I have a habit of embracing enterprises that would scare away most sensible people. Once I attended a high school Halloween function dolled up as a Kabuki dancer. While finishing college in California and seeking literary inspiration, I auditioned to be an extra in a soft-core porn flick set on an airplane. And most recently, I did something I had only read about in outdoor-recreation magazines laden with veiny fitness models—the kind whose impossibly chiseled bodies seem to say, “I can dead lift a Buick.”
I decided to go night hiking.
Now, when I say “night hiking,” I don’t mean stargazing in the Arnold Arboretum. I want you to picture climbing a hulking skin-your-knee mountain in total darkness. For some people, the challenge holds an irresistible draw. “Night hiking feels mysterious, even daunting,” says George Heinrichs, a member and former employee of the Appalachian Mountain Club, which leads guided night hikes for novices. “On past outings, I’ve seen moose, bears, skunks, and coyotes, but rarely any other people.” This intrigued me. Despite years of hiking throughout New England, I had never laid eyes on a moose that wasn’t stuffed. The promise of solitude appealed, too. If you know what it feels like to be ambling across a mountain ridgeline, enjoying the sun on your face, only to be jerked from your private reverie by a nearby troop of Boy Scouts hurling rocks at birds or engaging in actual pissing contests from the highest cliff, you understand the relative beauty of silence.
It might sound like madness—especially in light of recent headlines about hallucinating hikers lost for days—but I was bored and in desperate need of an adventure. I had spent most of the previous year working at a big city magazine, emailing publicists and producing copy about a lavish lifestyle I was nowhere close to affording. I wanted tales of recklessness to counteract the effects of the 9-to-5 grind, some new nerve-jangling stories that I could whip out at parties. I wanted to be the sort of guy who fielded questions like “You caught a salmon with your bare hands?” or “Do you want to go someplace quiet?”
So one weekend, I filled a backpack with rain gear, long underwear and protein bars. I bought extra batteries for my headlamp. I told people where I was going, and where to send a search party if I didn’t return after two days. My destination was the mighty Presidential Range of New Hampshire. Between dusk and dawn, I was going to hike 18 rocky miles up and over nine peaks exceeding 4,000 feet in elevation. One of them was Mount Washington, the highest heap of granite in New England.
The drive up from Boston alone was the most exciting thing I had done in months. Watching cars zip through the fading sunlight, I felt my brain buzzing. Most of the drivers tailgating me in the exit lane would be asleep in their beds soon. While they snored, I’d be sitting on an angled ridge, admiring star maps.
Sure enough, the night sky was cloudless when I finally pulled into the parking lot for the trail. My battered Subaru was the only vehicle in sight. As I locked the doors, crickets chirped nearby and small sets of eyes glimmered in the undergrowth.
It was 7 pm. I was on my way.
The woods were silent, save for the occasional hand of wind sweeping through branches. For two hours, I climbed a rooty, meandering trail called the Valley Way. The beam of my headlamp cut through the darkness so intensely that I assumed any living creatures within a six-mile radius had already bolted for Vermont. Yet to my surprise, I happened upon a rare forest resident only moments later: a weasel-like creature known as the pine marten. It stood on its haunches for several seconds, regarding me with a skeptical squint, as if one of us had just broken wind. I hadn’t even made a sound—just moved my jaw a bit—when the little guy gave a shriek and disappeared noisily into the bushes.
I kept climbing.
In daylight, the long ascent to the alpine zone—a treeless moonscape of rock—would have left me wheezing and steaming. One of the unexpected perks of climbing in the dark was my limited vision. I could only see 15 feet of trail before me, which spared me the perennial despair of pulling myself over what surely must be the summit, only to find more granite stairs ahead. When I eventually broke through the tree line, onto the sweeping slopes of Mount Adams, I was breathing with the self-assurance of a yoga instructor. Then I turned around, and my breathing stopped.
