At sunset we assemble our young students at the edge of the maritime forest on Saint Simons Island. We are about to explore the edges of our bravery as we begin our annual Night Hike, an integral component of our Driftwood Camp experience.
The evening activity is studded with information: we play an echo-location game to consider the “blind”flight of bats, we visit a rescued horned owl who-who-who-ing as we come and go past his large enclosure, and then the actual hike begins. Up to this point we’ve had no artificial illumination. As we leave paved roads for pine needle and dirt pathways new students ask for flashlights. The request is denied. The value of this journey truly begins at this moment when expected comfort is gently refused.
Through the years there has been a wide range of resistance. The most vehement protest was a parent’s who was certain such a venture could not safely be accomplished. Our camp counselor leads us forward; as a lead teacher, I sooth the resistant, and forward we go, together.
I am sympathetic to the resistors. I am still unsettled, if no longer scared, by dark places. This wood is dark indeed. The trail has twists and dips and debris unaccounted for, which is to be expected in Reality. This is what we are engaging in the dark: the unexpected, which is everyone’s fate.
I especially enjoy the years when our counselor allows the kids to be truly tested. I once read an interview with a shaman from West Africa who said that the Western civilization is devoid of significant rites of passage that actually carry genuine risk. He hypothesized that teens’ risk-seeking behaviors in our culture were their attempt to sufficiently challenge themselves trying to fill this void.
On our hike we stop often in order to do the series of prescribed activities. One has us identifying things by touch and another by smell. Our earlier echo-location game relied on our sense of hearing. We do a tasty exercise to demonstrate triboluminescence of wintergreen mints and quartz, then learn about the eye’s ability to adapt to the darkness. By the time we’ve rounded out our sensory experience we’ve meandered all around the prescribed forest without the assistance of artificial light. We’ve now come to an area a little more than one hundred yards from our forest exit, and the site of our greatest challenge: the solo walk.
Our counselor departs first. A few minutes later the first brave student follows though the counselor is no longer visible. Our eyes have adjusted to the dark enough so I can see the wide round eyes of students seeking their courage. The tree lined path is obvious, but it is still dark and you are still alone as you walk the few minutes that test your courage. The students are bunched up by the staff as they reach within for the determination to launch themselves forward, alone, a bit scared.
The first year we did this I was the last to go. After sending the last teacher on her way I had to wait for the few minutes it took her to advance out of sight and then the same amount again as I did my portion of the solo walk. As I waited alone, I began to imagine a murderer who cleverly waited in the woods for the last walker, me. I had to dig down within myself to find the mature resolve in order to walk and not run out of the woods, but walk I did.
This year our group has been quiet, engaged. No one is overly troubled when facing the walk. Even our new student swallows any complaints and steps forward when beckoned. All too soon I am sending the last teacher on her way and my double scoop of dark solitude begins.
This time I relish every quiet, dim moment and then I begin my walk out of the forest.