I couldn’t even say when it arrived, the moment it became completely dark, that deep-cave darkness of an overcast country night, stripped of moon and stars. Hard to say there even was an exact moment, so gradual was the dying of the light – a gentle resignation, proceeding by stages so incremental that each seemed a natural, even desirable step.
I didn’t feel like raging as total darkness fell — didn’t even feel fear, really. Point Montaigne. The fading light had borne the little shoulder-philosopher out.
Miles ahead at a lower altitude I could see two small, haloed dots of light through the rain. It had to be Dufton. Extending from my left hand was the rain-dashed beam of my ridiculous penlight, struggling to reach all the way to the ground.
[Editor: The author had packed a flashlight so small that it was useless for anything but helping rescuers check the responsiveness of his pupils after scraping him off the canyon floor. His journal describes him reading a trail guide that said, “In choosing a flashlight, ‘light’ is the key word” – so he chose one that didn’t weigh much.]
Aside from that meagre light, I was in a darkness few of us ever experience. Close your eyes at night in your darkened bedroom in the furthest suburb of any American town, and still the rods in your retinas are picking up photons by the bucketful. Streetlights, moonlight, the skywash of cities – we’re almost never in total darkness.
I first met real darkness standing in my Cub Scout uniform with the rest of Pack 721 and our parents in the lowest part of Meramec Caverns near St. Louis. “Grab the rail or hold someone’s hand good and tight,” the guide said in his Cave Authority voice, “for you are about to experience total darkness, probably for the first time in your life. Is everybody holding on?” He made a big show of looking at each of us with concern; we chuckled. My mother took my hand; I’m sure I rolled my eyes.
“Okay, here we go,” the guide said…then flipped a switch.
I reeled. It was unbelievable. I opened my eyes wide, closed them tight, opened them again. No difference. That’s when I learned that darkness, real darkness, isn’t just the absence of a thing, but a thing itself. It pressed against my face and sat on my head. I squeezed Mom’s hand and she squeezed back. Moms are great that way. Then the lights came back on and we all reeled again.
Now here I was once more in something close to that cave-darkness, this time while walking on the rim of a canyon. And without my mommy.
I started singing the songs I sang to my kids at bedtime: Stardust, Danny Boy, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It’s comfort music, the mashed potatoes and gravy of the repertoire, and it made me feel safe and warm despite the rain, the darkness, and the open pit of death to my left.
At last I smacked into, then opened and walked through, a gate, leading to a one-lane dirt road. I was off the mountain, away from the canyon. I swung the flashlight around, catching the glint of a wire fence on each side of the road. On the right side, I also caught a flash of two glowing red eyes at the same level as mine, just three feet away. I shat for a moment, then decided it was only Satan.
A moment later, Satan mooed. When I was relieved by the close presence of a cow, I realized I’d come a long way in conquering my irrational fears – even a few of my rational ones. To handle the rest, I quietly sang a song that always makes my troubles seem insignificant — Monty Python’s Galaxy Song:
Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolvingThe Sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour
It’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned
The Sun that is the source of all our power
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm at forty thousand miles an hour
In the galaxy we call the Milky Way
Willie and Michel appeared on my shoulders and joined in, three foreign accents announcing our approach to the residents of wee Dufton:
The galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars
It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light-years thick
But out by us it’s just three thousand light-years wide
We’re thirty thousand light-years from galactic central point
We go ’round every two hundred million years
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe
The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whiz
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that’s the fastest speed there is
So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely was your birth
And hope that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space
’cause there’s bugger-all down here on Earth.
At 8:30, I came at last to the two lights I’d seen from the trail, two houses next to each other at the edge of town. In front of one was a lumberjack stuffed into the cab of a pickup.
“So you made it! Brilliant!” Yep, same guy. “You’ll be looking for the pub, I’m guessing.” He pointed up the hill into town. “Right on up, mate, the Stag Inn. You’ll want to hurry, it’s eight-thirty now and they stop serving food at quarter ’til nine.”
Another man came out of the house, pulling on a jacket. He saw me, nodded, then turned and went back into the house, taking the jacket off.
A wave of humiliation washed over me. They’d been on their way out to find the dead American.
I asked the direction to the Coney Garth guest house, and on the way stopped into the pub, 8:35. The usual silence fell over the locals, at which point I realized how I must have looked: rain-soaked, mud to the knees. A little girl ran to her mother’s barstool and buried her face in Mom’s side.
“It’s okay, dear,” Mom said, soothingly. “He’s a wookuh.” It sounded wonderful, special. I liked it. I wasn’t a walker. Walker is too, you know…pedestrian. After 23 miles in the wind and rain, I’d been transformed into something in a spaceport cantina on the planet Tatooine.
I laid my pack inside the door and pulled off my raincoat, then asked the barman what they had to eat. Nothing, he said. We’ve finished serving for the night. I looked at the clock – 8:38.
Okay then. Wriggling back into coat and pack, I made my limping way to Coney Garth, where Mrs. Foster stood in the rain at the gate, umbrella in one hand, a genuinely mighty flashlight in the other.
“I was beginning to wonder about you,” she said – meaning it, I’m sure, in both ways.
This ends a long excerpt of an unpublished book about death and the secular midlife crisis, scheduled for release in 2019. Watch this space for announcements, and thanks for reading. (Excerpt starts here.)