I have a friend who grew up in Colorado. I listened with indignation one time as he described climbing mountains at midnight.
“But you can’t see anything!” I managed to sputter, expressing my contempt at the idea of hiking in the dark.
But, are all our experiences based upon sight alone? What else could be ‘seen’ in the dark when the ambient light grows dim?
The eye is truly an amazing organ, and sight is a sense unparalleled in constructing our world. Vision dominates the method of how we gain information about our world—by some estimates, over 80% of our information intake. As well, having sight is incredibly important to a hiker. Excuse the pun, but having vison helps a hiker see where they’re going. But with so much of our information intake dominated by our sense of sight, do we sometimes let other sensory input fall by the wayside?
With all my skepticism about the merits of a night hike, I recently commenced on a night hike of my own accord. My goal, of course, was still focused on vision—I was climbing the Tweed Range’s Mount Warning to catch some of the first rays of sun falling upon the Australian continent. After the initial chore of hiking a couple hours in complete darkness, I was expecting to be rewarded with a visual spectacle.
Strapping on my dim headlamp to serve as my guide, I was soon on my way. I stepped onto the trail and glanced about at the journey ahead. In the dusky glow of my headlamp, silhouettes of giant palms and tree ferns encircled me. Shadows danced about every time I swung my head. In the low levels of light, the foliage of the rainforest seemed ethereal, alive, almost magical. My standard sense of vision, I realized, was altered. Instead of seeing nothing, I was going to experience the world in a different light.
As I continued to climb in near darkness, I found my eyes drawn to any small source of light they could detect. In the absence of daylight, other sources of light make their presence known. Often I paused to gaze up at the stars, always shining, but obscured in the light of day. In the distance, I could see the twinkling glimmer of coastal towns, swaths of light in an otherwise dark world. Along trail cuts was the glow of bioluminescence—glowworms, hunting at night, producing their own light to attract unsuspecting insects. The bright light of daytime hides such treasures from us. It is the absence of daylight that draws our attention to them.
I found, too, that my other senses grew keener as my vision was reduced. I paid much more attention to sounds—the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves, the sound of a possum scurrying about. Smells were enhanced. I breathed in deeply the sultry tropical scents of the rainforest air. The humidity of the forest filled my nostrils and clung to my skin as I climbed in the night dew. Every brush of foliage against my arms came rightly to my attention. Things normally filtered out by my subconscious were now fully realized.
I summited Mount Warning in the dead of night, before any hints of lightness came over the horizon. I knew I’d have to wait for the expected visual show to arrive, but the show I experienced on my upward climb had made the whole trip already worthwhile. It turned out that a lack of sight had opened me up to many different avenues of experiencing the journey.
I stuck around to see the visual sunrise show. Waiting on the summit viewing platform for over two hours in the dark, my eyes became primed to see the subtle changes as the new day broke forth. I watched, riveted, as the sky slowly began to illuminate and go through its many moods and colors of dawn. At last the sun broke above the horizon, bathing the world in its fresh luminosity. I had successfully caught the sunrise. But that morning, I had caught so much more than just a sunrise.