(An excerpt from my essay, “On the Personal Acquisition of Meat”)
I had no idea how far I had walked that day in pursuit of the wary antelope herds. When focused on a task, I do not monitor miles or minutes. By now, the sun was approaching the western hills, and it was clearly time to head for camp. Through my 10x binocular, I could see a distant dot that I presumed was our camp near the top of the gently sloping high plains.
After walking through the sagebrush for a couple miles, the high-altitude cirrus clouds were now tinted bright orange. In the foreground hung a dark gray raincloud that, in the end, never delivered. I could now decipher through the binocular the white and blue dots that convinced me that it was our trucks. I did not carry my compass that day, so I consciously forced myself to examine the scene several times and study the fading landscape and the long fence line leading toward the camp. I knew I must sear it into my memory before the sun set just to convince myself for future reference, when I knew the doubts of darkness would fall.
Soon enough I was walking in utter darkness. It was a moonless night, with only a dazzling display of stars above. I reached the fence line and followed it with an undying faith that it was the right fence and that I was going the right direction. It seems strange now, but at the time it required a significant force of will to stay the course. At one point a Barn Owl circled above, studying me. I presume it tried to discern whether I was a threat or rather what I felt like… possible prey. To look at a vertical biped from above might be deceiving to a raptor. They may realize that horizontal bodies of deer and antelope are too large for them to eat, but who knows? From directly overhead, a human may look as small as a plump rabbit. Whatever its intentions, I did not enjoy the vulnerable feeling of being on the other end of the predator-prey relationship. I waved my rifle in the air to warn it that I was dangerous. The large, white owl eventually flew away in search of more appropriate food.
Having volunteered for search and rescue for many years, I was enlightened to be on the other end, the end that begins to doubt which way is up. I could see a dim light in line with the fence line. This light was my only option, but in my mind, it definitely appeared to be moving, getting further away. In a desperate move that later embarrassed me, I loaded the gun and fired off a shot hoping to attract the attention of whoever shone that light.
I had unknowingly walked an incredible distance that day in my attempts to get within range of the antelope, and it was an extremely long walk to get back to our camp. So it seemed. I doggedly walked that fence line for what felt like half the night. In retrospect, however, it was only six miles, and it only took about three hours. I finally arrived at camp barely in time for reheated dinner leftovers with homemade hard “Sapsucker Cider” inside Larry’s warm camper before retiring to my tent. It felt particularly good to be safe within the company of friends, food, and the shelter of our minimal encampment.
It is very common for hikers to get disoriented after darkness falls, and subsequent confusion, doubts, and bad decisions cause them to get lost and/or injured. I have seen it happen many times on search and rescue missions. Good search strategies always include the likelihood that the lost person has abandoned the path or gone in a totally illogical direction. Unfortunately, this is what often happens.
I am blessed and encouraged to know those who have walked a fence line in the dark for months and even years with circumstances much more significant than I experienced that night. Serious injury or illness, death of a spouse or child, abandonment or betrayal, poverty, addiction, depression, or other devastating circumstances can diminish or remove any hope of recovery or purpose. Life is full of situations and struggles that can overwhelm and discourage. Sometimes a serious bombardment of philosophical materialism can have the same effect. Prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. The silence of God is often just as unsettling to a believer as the voice of God can be to an unbeliever. First coined by Saint John of the Cross in 1579, many call this experience the “dark night of the soul.” I have seen these pilgrims use all their “ammo” trying to get God’s attention to no apparent avail, yet they continue to endure the confusion and doggedly walk toward that silent, dim light that seems like just an illusion. I have seen legitimately confused people stubbornly hold to the convictions they held during the daylight, and I have seen many of them eventually emerge from the darkness with a more accurate vision of reality. Some I know are still walking.
Whether with our physical eyes or our spiritual eyes, it becomes imperative to gaze repeatedly at our destination and our path before the shadows fall, and to convincingly persuade ourselves of the right direction before the doubts of darkness cloud our memory and overcome our reason.
May it be an evening star
Shines down upon you
May it be when darkness falls
Your heart will be true
You walk a lonely road
Oh! How far you are from home
Mornie utúlie (darkness has come)
Believe and you will find your way
Mornie alantie (darkness has fallen)
A promise lives within you now
(Lyrics from May It Be, by Roma Ryan from The Lord of the Rings soundtrack)