I turn my headlight out and I’m plunged into darkness. My ears, legally deaf, immediately take on that familiar change. It seems that I can hear everything in the familiar surroundings of the mountainside outside my home. My sense of smell gets sharper, all of which are nothing more than phantoms, memories of my childhood, when I used to slide out of our single-wide/shack of a house and fade into the night to be alone.
My eyes don’t adjust to the night as they once did. I wait impatiently, my sight fixated on the darkest point I can find, which is, at this moment in the dark of the moon, the ground. Out of habit, I count of the seconds in my head. “Nine, ten.” I look around and can still see nothing, just the glow of the campfire, built of habit and nostalgia earlier this evening, when the air took on the familiar chill of the oncoming autumn. I wait. In the darkness, I feel around for my log, which no doubt carries my scent like a beacon to the local wildlife. I hardly need to feel, for I have been here many, many times.
Night blindness fades to a dull gray, then to shades of black and white. The sounds of tree frogs and rustlings of small creatures enjoying their nightly freedom from the sun dulls slightly as my eyesight improves. “Nineteen, twenty.” My eyes are definitely getting a bit worse. Years of welders flash, the reflection of the sun off snow in the mountains of the west, coal mining and too much time in front of the computer and in the confined spaces of various office buildings have taken their toll. I could never hear anything to speak of anyway, and I spent most of my youngest years nearly deaf.
My sense of smell doesn’t betray me though. I can smell the leaf rot, the faintest scents of the hickory fire, now some distance from me, the topsoil, the mushrooms, flowering nightshade and the soft Appalachian mist. I wait.
As he always does, my cat Stubbs materializes into thin air beside me. In some ways he’s better than a dog. He’s more dependable, less distracted by unimportant sounds and smells and most importantly, he is an instant beacon of something amiss. If he suddenly vanishes during these nightly meanderings, something is not quite right.
One night it was our old friend the bear, whom I have started calling Baloo. We didn’t exactly chat, despite our familiarity. He knows more about me than I will ever know of him, and I wonder sometimes what will happen to him. Will he live out his days in the peace and solitude that he enjoys now? Something tells me he will not. He’s too big, the perfect trophy bear for something unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. I avert my eyes and wait until he wanders away. Woofing once as if to say, “I saw you first.”
There is no sign of Baloo tonight, not fresh anyway. Stubbs is giving the “All clear, now can we go?” look that only cats can give. Black as ink, he fades away, staying just within sight, following me, relentlessly curious of these occasional outings. I’m not feeling my best, and it’s unseasonably cold. I’m in search of mushrooms tonight, which have exploded out of the moist soil everywhere in response to the late season rains and cool weather. I have to be careful not to step on them, slightly glowing with phosphorescence in the black night. My goal is the top of the ridge, but it is a loose goal. I’m not out for physical exercise, but mental peace.
Not that I don’t have or am not at peace normally. My time in the mountains this past year have rolled years off my life. My mountain stride has returned and while I am by no means silent to the occupants of the forest, who normally give me a wide berth, but I have no doubt that few humans could follow me in the damp leaves and soft soil. I leave as little trace as I can out of habit. One person who could follow me, always, was my brother James.
He is the king of old school, chaffing at the bridle of work and bills, longing in his deepest soul to be free. Not free from family – he is the most family oriented person I ever met. Free in the sense of our ancestors, who poured their soul into the livelihood once available in these mountains, now as unoccupied in places as they have ever been. I feel the same, more often than not. My son wanders these hills with me in the early morning and afternoons, when our trips are much shorter, and more wondrous than I ever imagined. He and Stubbs are constant companions, never complaining, always seeing what I don’t. At a year and a half, every spot of soil, every insect, every rock, every growing thing is something wonderful to be experienced. He can discover more in a square foot than I can in an acre.
My hope is that these early experiences imprint upon his memory. No matter where we go, travel or live; I want him to feel free in these mountains. Am I greedy? Selfish? Perhaps. But I want him to remember the sounds, the feel, the terrain, if not consciously, then emotionally, on a deep level. The splash of mountain streams, still full of trout if you know where to look. Berries and mushrooms and wild apples and found pear trees are our greatest discoveries, which we then lug home to his Mom, who worriedly praises him for his catch. She, naturally enough, worries that he may eat something that could cause him harm. Or that I may fall and leave him alone. I do carry my phone on these outings, but not at night.
This night I only carried my standby – my old knife. It was given to me, as most of my knives were, by my Dad, who recognizes that there is still something unsuitable to modern life within me. My mother feels it most, I think, as she sometimes watches me gazing into the mountains with pure, unadulterated love.
I locate pounds of mushrooms and leave them be. I talk with Stubbs quietly of the magnitude of the night sky, unrestricted by light or particulates still in this part of the world. Before I know it, we have reached the top. I’m still working into my stride, making too much noise. I’m limping a bit, as older men who have cheated death too many times are wont to do. I tell Stubbs I’m sorry about the noise, but he seems to think it’s ok. He rubs his head on me as I flop down to enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains, the stars and listen to the river run below. He stands aside though, no begging or attempts to be held. He’s confident in his world here. It’s his. He is more at home in the night than I will ever be.
Sweeping the day aside, my stride returning, I make my way home. I am not as silent as the cat, but I’m not exactly noisy. I leave no tracks that I can see, although I have no doubt that James could.
I sit for a bit on our swing on the outer edge of the clearing, where the tentative yard meets the forest. Our house looks warm and inviting and the fire is still glowing softly.
As my headlight blinks on, I return with a thud to the present and to reality. I turn to look at the mountains once more, and catch the light from Stubbs eyes briefly as he heads back into the forest, his real home.
Our house seems cramped and too warm. I slide up the steps to Nolan’s room and listen to his soft breathing. All is still and I am once again content. The pain of the day is purged and I will be able to sleep, eventually.
I shed my jacket reluctantly, putting it back in the shed so that less smell will carry from it. I hang my shapeless hat beside it and place the knife on the bench. Just like that, I have shed the night and answered my own call of the wild. Until tomorrow.