I’m now comfortable in the darkness of the sequoia forest as if it were my own skin. When insomnia awakened me at night as a child, I would feel my way deliberately down the hallway and across the furniture, without turning on the lights, remembering instead the placement of each obstacle in my path. Mastering the darkness was exciting, the way it tested and forced me to be brave. The darkness taught me to see with my senses, not simply through my eyes. It is the same way now with the forest.
Tonight I decide to hike to Sunset Rock to sit beneath the stars for what may be the last time here. My headlamp is forgotten in my cabin but I don’t care. The slivered moon remains hidden behind the sheer granite faces and heavy forest canopy. I drive my car to the chained service road near Round Meadow. On the other side of the road the path is wide, the direction it takes overly familiar from my years of use. I walk straight until the soft ground turns hard, then right when the forest thins out. From memory my feet follow each twist and bend along the trail at the edge of an old pine forest. Twigs and fallen branches snap under my hiking boots as I walk slowly.
I do this more to savor the act of walking than to feel my way in the darkness. Nighthiking becomes an instinctive act. I move forward. Eyes open, then closed. My heart beats loudly, rhythmically, but the sound doesn’t frighten me. Still unable to discern tangible and familiar shapes, but it hardly matters. This is a darkness to which human eyes cannot adjust. Like swimming in a blueblack ocean under a moonless sky.
There is always the possibility of falling, stumbling over a large rock underfoot. I trust. With each movement, each step, my feet will meet solid earth. I walk without hesitation. With the same sort of ignorant faith that once made me believe a former lover, when he had lied to me many times before. The air overflows tonight with the the musty forest scent of loam and wet, decaying leaves.
The trail isn’t long and when my boots scrape the huge granite boulders, I know to stop. In a clearing now, out of the darkness, my eyes focus on the outline of the valley below. The moon has risen slightly and the rocks reflect the pale light, illuminated white and shiny. We came here once my first season, to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. How could I have known that the towns would look so small, pinpricks of light in the distance, or known that the ledge where we watched was much higher than the tiny, far away explosions? I remember disappointment, because there was no sound, no loud booms or firecrackers, only the midsummer sounds of crickets and owls.
I’ve spent so much time here. We came to these rocks to drink wine and tell ghost stories, to watch sunsets, and to sunbathe in the late summer before the weather turned cold. If I could put all the time together in a straight and continuous line, Sequoia is the one place I’ve lived the longest since I was a child. This forest is my home.
Lying against the rocks, the granite is cold and rough on my back. I look up at the sky and try to find the few constellations I know. Aries, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, the Pleiades. Since I was a small child I’ve searched in every clear nighttime sky for those same constellations. Always comforted by knowing they are there, fixed and constant.
At this high elevation the stars seem close enough to touch if I reach out my hand, the Milky Way a curling ribbon of smoke that weaves in between and around the stars. The planet Jupiter looks like a single star, not much brighter than the others. And in the place where I know a lacework nebula exists, I see nothing.
I am feeling very small, humbled by the vastness of such a sky. I’ll need to make a decision soon about where to go this time when I leave. I have clarity enough to know that I’ve learned what I needed to from this forest, have learned many of its secrets. Feeling very small, but not scared of this open expanse of life. The shadows and tall trees will outlive me.