Walking After Midnight 

The dark side of hiking

"I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain - and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light...
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night."
- Robert Frost

Night hiking isn't just for obsessive athletes seeking a cool time to exercise. While it is a great source of free air-conditioning (summer nights in Colorado Springs can dip into the 40s), there are other benefits.

Need the perfect time and place for that delicate heart-to-heart talk? The dark invites intimate disclosure. If you want to bravely open your senses to erotic Nature, hike at night. If you'd like to test your ability to orient yourself without the usual clues, or feel alive outside of the blue halo of prime-time television while breathing air dense with unseen energies, you can do all this, and weaken that tiresome need for control, during a summer night hike.

You won't be alone. I came across 184,000 Web sites sharing the joy of climbing Mount Fiji by the full moon or munching Frosted Flakes at sunrise atop a Hawaiian volcano. Night hiking is one of those instinctive pleasures that many people don't intentionally choose; rather they inadvertently discover it.

Growing up in the wallpaper-peeling humidity of the urban Midwest, I was first enticed into the night by sleeplessness. My mother and I sat on the back porch where we would discuss UFOs and the bizarre lives of long-dead relatives as she dragged on a rare cigarette.

Later in college, I left the squalid disarray of my professor's home (which he and his elderly musician wife decorated in sheet music and cat hair), to be ambushed by his bower of night-blooming jasmine with an olfactory orgasm. A few years later, I began walking at night to sort out personal choices and found it provided more than keen scents and intimate surprise: It satisfies the soul. Like a metaphor for our human journey toward the Unknown, night hiking reminds us that we must often surrender to what cannot be seen or understood and trust in the next step before us.

Todd Martz, Interpretive Specialist at Bear Creek Nature Center, agrees that the unknown is "the big draw" of the city's Moonlight Hikes. "All of our senses are more acute in the dark. It makes for a little fear, a little excitement. Night hikes are one of our most popular programs; we limit them to 30 people and they always fill up."

On one unforgettable outing, Todd lead a group through a still meadow that suddenly came alive when a sleeping herd of mule deer slowly rose amidst the speechless hikers. Apart from hearing the occasional owl, whippoorwill and frog, hikers might also delight in the wafting perfumes of evening primrose and high meadow-blooming yucca.

The El Paso County Parks "Full Moon Hike" and "Twilight Hike" are free and guided by experts like Todd who educate the small groups while allaying their fears. Todd has never come across predators like mountain lions and bears, which prefer to prowl in the early evening and morning. He cautions those who want to hike at night on their own to select level terrain (Fountain Creek, Fox Run, Bear Creek and Santa Fe Trail), take at least one buddy and to use a flashlight only in emergencies. "It takes about 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. If you use a flashlight after that point, it can blind you."

Gene Schermerhorn of the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society also prefers less light for a different reason. It enhances our ability to gawk at the celestial light show above us. "All you need are two eyes ... and a dark spot about half an hour outside the light dome of the city," says Gene, citing Black Forest and eastern El Paso County as close-by but suitable areas for stargazing. Gene says hikers can easily spot Mars' closer approach to the Earth during this summer's months. It appears most clearly after 11 p.m. as a yellow-orange light in the southeastern sky near the Scorpio constellation, rising earlier as summer progresses.

Other stellar events include the Perseids meteor showers beginning August 11 (best seen after midnight) and the on-going but spectacular trajectory of space junk "blazing with different colors from their burning metals" as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. The Colorado Springs Astronomical Society, established more than 20 years ago to promote enjoyment of the night skies, invites the public to peek into members' telescopes during summer "star parties."

If you decide to wander with the stars this summer, I suggest wearing sturdy boots (turned ankles are easier at night), a flask of hot mint-chocolate, binoculars for sky gazing and a video camera. If you don't come home with a video spoof of The Blair Witch Project, you'll disappoint what's left of Western civilization.


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