My Longest Night

If I am up on a ladder working on something and I drop something like a nut or a screw, my eyes immediately focus on the falling item and track it until it stops and I get down to retrieve it. Every time that my eyes instantly track the falling item, I remember my longest night.

My longest night began, as it should, on Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, with an early-morning start on a xc ski route Bob and I wanted to try. For several weeks, we had been exploring the untracked slopes that lay to the right of a ski area and now we wanted to explore the steeper area to the left. Our plan was to ascend the left ridge that paralleled the road to the ski area, explore along it, and then drop back down to the road near the ski area and ski back down to the car. This ridgetop turned out to not be the gently rounded, deep snow and forest ridges of our other explorations.

Longest Night

This ridge became a craggy spine of rock towers surrounded by steep snowfields. Instead of being able to ski along the crest, the snarly top kept forcing us into contouring along the steep left flanks, opposite the right flanks on whose side the ski area lay. As afternoon waned, we crossed back over this ridgeline to descend the slopes back to the ski area. That slope was too steep to ski so we took off our skis and trudged down the slope. As we went down, the cable binding came off my ski and slid down the slope ahead of me. I laughed, because it was all part of the adventure and I was young, invincible, immortal, and I knew I would find it at the bottom of the slope because gravity works in a predictable way.

But we didn’t find it at the bottom and that created a problem because that binding held my foot onto the ski. Without the binding, I was connected to only one ski in deep unpacked snow. We fixed that by tying my unconnected foot to its ski with some nylon rope. The rope around the bottom of the ski prevented it from gliding so I could not do a natural stride but the resulting shuffle was all right because we were just following the slope back down to the road.

Except we didn’t get to the road. We kept following the slope down through a series of open slopes (meadows in summer) and forests as the shortest day of the year faded into the dusk of the longest night of the year and still we did not come to the road. In the evening, we finally came upon a wide open path that suggested a snow-covered dirt road contouring through the forest. The ski area must be to the right so we started following the open line through the woods in that direction. Night darkened but the darkness of a snow-filled forest is brighter than familiar darkness. It has distance and rounded softness, filled with a silence muffled by the snow.

Eventually we came upon a forest service road sign barely sticking through the snow that said the ski area was something ridiculous, like 14 miles. We had been skiing all day, probably 10 miles of mountain skiing and now I faced 14 miles of shuffling through the longest night. We stopped to rest and tried to build a fire on a branch platform like some books we had read suggested but we could not pull it off and so decided to keep skiing and make it back to the ski area. There was no wind, and it was very still within the forest, but the temperature was gently dropping to ten degrees. We had to push through several inches of soft powder snow with each stride so Bob broke trail. I was unable to push with my right, tied-on foot. This created an unnatural stride which gradually, thousands of strides upon thousands of strides, strained my muscles around my right hip joint, a strain that has stayed with me forty years since. Every few hours the cord around my foot frayed from the snow crystals and had to be replaced. On we went into the darkest part of the snowy night, through a dark purple-grey darkness.

But it was the longest night of the year and at some point, probably around three in the morning, still hours from dawn, I slid into a sleep cycle that I couldn’t push through. When we stopped for a break, I used my pack as a pillow and lay sideways to take a short nap. Bob wouldn’t let me. I told him that it would be just a short one and there was no need to worry. I wasn’t tired; I was just sleepy and a short nap would rejuvenate me and then we could keep going. But he wouldn’t let me. He insisted we keep going so up I got and resumed shuffling within the perpetual dimness. (Thank you, Bob.)

