by Nathan Loomis
One night in late October, after finishing work around 11:30 pm, I returned home at midnight. My usual schedule. During the drive, my thoughts were focused on the hike of Mount Monadnock I had been planning for the next day. Only the following tasks had to happen in the meantime: prepare for bed, get a good night’s sleep, have breakfast, and let the day warm up a bit before starting. But as I gazed up at the stars shining so brilliantly, it struck me: Why wait? The mountain is there now, the night is beautiful, and I am awake. I sat in my kitchen for half an hour, just to see if my plan would hold up to scrutiny. When it did, I packed a small bag with water, two flashlights, a bag of peanuts, and a lighter, and left a note for my sleeping wife. Then I laced up my most trusted pair of hiking boots and walked back outside.
Driving to the trailhead at 12:30 am, I imagined the people who were sleeping in all of the homes along the road. To many of them, this night would pass in an instant, from the moment they fell asleep to the moment they found themselves in bed again the next morning. But for me, the night would be long, and full, and sensuous. A sneaking pride crept into me. I smiled and felt like a thief, stealing this time and running with it while it was left unattended.
I had hiked this trail many times before, but never in the dark. In the daytime, I can usually look up the path a ways and anticipate the spots where I will plant my feet. Now, in the limited bubble of light cast by my headlamp, my usually fluid stride broke down into a kind of jumpy trot, as the features of the trail abruptly popped in and out of sight. I had to keep stopping and looking down to determine where I should step next. Gently, I reminded myself to feel the ground through my boots, using my sense of touch, not just my sight, to guide my feet. Slowly but surely, I gained trust in my stride, and found my rhythm up the trail.
As I climbed higher, the mountain revealed more and more of its beauty. Here, a low shrub in bloom appeared, its flowers like gleaming white pearls. There, a tree I had never noticed shot up, miraculously growing from the smallest crack in stone. A pitched wall of granite I had climbed many times now heaved above me, steeper and more daunting than it had ever seemed before.
Gaining altitude, I felt the wind growing colder, saw the shadowy summit floating overhead in a crystal sea of starlight. Suddenly, a small bird flushed just ahead, fluttering up through the light of my headlamp. I looked up, and as I caught the last flash of its wings, the bird evaporated and became a star among the multitudes. Standing on the highest point, I stretched my hand higher still, reaching into the starry abyss. I had stolen the summit of this majestic peak, along with the hours of hiking that evening. I never wanted to come down. But as fleeting as the vision of that bird in the darkness, the feeling of timelessness gave way too soon to the logistical demands of the descent. I lingered just a moment more, then started back down.
I now found myself descending the trail, coming back to earth. My spirit was filled with longing for my moment of triumph now passed, and I wished I had stayed up there just a little longer. After I re-entered the forest, I found a place to sit down. I drank some water and ate a few handfuls of peanuts. I was ‘me’ again, in my head and my body, sitting on the side of a mountain, a long way from home. I picked myself up and picked my way down. Through patches of dark forest and expanses of ancient rock I went. My knees felt old. I wondered if a knee surgeon could look at an X-ray ten years from now and see the archaeological record of so many hikes on Mount Monadnock.
Near the end of the return trip, a little reflection of light from the trunk of a young birch tree caught my eye. I stopped and peered closer, and discovered that it was a reflective tack that had been placed on the tree as a trail marker. The tack was so small and in such a place that it could only have been meant for marking the trail at night. As I continued down the trail, I began to see them often. I wondered if they had been there at other times when I had walked past those spots, and I felt special to be among those for whom the markers were installed. Here was a secret code from a fellow time-bandit, a communication between members of a clan who knew where the treasure was hidden.
Just as I completed one of the last tricky drops in the dark, and any threat of danger began to soften, a set of these markers twinkled out to me: a smiley-face. Often on hikes I am annoyed by traces of human presence, by a name carved into a tree or an article of clothing hung on a branch. But on this night, as I returned to civilization, I greatly appreciated this smiling message. I felt lifted by the invisible company of another human being. I sailed past the face, and started counting down the steps toward the lights of home.
Nathan Loomis moved to Marlborough, New Hampshire, with his wife in 2013; they now live in Gilsum. Living in such proximity to Mount Monadnock has been a joy for him, and the year he wrote this essay, he fell in love with the mountain. He also set a goal to climb it once every month during 2014 and was successful in nine months out of the twelve. Nathan is a lifelong gardener and works as a social worker in Vermont. He enjoys writing and plans to do more of it.