A Cyclops in the Night

When I was a kid, I had a specific routine for turning off my bedroom light at night.  The rules were fairly simple:  First, ask Mom or Dad to do it.  If you have to do it for some reason, flip the light off, then sprint like a jackrabbit for the bed and jump in.  Pull the covers over your head for a few minutes.  If everything feels safe, your head can be withdrawn from the blankets.  If you feel really safe and it’s hot out, you may lay your arms on top of the covers.

As I got older I took a different approach, and refused to run in the dark.  It made me feel like something was actually chasing me, and at the same time I felt foolish for being scared when I knew I was only surrounded by things like furniture or canned food.  If I had to walk through a dark room, I would keep an even pace the whole distance, and if I was really nervous, I would close the door behind me as I left and burst into a short sprint as soon as I stepped into the light.  The same tactic applied to visiting the outhouse on camping trips:  Never, never run in the dark.  (But do get a friend to walk with you if you can.)

I’m an adult now, and haven’t truly been scared of the dark for a long time.  Feeling actually at home in the dark — particularly in the wilderness — has taken a little longer, but I’ve gotten there.  Spend enough time hiking back to trailheads between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight, and you’ll know what I mean.

I was not yet at home in the dark back in 2004 when I was hired as an intern at Mount Rainier National Park for the summer.  It was a great job, even if it didn’t pay much, and the best part of it was that I got to live in a cabin in the park.  I had only backpacked once prior to that year.  The first time had been its own fiasco of inappropriate gear, a collapsed tent, and a very rainy weekend.  I had loved it.  This year found me a little better prepared, and I was determined to hike as many of Rainier’s trails as I could before returning home in the fall.

The Palisades Trail lies in the northeastern corner of Mount Rainier N.P.  It’s a small spur trail, only about 3.5 miles long and starting from the Sunrise Point parking area.  Camping is available by reservation at Upper Palisades Lake, located at the far end of the trail.  I had obtained a camping permit for the site one weekend, and since the distance was short, I started up the trail rather late in the day.  It was twilight when I arrived at the designated area.  After congratulating myself for covering the distance without having to use my headlamp, I looked around and discovered that all the camp sites had been taken.  The camp’s occupants had all apparently withdrawn into their tents for the evening, and I was alone.

I stood still for a moment, frustrated and uncertain, my useless camp permit dangling from my bag.  If I found myself in the same situation today, I would be a lot more willing to either call out to people in their tents or, more likely, just find an undesignated spot to set up my tent somewhere nearby.  But I was a timid novice back then, and a park employee working on a restoration crew.  I was all about following the park rules, so after aiming some silent glares at the unseen and unseeing camp hogs, I put on my headlamp and stalked back down the trail.

Twilight disappears fast in tall forest, and soon I could see little outside the small pool of light created by my headlamp.  I walked briskly, not running, still more irritated than nervous about being caught out in the dark, until a large shape blundered across the trail in front of me and crashed back into the woods on the other side.  I pulled up short.  Elk?  Bear?  I hadn’t been able to see what it was.  Feeling less confident now, I gripped my hiking poles tighter and continued on, walking a little slower and making occasional noises to alert any other animals to my presence.  I did not want to surprise anything else in the dark.

The hike continued uneventfully for a while, until I came around a bend in the trail, looked up, and saw another headlamp shining at me from a distance.  That’s weird, I thought.  I wouldn’t have expected to see another person out on the trail so late in the evening.  Weirder still, as I walked forward, I realized that the other person wasn’t moving forward at all.  The person was standing very still in the middle of the path, and from the angle of the other headlamp light, he (she?) was staring directly at me.

I can’t really explain what I did next.  Instead of the normal, sensible response, which would have been to call out a greeting of some kind, I slowed down my pace, and kept absolutely silent.  I wasn’t in any way hidden; my own headlamp was surely as obvious to the stranger as his was to me.  The stranger’s headlamp did not move as I approached, and I found myself holding one of my hiking poles out in front of me like… well, like a sword.  I kept walking.  The other light didn’t move.  None of it made any sense.

…Until my hiking pole came up against a tree with a single, circular reflector attached to its trunk.  The reflector marked the end of the trail, and the beginning of the Sunrise Point parking area.

Feeling both relieved and sheepish, I went over to my car and set myself up for a night of sleeping in the driver’s seat.  From the open vista of the parking lot,  the stars hung clear and bright in their dome.  In the morning I woke up at first light, and saw firsthand how the parking area had gotten its name.  There in the distance loomed the solitary Mount Rainier, glowing pink above the rest of the landscape.  I crawled out of my sleeping bag and pulled out my camera.  Not such a bad camp site after all, I thought.


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