When hiking in the dark, lessons in 'trail Braille'

It is dark now when I begin my early morning walk in the woods. And now that autumn has marched resolutely into winter, darkness persists well beyond my 6 a.m. start time.

Trails that have become familiar after years of hiking are disfigured by eerie shapes and outlines. Rocks and tree roots have magically sprouted from previously level ground.

Inevitably, I stub my toe or trip on some unseen obstacle. Fallen branches from last night's storm lie in wait. Layers of autumn leaves create a false floor through which my unsuspecting footsteps sink. Sometimes a piece of the moon donates a few streaks of light to the mystery trail. But when skies are dark, there are no visual clues for where I step.

My very first "night hike" was during summer camp on a warm August night in the Connecticut woods. Our leader forbade bright flashlights so we would not scare away the nocturnal creatures we hoped to find.

"See with your feet," he told us over and over again.

Amazingly, that advice worked. With concentration - and a chunk of courage - it didn't take long before our feet became sensitized to the ground's gradations, textures and irregularities. Toes learned to explore for obstacles before trusting full weight on feet. Holes, dips, and depressions in the ground were detected in advance of potential stumbles. There were still a few surprises, as a squeal here and there in the dark announced, but we did learn to "see with our feet" - lessons in trail Braille.

Now I apply those lessons here, in northern New Jersey woods, and once again they work. Darkness is a fine teacher of trail Braille, forcing us to focus on things that we wouldn't notice in the light.

Its vocabulary is rich and varied; undulating ground, soft yielding earth in spots, hard packed and firm in others.

After it rains, the ground is squishy with drenched trail debris. And when it is dry, each step crunches on parchment-brittle leaves. A few large rocks on the way are easier to hike, with more uniform lumps and bumps.

Part of the trail is steeply sloped, with oaks and sycamores along its sides. There, acorns and prickly, round fruit pods collect like ball bearings underfoot, providing a "step and roll" adventure.

Day by day my trail Braille skills increase, but mistakes still happen. My foot gets snagged into an irreversible trip and I fall. Since the pace is slow, there is little damage except to pride. Once down, I pause to feel the firmness of earth beneath me, to imagine its solidity all the way to its core.

On my homeward trek, as dawn makes way for day, I think about how similar night hikes are to journeys through life.

The same rules often work for both: Slow down, concentrate, "see" with new senses - and don't be scared. Despite uncertainties of the trail - hidden obstacles, false surfaces, slippery floor - the earth is solid and firm underneath. It is the nature of nocturnal ground. It is the nature of life.

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