Through the bare trees I could see down the eastern and western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The wind climbing the gap came in breaths, and the sunset cast the building clouds in a dazzling gold.
If you’ve been in the wilderness at night, you know it can get dark. It strikes me how rarely I’m in a place with absolutely no artificial light—no streetlights yellowing my bedroom blinds, no microwave clock bathing my kitchen in a green glow. In the woods on a moonless night, you can maybe catch the arc of your tent, or the tree branches directly above against a backdrop of stars, but you’re in the thick of it. It can make one feel vulnerable and alone.
"no streetlights yellowing my bedroom blinds, no microwave clock bathing my kitchen in a green glow."
That night near Rabun Bald, I woke in the very early morning to absolute black, the kind of dark I’d last experienced in Mammoth Cave when the tour guide cut the lights. Confused and a little afraid, I switched on my headlamp and opened my tent, and a plume of fog billowed inside.
I’d camped at about 4,000 feet, and in the night north Georgia’s ceiling had descended. I was in a cloud. With my headlamp shining its brightest, I only had 15 feet of visibility. Switched off, there was nothing. No ground, no sky. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.
I decided to get an early start back on the trail. Night hiking wasn’t my plan, and neither was the fog, but there was a full day’s trek to my car and rain was coming. I started packing up inside my tent, and it’s important to note here how quiet it was. The fog muffled whatever breeze came through. The only sound was condensation dripping off the trees. There’s just no substitute for this kind of silence. Early morning on that mountain there was so little to sense, and that really makes you feel like you’re the only thing on earth.
But I wasn’t alone. You never are in the wilderness.
All of the sudden there was this flutter, this desperate flapping against my tent. At first I thought bear. When I’m startled in the woods my mind shoots to the worst-case scenario, no matter how unlikely given the season or the lack of grunts, footsteps, or other bear noises. Then I thought person—someone tapping frantically on my tent to get my attention or to screw with me or to warn me of something. But it became clear the source of the disturbance was small. It could fly. And it was stuck between my tent’s outer shell and its inner webbing. My heart was thumping, but the picture grew clearer. Four in the morning, zero visibility, my headlamp on as I packed my things. I’d trapped a bat.
Now, I’m pretty cool with bats. I live in South Carolina, and when I see them swooping overhead at dusk, I cheer them on. Eat as many mosquitoes as possible, please. Bring your kids. Bring your friends. Keep on feasting. Of course, the vast majority of my experience with bats, and with any animal for that matter, is on their turf. If I’m walking to my car outside my apartment, and there’s a squirrel next to my tire chowing down on an acorn, I’d reach down and give the thing a tiny fist bump if it would let me. But, you take that same cute squirrel and put it in my kitchen, in my space, and I’m going to freak out. That squirrel might as well be a lion, or a ghost, or the ghost of a lion.
Maybe when I’m hiking I like the feeling of missing the stuff I take for granted.
So I smack my tent where I see it fluttering, and it flaps over to the opposite side and back again. I realize my tent is the perfect bat trap. There’s only an inch of open space between the shell and the ground where this invader could crawl out, and I’ve scared it so bad there’s no way it’s going to be calm enough to solve that puzzle. I realize I’m going to have to open the inner net, stick an arm out, and open the shell so it can fly away.
I bite my lip, put on my headlamp, unzip the netting, and yeah, I have to get a look at the thing before I let it go. I open just enough to stick my head through, and then I see it. It’s not a bat. It’s a sparrow. The same brown and tan type of sparrow I probably see every day back home. A freakin’ sparrow.
When the sparrow flew out of the tent and into all that nothing, I had to think how I’d just been so afraid and then so sure and then so wrong. But then I thought, what the hell are you doing up here, little guy? It’s 4:30 a.m. and there’s zero visibility. I envisioned the sparrow flying headfirst into the nearest tree. Because my headlamp was the only source of light in who knows how many miles, I feared the sparrow would dive-bomb me when I left my tent to take a shit. It just seemed so confused and mistaken, so lost.
It’s funny if not a little obvious that the sparrow could say the same about me, clamoring about in my nylon dome in the wee hours, swearing like a sailor at a small woodland creature, hiking up Rabun Bald in the cold dark to see nothing but fog, tearing up my feet for…why exactly?
For the seclusion? Maybe. But I’m far from the reclusive kind of guy William Bartram was. The namesake of the Bartram Trail was one of the U.S.’s first naturalists, embarking on numerous excursions throughout the 18th century south to document local flora and fauna. His writings describe many solo meanderings into blank spots on the map where he discovered new species and witnessed alligators gorge themselves in a river so full of fish, you could walk across its surface. I’ll take a trip alone, but I always prefer to bring a friend along. My fiancée doesn’t typically hike with me, and when I’m gone, I miss her terribly.
To get off the grid? Perhaps. But I’m often checking for service so I can text home or pull down a weather report. I’ve gotten very close to burning precious phone battery on a podcast to help me sleep. Hiking photos go on Facebook the minute I get home.
To be in nature? I guess. But if I’m honest, my favorite part of any trip is eating my post-hike McDonald’s on the drive home…and it’s not like that’s the only time I go to McDonald’s.
Last summer, I hiked the Manistee River Trail up in the glove of Michigan. My dad, who I camped with as a kid but hasn’t backpacked as long as I’ve known him, decided to join me last minute. It was the hottest few days of the year. His pack weighed 50+ pounds. He wore cotton everything. He didn’t trust my water filter. And he was on a diuretic. At the end of our two night trip, he lay down on a picnic bench and couldn’t get up without hitting the deck. He’d hiked himself into kidney failure. Seeing him jaundiced and disoriented in the ER, hearing the doctor hesitate to say he’d be all right—it was terrifying. When he was finally discharged a few days later, we both said it, almost at once, “Why the hell did we do that?”
And the truth is I don’t know. Maybe when I’m hiking I like the feeling of missing the stuff I take for granted. Maybe I like to imagine I’m William Bartram and I’m exploring pristine land before we pushed out the natives, before we drowned so many gorges with our desire for control and cheap power. There’s a light in the woods and it draws me in. I’m like the sparrow in that way. But unlike my lost little friend, I’m not supposed to be out there.
My parents visited last weekend and we went for a quick day hike in Congaree National Park. My dad wore synthetic, moisture wicking shorts and t-shirt, topped with that classic outdoorsy hat you see men in their 60s wear. I wore jeans and a cotton v-neck.
“When we going backpacking again?” he asked me.
Originally from Metro Detroit, Chris Koslowski wandered south via degrees from University of Michigan and the University of Cincinnati. His work has appeared in Blue Mesa Review, Front Porch Journal, and Day One. Chris is an MFA graduate of the University of South Carolina where he currently teaches writing. He's at work on a novel about professional wrestling. He chirps hesitantly @KozlowRazor.
-3 Lessons from ultrarunner
-Role Model: Search Local
-How to Sleep in Your Car
-How to Hitchhike: Advice
-How to Adjust a Backpack
-How to Hitchhike Safely
-Dustin: Hitchhiker *video
- Zach at Niagara Falls *video
-NYC Interview *video
-Trouble Crossing * video
-Iron John Journey *video
-Letter From a Viewer
-Ibn Battuta: Exploreer
-Danny Schmidt/Carrie Elkin
-Top 5 Famous Hitchhikers
-Hitchhiking:Trip at a Glance
-3 Things Lionel Said
-Radio Interview: WEHC
-Adventure: Idea to Action
-Miller's Gourmet Popcorn *
-Poem from a fan
Darrell and Josiah