Adventures in the Dark
The first night I spend under open sky I learn the meaning of darkness. On a later trip, I would enjoy a full moon that spilled a magical, gossamer light over the ancient rock walls and the timeless river, but on this first outing, there is no moon. It’s not just dark—it’s pitch dark. Blindfold dark. Navigate-by-feel-and-sound dark. Definitely bad news for anyone caught away from their camp without a light. But even that is not without its perils. In the jerky slashes of flashlights and headlamps, the rock-strewn sand becomes a moonscape of shifting shadows determined to trip up unsuspecting feet.
Nevertheless, I manage to organize brushing my teeth and one last “smile” break at the water’s edge before finding the camp cot I set up earlier. The pocket that comes with it and the surrounding area of real estate are my “home” for the night. I unroll the silky soft sleeping bag I have been issued and discover a fresh sheet inside. Propping the squishy little camp pillow I brought behind my head, I slide in and stretch out, leaving the bag unzipped and wide open to catch whatever bit of cool might come my way. It’s too small a bed to do any twisting and turning in, nor is it particularly soft, and if it sits on any angle at all, you’re libel to slide out of it during the night, but after the rigors of the day, it is oh-so-welcome. The surrounding cliffs are still throwing off waves of heat, and I leave my sleeping bag wide open to catch whatever bit of cool might come my way.
A dry breeze ruffles across my face like a good night kiss from the desert itself. Within minutes, the rushing water lulls me to sleep.
Maybe I sleep hours, maybe minutes, but when I open my eyes, a river of stars sparkles in a ragged slice of sky between velvet-black cliffs. The view is different every time I wake up, making me aware of the movement of the Earth. I feel like a fly on the wall of the cosmos, infinitesimal in the tides of time and space.
The hot wind whispers off the cliffs at my back, it’s voice nearly swallowed by the water’s drone. “It’s alright,” the sound seems to say. “You belong here. You’re safe.”
As promised, in the small hours the temperature plummets. The wind probes into the open corners of my soft cocoon with chill fingers. That first night, I try to ignore it, for the prospect of digging through my bag in the dark for my flannel shirt feels daunting in this environment. But it’s either that or shiver, so I tackle this mission, hoping that my neighbors won’t notice my clumsy bungling. I grope for the shirt blindly, by feel, shrug into it, and curl up, hedgehog fashion. I drift off again. The following nights I keep layers folded beneath my pillow and slip into them as needed, usually half-asleep.
Getting up to answer the call of nature in this environment is, for the most part, unavoidable. Because we’re in a desert, we drink quantities of water worthy of camels, and at some point long before dawn, my bladder becomes too full to ignore. As the two camp toilets that have been set out could never hold a week’s worth of pee for twenty-odd people, we are to pee in the river itself, or at least wet sand. The reason for this becomes obvious if you consider that all the dry areas of the canyon bottom will be baked by hundred degree heat come morning. It doesn’t take too many campers breaking this rule to ruin a good camp site for quite a while.
That first night I lie on my cot for a long time, contemplating the mission to the river’s soft-sand shore. At this point privacy is still a concern. If I waddle down there with my flashlight everybody will see me and know what I’m up to. Worse, I’ll be operating with a freaking spotlight highlighting my every bare-bottomed move! And who else is up and skulking around out there?
Yes, jet lag makes me stupid.
Dawn is nothing but a dream, but I’m convinced it’s enough light to see by. I get up and stare at the ground. I think I see where I’m going. Three steps later, I know I don’t. The rocky slope has me flat on my rear and clutching a bruised toe. I wonder if I ought to be concerned about venomous reptiles hiding under the rocks jabbing into my backside.
Enough already. Flipping on the little head lamp I took along as a sort of security blanket, I proceed to the river’s edge, daring anyone to notice. But the bundled sleeping bags on the cots tucked between the boulders and sage remain still. All that is visible of my camp-mates are tufts of mussed hair, hands dropped over sides, and faces slack in sleep. Peace permeates the camp.
At the water’s edge, I switch off my light and plunge back into the privacy of darkness. I crouch down and smile, a happy woman. Mission accomplished.