I had never seen a landscape with the depth, the color, the clarity of the mountains and valleys below. The moon lit up the land with such shades of violet that my headlamp became superfluous. Far away, little towns glowed like model villages. And beyond them, on the horizon, was a band of blue light running as far as the eye could see, east to west. Was it the early rays of dawn? Had some nearby power plant suffered a gas leak? Either way, I was too enamored to care.
Moments later, as the trail descended into a pocket of trees, I suddenly felt a sharp, burning pain on the back of my left heel, like a knife carving into bone. Stricken, I sat down on a mossy mound and pulled my boot off to reveal a sac of fluid as big as a silver dollar bulging from my heel. It was the kind of inexplicable injury that makes you wonder if long-forgotten sins—say, placing gum in your sister’s hair during a long car ride to Quebec—are finally being addressed by some omniscient power. I couldn’t understand how I’d managed to walk this far without feeling my heel skin being rubbed raw.
Before I could decide whether to pop the blister, a new sensation commanded my attention: a tickling around the upper thighs, and then, a red-hot pinch. I leapt up and aimed my headlamp where I had been sitting. To my horror, it was teeming with spiders. The tiny black things were swarming. I whimpered and slapped furiously at my legs, hoping to knock any clinging arachnids into oblivion before they could reach my reproductive organs.
What happened next still strikes me as comically improbable. As I brushed spiders away, I heard the sound of large feet thumping down the trail in my direction. Moose, I thought, both excited and unsure of what I’d do if it charged at me. Branches smacked against whatever was coming, and I stood to greet it.
Instead of an antlered creature, a gangly man emerged from the trees.
“Hi,” he said, pronouncing the word in two syllables. “I’m Checkers. What’s up?”
“Checkers” must have been at least 35, and looked like he weighed that much. You could see the bones of his skull. Scraggly hairs sprouted from his chin, and he wore an enormous military-issue backpack that appeared to have survived sustained tours of duty. As I tried to explain the situation, he kept shaking his head, as if shooing a stubborn horsefly away.
“Lemme have a look at that foot,” he offered, dropping his pack to the ground.
“Oh, I’ll survive,” I said, thinking, will I? What’s this guy doing out here in the middle of the night? Of course, Checkers could have asked the same thing about me, but there was something about his rigid, alert manner that unsettled me. Or maybe it was the enormous sheathed bowie knife hanging from his belt. For one terrifying moment, I was afraid he would remove it and attempt a DIY fix on my blister.
“You gotta pop that motherfucker,” Checkers said, reaching a sinewy hand into his pack. “I got a first-aid kit. Swab some alcohol on there.”
I was embarrassed to have neglected to bring my own bacitracin. What the hell, I eventually thought. Even if he pulls the knife out, I can’t run in my current condition anyway.
“Really? Would you mind if I borrowed some ointment, then?” I asked cordially.
“Help yourself,” Checkers said with a grin, tossing a zipper pouch my way. After two painful minutes, my blister was drained and bandaged; I could fit my foot in the boot again. The heel still stung, but it was a tolerable pain.
From there, Checkers (I never learned his real name) attached himself to my hip. But he turned out to be an entertaining conversationalist. As we climbed the cone of Mount Washington at 2 am, I was no longer admiring the night sky but listening to Checkers rant about the Orwellian rise of government and his plans for a one-man revolution. They mostly involved burning down post offices during closed hours, and then building an ideological following from prison. I nodded and occasionally offered a thoughtful “mm-hmm” or “interesting,” deciding it would be best not to ask if this would be Checkers’ first stint behind bars.
Strange as it sounds, while hiking along the ridge with this potential madman, my happiness peaked. You couldn’t plan an encounter like this. In one moment, the nature of my adventure had transformed from simply hiking under the stars to enjoying the company of a warm-hearted lunatic. I never let my guard down entirely, eyeing possible escape trails in case some fuse blew in Checkers’ brain. But I savored every moment of our hike—right up to a scarlet 6 am sunrise on Mount Jackson—and refused to view the trip as compromised.
Because really, what’s more adventurous than welcoming whatever—or whoever—the dark throws at you?