As a little girl I used to run out to the old horse pasture in front of my parents’ house and gaze up at the stars. Johnston County wasn’t quite so built up back then: there wasn’t a mega Walmart with its theme park-sized parking lot a couple miles away, or a Game Stop wedged between chain restaurants, and there wasn’t a long row of gas stations at an unremarkable truck stop with some fast food annexes haphazardly built on. When I was little there was an abyssal night sky visible, and I could count meteors and satellites and name planets and stars, and feel humbled beneath the enormity of it all. On summer nights I would lie supine for hours with a red cellophane-wrapped flashlight and sliding star chart. In winter I would sprint out, embrace the vast sky with all my childish wonder, then dance back inside to the warm fire on tiptoes that grazed frosty blades of grass outlined in moonlit silver. Growing up and knowing the stars and recognizing their great slogging patterns across the seasonal skies was magical. Now when I visit my parents and wander outside at night, the surrounding subdivision floodlights and thick cloud of light pollution block out the heavens’ stately procession. In time, I learned not to gaze up with expectant star-crossed eyes. Some things, it seemed, were best viewed through a touchscreen, or not at all.
When I poked my head out of my tent on top of Sam Knob shortly after sunset that evening in late September I was shocked. What had happened to the sky? This was no smattering of polite blinking stars seen in suburbia, but the aftermath of some glitter-crazed craft fiend’s tantrum catapulted up at the night. Had there always been this many stars? If so, how had I forgotten them all? And now that I finally found them again, how could I ever stop staring at them in awe?
I was an odd sight for half an hour, hanging halfway out the tent in my warm sleeping bag with my eyes glued to the inky sky above. I listened as McCrae's breathing became heavier and slower, and as the wind whistled across the bald, all the while enraptured by the slow dance of the heavens above.
At some point I realized the sky was darker than before, and glanced about the camp. The camp clearing had become eerie: there was a faint rustle of air that stirred foliage like some living, hunting animal. It was pitch black and impossible to see more than a few feet away, so I blindly groped for my headlamp. The bright beam barely pierced a few feet ahead; fog was rolling in. With visibility only getting worse I pulled myself into the tent and tried to rub the chill from my nose.
That fog changed things though. Suddenly I was no longer lazily lounging atop a tranquil mountain gazing at the sky, but was sharply attuned to any small noise outside my tent. The rain fly flapping against the tent poles was surely some large creature scratching to get inside. The snap of grass and branches was surely some herd of giants searching for a hapless wanderer. And always there was the memory of that fog, the vessel of ghosts and horror and fear.
I couldn't tell if I was terrified or relieved when Ryder got up and indicated he needed to go outside. The thought of venturing out into the mist was awful, and conjured fearful shadowy thoughts of a terrible fate atop a bald mountain. But Ryder was insistent, so I stumbled out with him in tow.
Even with just a 3-foot leash my dog almost disappeared in the mist. It swirled and billowed in the night wind, and I brushed it away from my fluttering eyelashes, like trying to shake water after getting out of a pool. A childhood memory of Disney’s Fantasia ruptured in my brain. I was never able to watch the “Night on Bald Mountain” part alone; how could I face a very real, and very scary bald mountain now?
One moment after the next, that’s how. Every breath I took was another lungful of that ominous mist. Every step was another step away from my warmth and shelter. Droplets of mist beaded on skin. My headlamp cast its frail beam, and I forced myself not to run screaming back to my sleeping bag. I never shed my fear: that stayed with me the entire venture out, even when I began to realize there was nothing else on top of that mountain. I was the thing that went bump in the night through the fog.
Obviously I survived. Obviously it was silly how jarring the night mist was (it was so harmless!). But that’s what’s so uncanny about the backcountry - it’s those puerile examples that - stupidly, crazily, pointlessly - knock you down and make you feel so vulnerable and exposed. That’s what’s wild.