Eventually, the night grew less dark. We went around yet another long, slow cresting curve and in the just beginning to brighten pre-dawn dimness, we recognized a curve in the road about a mile before the ski area. We knew then that we were going to make it. Bob skied ahead to find someone and rustle up some hot chocolate or tea for us while I shuffled slowly along. But I had to keep stopping because the pre-dawn sky was filling with the most beautiful light I had ever seen. Fading night blues and strengthening salmon yellows. Streaks of high cirrus clouds hinted at pinks. It was so beautiful, I had to stop and drink it in. And then I’d shuffle on. The light gradually strengthened into golden sky and faint pinks on the thin clouds and mountain ridges. Resting felt good but that wasn’t why I stopped. I stopped the light’s beauty kept stopping me in my tracks. The light flowed into me, filling me, nourishing me more profoundly than food or drink. There, beyond exhaustion, the light was all I needed to make it another ten or twenty strides. Sunrise was approaching; the light grew ever more beautiful, demanding that I stop more and more often to drink in its beauty.

An onlooker would probably see me (similar to the man in the RV) as an exhausted man with only enough strength to shuffle ten or twenty feet before needing to rest again. But that was not what was going on. Yes, I was exhausted but not that exhausted. I had skied all night and I could probably ski another hour or two if need be. But the light. It was so literally stop you in your tracks beautiful. I could try heaping adjectives around that word but it was simply beautiful in its simplest, most profound way possible.

 

Three learnings came from that longest night. The first goes back to when my cable binding fell off and slid down the slope. Instead of tracking it like a hawk, I laughed like an immortal god at the adventure of it all, knowing that I would find it at the foot of the slope. But I didn’t find it and I paid a price for my casualness which included superficial frostbite in the foot that had to be tied to the ski. Ever since that night, every time I drop something, my eyes immediately focus on the falling item and track it ‘til it stops. I have no memory of creating this new response to a dropped item. The lesson must have been instantaneous and unconscious. It’s like my subconscious made a unilateral decision: “I am never letting you in your ego-glorious way make that mistake again. Ever.” The change has been permanent. And every single time I drop something like a screw, when my attention instantly focuses on tracking it to a full stop, I remember that night.

My second learning was the importance of mindfulness when crossing a ridge. What actually lies on the other side? Some ridges are dramatically obvious while others are deviously subtle. Be mindful whenever you cross a ridge. You are crossing something that divides. IMAGE My future wife was impressed when taking her cross-country hiking in the desert, I pointed out a divide we were crossing that was a few inches higher than the surrounding country. Divides can be subtle in appearance but either side leads in a very different direction. What happened on that trip was that what we had assumed was a long, straight ridge was actually the bottom part of a ridge that forked to form a Y. But we weren’t aware of the fork because we had gone by it as we were contouring along the left flank. When we finally crested the ridge again for our descent, we were looking into a drainage that led away from the ski area with a whole another divide separating that area from the ski area. It took the road we found 14 miles to snake its way around and across that divide and back to the ski area.

But most importantly, that night broke me wide open to light’s beauty. Ever since in my roamings, I often just stop and gaze at the light around me, the way it changes with time and direction, content, deeply nourished by what I have come to call the Enoughness. A possible explanation is that I was too exhausted that night to filter and sort my visual input in our usual way. The part of my mind that organized visual input into “mountain”, “cloud”, “tree” had fallen into an exhausted “sleep” and now I was seeing the light in its full glory, with less interpretation, less cerebral filtering. Or maybe, after straining through the dark of the longest night with no artificial light, just starlight on snow, my light-starved retinas, maximally full of stored-up, color-detecting chemicals soaked in every subtle tint and glowing hue and flooded my brain with the light of hope as the Earth turned the sky and clouds above me and the mountains and snow around, turned us all towards the light. That morning opened me to the beauty of the light so that its simple “enoughness” has filled my life with an economic calm. I know I don’t really need much because the beautiful light of this world is enough.

 

A few months later, I returned home from another ski trip with Bob. Dad said that Big Bend National Park had called about hiring me as a seasonal naturalist. My dad was a salesman and after he answered the ranger’s questions, he said, “Now, let me tell you about my son” and proceeded to sell me. (A year later, I had a chance to look through my personnel file and there was a note the ranger made during that call. “Father most enthusiastic.” Thanks, Dad.) I bought my first car, a subcompact, that easily held my backpacking equipment, some clothes and extra cooking equipment my family gave me and headed down to Texas in pursuit of my life goal.

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