Thoughts in an Unfamiliar World

by Birgitta Jansen

I am in a place I thought I knew. But in this darkness I have lost my way. There are no lights, no markers to tell me where I am. There is just…darkness. The flashlight resting in my hand is inadequate to the task. I turn it off. No use wasting whatever feeble light it has left. What I had not understood before is that my knowledge of this place, although extensive, is daytime knowledge. I have no night-time knowledge here.

The experience of complete darkness is rare, especially for those who dwell in cities. Darkness isn’t just the absence of light: rather it takes away the world we thought we knew. An impenetrable darkness has no beginning and no end.

Those who have experienced this darkness know its strangeness. Darkness cannot be seen, heard, tasted, felt, or touched. How to tell the story of darkness to suit the depth of it? Darkness hides dangers, secrets, and lovers; it is home to magic and mystery. The time of darkness belongs to witches and warlocks. Black is in every color giving it depth and variation, but black itself is not a color. It doesn’t reflect light. It absorbs it. How to know darkness when never enveloped (cloaked?) in its indifferent embrace?

A friend is camped nearby, but I am only guessing. I do not know how far I’ve walked or into which direction.  I call his name. The sound of my voice dissipates in darkness. Silence reigns. There is not a breath of wind. Am I near his campsite? I’m not sure. What I thought I knew no longer holds.

Earlier, in the last of daylight, I left his campsite to traverse a long, rocky wash to reach my own campsite. I now realize that I left too late. In the backcountry one pays a price for miscalculating time and dusk.

This canyon is carved by water in a steep and rugged mountain range. It has a most remarkable history. In my mind’s eye, I can see how late afternoon sunlight brings out vivid dark red colors in the rocks; how it warms the yellow sedimentary rock formed long ago by deposits of silt and sand. There is layer upon layer of grey limestone built from tiny marine life and from the greenish-black of a three million year old lava flow.

Once upon a time this canyon was a closed basin. Over millions of years, local springs formed ephemeral shallow lakes. These were known only to migrating creatures alive in times different from ours. The deposits from this watery history remain visible in layers called varves. The colors and thickness of these layers, alternating between brown mud and nearly white mineral deposits, tell the story of countless seasons in ancient times.

In our time this landscape looks devoid of life as it lies exposed to burning sun and whims of desert winds. The creosote bushes and prickly pear cacti patiently await the next rain; rain that may or may not come. This canyon has faint and vanishing trails created by human feet long ago. There are stone chips to be found. Now it is lizard country. I have come to know this canyon. Many times I have stood in awe of its power and mystery. I have come to love this canyon.

None of that will help me now. My flashlight illuminates a small circle only a few feet in front of me. There’s nothing to be seen but creosote bushes, rocks, and gullies three to four feet deep. I have crossed many of them already. Everything looks the same from one step to the next in my circle of light.

I sort through my options. If I have to spend the night, I know that hypothermia will not be a problem. The air will cool as the night deepens, but it will remain well above freezing. If necessary I can find a spot to curl up and spend a night on the rocks. I quickly re-evaluate this option: drinks are fine on the rocks, people…not so much. But for one night it might have to do.

I could take a chance and wander around until I see something that I recognize to give me direction. Bad idea. I rule it out. I could sit tight until the moon comes up in a few hours. It should be about half full and provide enough light to find my way. Okay, that’s a “maybe” option.  I decide to try calling out again to get my friend’s attention. I call. I shout. The silence feels absolute. Nothing stirs. I call again.

I ponder my predicament. My mental map was formed over time and many explorations but only during times when I could see. I do not know this place in darkness. In times past there have been countless nights spent out in other places, and when comfortably snuggled into my sleeping bag, I could enjoy the wonder of the sky on a clear and moonless night. There always seemed to be at least a hint of light so that I could see the darker shapes of trees and mountains. But that never mattered. A flashlight was always kept nearby. Now I have to find that sleeping bag. It’s out there – somewhere.

I call out again. I hold on to the belief that my friend will hear me. No reply. Once again I survey my options. Perhaps I overlooked something that I didn’t think of before. Nothing. Remaining in place, I slowly turn a full circle to study my surroundings. The overcast from earlier in the evening is clearing, and I can now see a few stars . . . but the turning disorients me even more.

Suddenly a faint pinprick of light. Then gone. My imagination? Then another tiny distant flash. Gone again. Wishful thinking? If it is my friend’s flashlight, why would it be like a firefly, a tempting flash of light one moment, but gone the next as if it never happened? And why has he not called out to me? If it is my friend, he is still quite a distance away. I must have been further from his camp than I thought I was. Or maybe I cannot hear him. It has to be him. There are no others that I know of, within at least a twenty or thirty mile radius.

I stand motionless. I wait. I keep my eyed fixed on the area where I saw this little light, a minuscule message of hope. I signal with my light. I call out again. No response. My total focus is now on the promise of that light. Finally, and intermittent as it is, the light is getting brighter and coming toward me. I am certain now. It is my friend. I start walking toward him.

When we meet, he seems rather casual about my situation. It is as if such a thing happens every day. He explains that he heard my calls but thought that it was a coyote. Coyote…? Then he chats amiably about someone else, a young man to whom, many years ago, the same thing happened in this very same canyon. One way to try to deal with being disoriented in a canyon is to follow the watercourse down-canyon and, most likely out. And that was what the fellow had done. He just walked out leaving the others to wonder the next morning where he had gone.

My friend says he knows where my campsite is. That is what I hoped because he knows this canyon intimately; an in-depth knowledge gained on many occasions during decades of exploration. The two of us start to walk. His flashlight is much stronger than mine. I make a mental note: “Bring serious flashlight next time.” I hadn’t done so because we had backpacked in and a powerful flashlight is heavy. But when it’s needed, it is really needed.

Some hills loom up next to us. With certainty he says, “Your campsite is just around the corner.” And I believe him. Then I hear him say, “Uhh.., no. This isn’t it. It is probably around the next corner.”

This happens again…and again…. each time his voice less reassuring. It occurs to me, are we now both lost? I don’t ask. Then he stops and says with astonishment in his voice, “I’m not sure.”

Strange – his comment makes me feel better. I’m not the only one who is disoriented in a place I know so well. At the same time I understand that now we really have a problem. I mutter something foolish like “At least we can keep each other warm should that become necessary.” He does not reply.

We start walking again, but this time with hesitation in our step. We walk and we walk, and there is no conversation as he concentrates on trying to find a familiar landmark. 

When crossing one of the many gullies, I have a little “aha moment.” I realize that when he was coming toward me, he was dropping in and out of the gullies, just as I had been and as we were doing now. That’s why the “fire-fly effect” of his light. It pleases me to solve that riddle.

Suddenly: “We’re here. I found it,” he exclaims. I hear relief in his voice. A rock formation looks familiar. I walk around it and there is my sleeping bag on a pad, my pillow, backpack, and supplies.

“Don’t tell anyone I walked you home” he says softly with a smile in his voice as he turns to walk back. I watch his flashlight as it dips in and out of sight until I could see it no longer. I wait for a few more minutes, then I turn and settle into my sleeping bag.  I fall asleep wondering how did the ancients deal with the dark? What did they do when they did not have fire? What was their night-time knowledge?

Birgitta Jansen has been an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. Currently residing in British Columbia, she is a managing editor of the Desert Report, has written previously on a number of environmental topics, and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP.