I’d never hiked alone in the dark. My only memory of hiking at night occurred when I was a child camping with family at Indiana Dunes State Park. We’d all gone out with flashlights to spot spiders building intricate webs and watch the waves play with the sand off Lake Michigan. This time, however, I was alone. The headlamp I’d purchased as a book reading tool was now strapped to my head, making me feel some mix of a badass and nerd extraordinaire. As it turned out, the light the headlamp produced looked much dimmer when thrown out into the vastness of nature than it had against the parchment white pages of my journal. “There are bears out here,’ I thought.
Two hours before, I’d crawled out of the warmth of my sleeping bag wedged halfway into the trunk of my car and fumbled around for the keys. Once in the ignition, the radio had sprung to life and, with the promise of heat, I’d messily braided my hair, changed into hiking clothes and started water going for coffee. Spending the night in a hotel parking lot, smack dab in the middle of Pigeon Forge isn’t what I’d recommend for a restful sleep but it is where I’d landed and, once on the road again that morning, the flashing lights and overdone gaudy buildings seemed to be performing for no one in these early hours, an eerie ghost town of excess. Open cup of coffee in one hand, I’d clicked between high and low beams, snaking down dark mountain roads on the way to Alum Cave Trailhead. An oncoming driver had flashed his brights. I’d forgotten to switch mine off. I always forget. I hoped he received my telepathic apology. Mountain roads in the dark walk a fine line between enchanting and terrifying.
I reached the trailhead at 6:50am. The parking area was already littered with cars, though many were likely overnight guests at the Lodge. My hands shook slightly. Was I afraid of the dark? I wasn’t sure. I was new to this. Nevermind. Headlamp strapped on, I headed in the direction I assumed the trailhead would be. Miraculously, I found it immediately. “Alum Cave Trail. Mt. LeConte 5 miles.” My insides were shaking as I crossed the small bridge that begins the trail.
And yet, only moments later, the feeling that washed over me was absolute calm. I was no longer afraid. I was exactly where I wanted to be. Guided by the wane circle of light emanating from my head, I hiked on, following Alum Cave Creek along my right. While the dark early hours of morning persisted, it was only me, the wane circle of light, the sound of water rushing over rocks and my own footsteps. Something spiritual existed in that moment. The darkness, the mountains, the trees performed a symphony more felt than heard, and I alone was permitted admittance, the lone patron.
Slowly, the sky beyond the trees began to lighten. I surprised myself with my hesitation to remove my headlamp; The dark had been unexpected magic. Though accidental, my timing had allowed me to hike the lower elevations in the dark and placed me high enough in the growing light to catch back-lit mountains in stunning vistas. The first bright rays of sun sparkled behind ridges and the amber yellow leaves of early October popped in the shadows.
I’m an introvert and a loner by nature. The mention of parties makes me cringe. Even when I WANT to be social, I only have so much social to offer on a given day and once it is used, it is gone, not to be replenished for at least the length of a full night’s sleep. If other stresses are added to the day, my social stamina will be even less. At times, just a long drive to an event mixed with the worry over not being able to socialize like a “proper” human have me finished before I’ve even started. Forced to remain at an event after my ‘social’ is gone means my smile will look and feel strange and my eyes appear tired. A headache will, almost inevitably, build in the spaces behind my temples. Every noise in the room will become too sharp, every light too bright, my senses now overwhelmed to exhaustion. I forget how to respond to questions, how to make conversation, how to laugh when others are laughing.
To say I’m not the life of the party is a colossal understatement. “Are you ALIVE at the party?” would be something nearer the truth. And yet, the traits which make me want to fall into a hole in the floor given the prospect of trying to be entertaining, make me excel at being alone in the woods, hiking to the top of a mountain, not a person in sight in any direction. Every introvert has her own version of the BEST type of ‘alone.’ This is mine.
I was lucky enough to continue the ascent in absolute solitude. Not until approximately a quarter mile from the LeConte Lodge did I meet a couple heading down. The man had a full, Santa-white beard and nearly stopped my heart when he teased, “The trail is closed. You’ll have to turn around.”
Passing the lodge, which was bustling in the early morning hours, I continued up the short spur trail to the summit. The cairn at the LeConte summit was massive, and I approached it slowly for fear of causing the tremble that might bring the whole thing down. I placed my own stone on the pile and felt at once I’d joined my soul with all the others who had stepped here.
On the way down, re-tracing my steps, I was a child running down a 5-mile-long hill. “Forget 34-year-old knees, let them hurt tomorrow. Today, I play.” The solitude of the morning hike had left me bubbly and energetic. I spoke happily to hikers coming up the trail, responding to questions of “how much further?!” I stopped to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at a baby squirrel and marveled at a man testing his two brand new hips for the first time.
By noon I was back in my car, just one more early autumn tourist snaking down Highway 441. This hike had been the capstone on a short peak-bagging trip and my ninth peak over 6,000 feet in just three days. A month later, I still can close my eyes and be back at the Alum Cave Trailhead, headlamp switched on, taking those first cautious steps into the dark.