I also have a fear of the woods at night. And that crap is legit.
Have you ever stood in the blackness of a forest, on a moonless night, with no light to shine your way? I have.
In 2001, my Dad took me on a bear hunt with him. Our guides dropped us off at tree stands, and instructed us to head down to the dirt horse trail at a certain time each night to meet them there. I did as I was told, and they didn’t come.
I remember standing there, enjoying the giant and majestic pines that towered over me. I remember deeply inhaling the air where cars and buses and factories hadn’t yet dirtied it. It was humbling. And majestic. And then, it became scary as all get-up.
When the sun goes down in the woods, everything slowly turns black around you. Even though the sky is still lit, and you know that somewhere in the distance, the sun is still setting, the trees bring darkness prematurely, and soon you cannot see anything except the black waving tips of their tops above you.
I didn’t have a flashlight. I just had my bow and arrow, a safety pistol, and a backpack full of empty snack wrappers inside. With each moment that passed, even the tips of the trees became indistinguishable from the black sky above them. Silence set in as the birds went to sleep. The wind stopped pushing its gentle way through all the heavy branches. And the world went still.
Which is terrifying if you can’t see a damned thing.
And I couldn’t see anything. Not even the outline of my hand in front of my face. And I was there in that darkness for at least an hour.
Was that a cougar? I heard a twig snap somewhere far in the distance. What the hell was that?! A bear?! I heard the crunch of leaves not too far off. Soon my thoughts began racing to other, more fantastic, and terrifying, and impossible realities. I would die there that night. There was no question.
Luckily, I didn’t. The big, bearded, burly men who gave me my first glimpse of chewing tobacco awfulness, finally showed up with a horse to saddle up on.
But there would be no bearded men coming to my rescue the night I found myself in the blackness of the woods once more, this time with a small half naked child struggling in my arms.
A few years back, I decided to take Noah on a camping trip. Just me, and him. Father and son. Best pals… Bond in the woods. Pitch a tent. Roast marshmallows. Tell stories. And all that other good-dad nature stuff.
Now, if I have even a flicker of a candle flame worth of light, I feel safe in the woods at night, and so camping has always been enjoyable for me, what with all the lanterns, and flashlights, and fires, and cell phones, and glow sticks.
At the campfire that night, we made it through thirty seven renditions of my favorite camping song from when I was a child, because when you’re a kid, singing a new fun song only two or three times just won’t do. I told the story of a friendly giant who loved to watch campsites and protect the people camping inside them from all the bad creatures in the forest. Noah told a story of how that giant got eaten by the bad creatures and then the bad creatures ate the campers. Thanks, pal.
It was romantic, our night together. Everything that dads are hoping for when they take their kids away from society for a night or two.
Eventually, we peed one last time on the tree behind our tent together, we poured water on the fire, we crawled inside of our sleeping bags which we had zipped together, we turned out the lantern, and we snuggled in a way that we both felt safer and warmer. The only light in the tent belonged to Noah’s glow stick which he had taken from around his neck and was holding tight in one hand.
He fell asleep more or less instantly. The effort and energy he had put into our day so far was acting like a horse tranquilizer on his tiny body. I lay there for some time, curling his hair in my fingers, watching his glow stick until my own eyes became heavy and a welcomed blackness settled in.
“Daddy! I have to poop!” Noah whimpered at me hours later. I didn’t know how long we had been out. At some point he had wiggled his way to the other end of the sleeping bag. Everything was black.
I grumbled in response.
“Daddy, I have to poop, bad!” he said.
“Okay buddy, okay,” I said as I sat up and started fumbling for the lantern without luck. I saw no sign of his glow stick. We were in perfect darkness. “I gotta find the lantern, hold on.” Again, I began digging in my drunken sleepiness.
His request became even more panicked. “Dad, I’m gonna poop! I’m gonna poop!”