memory.

Flooded in visible light once again, and again comforted by a flux of infrared warmth, I was reminded of a set of lines from the poet Mary Oliver. In her poem “Night Flight”, she writes about a descent from a long airplane ride and the sensation of breaking a deep trance born from darkness and elevation. The trance imparts a startling awareness of the great scale and connections of our world, which falls away as the plane lowers into the human realm.

“But now already the loved ones gather
Under the dome of welcome, as we glide
Over the final jutting mountainside,
Across the suburbs tangled in their lights,

And settled softly on the earth once more
Rise in the fierce assumption of our lives—
Discarding smoothly, as we disembark,
All thoughts that held us wiser for a moment
Up there alone, in the impartial dark.”

When the sun rose on Pretty Place this morning, and as we sat in damp silence at the slow-motion turn of the day, there was a similar sense of relief and comfort as a safe landing. And for good reason. This pilgrimage can be difficult and fearsome. It’s much easier on the way back: to find your way in the sunshine, walking downhill to bed and to breakfast, where we’ll arrive happy and mostly unchanged — with one invaluable exception.

Our three-weekers earn the experience of a “Night Flight,” of a momentary and deeply transformative journey. Beyond the great friendships of camp, or the toil of primitive creations, or the closer knowledge of the natural world, campers in our three-week session learn how to seek the joy of being alive.

Whether they return to base camp again next summer, adventure with our Blue Ridge, Outer Banks, Trail Blazers, or Western Expeditions, or move to another stage of life, our three-weekers have learned the value of seeking that impartial dark, that new kind of challenge through which they can chase grander perspectives and wiser thoughts.

And some have heard the sound of a blackberry bush.

Avery McGaha
July 16, 2014