Alone in the Dark
A Rite of Passage
The night is like many others, dark with no moon or city lights. Tonight has all the promise of fulfilling my long-held fantasy of staying out all night. My parents raise horses, so we have the usual farm stuff that goes with a barn, pastures, haystacks, horse tack, pens, the usual stuff. Being out after dark is pretty common, but after the horses are settled for the evening, I don’t know what goes on out there. What would it be like? Who knows, one thing for certain is I have never done this and feel that I must. What’s the big deal anyway? Losing a little sleep. What could happen out of the ordinary here on the farm? That’s the question weighing on my mind. All my friends in middle school tell me that they did this or that and stayed out all night doing something fun. I just want to see what it’s like. The dark, the noises, the animals, all of it.
Sunset comes without fanfare, no clouds to create the magic. Some nights are just spectacular around here. But not tonight, daylight, dusk, dark. I have watched that happen a thousand times, but tonight seems different. I have built up an air of mystery in my head. To stay up all night seems like more a rite of passage than losing sleep. I decided to find a spot where I can watch but the animals can’t see me. The horse stall door is ideal.
I made up a bed of sorts, in an empty barn stall. I am ready for whatever is on its way. If the summer night takes a chill, I am ready with a sleeping bag, a couple of bags of chips, and some soda. The real difference is the dark. Daylight shows you where everything is. Darkness tests your memory. Can it be any different in the barn with sleeping horses? I need to find out.
“What was that?” I said as I hear an unidentified sound.
The first unknown sound must be what people talk and worry about, the sounds you can’t see or name. I wonder what it is. I don’t remember any of the kids in school talking about the dark… or the noises. The unknown noises.
"What was that?" I said again as the slight crack of a small branch broke the silence.
A fox? A deer? It doesn’t seem to have the weight a deer would, it must be the fox. I see fox scat in the morning when I do chores. That’s it, it must be the fox. I settle into getting comfortable. I arrange the few important items I brought from the house to create a stall of my own. If I need something, the house is a hundred yards away up the hill. I don’t want to even think of that. I’m here for the duration. Bring it on. Surely it must be Cherry cola time. I love Cherry Cola and open the first can for the night. Psssht, oops, as the soda runs down my sleeve. I should have opened it slower. The next one.
“Holy cow, what was that?” I said as a bigger branch snapped, followed by two more.
Something is coming towards the barn. I take a swig of the soda and place it in the corner of the stall where my bed is. I move toward the edge of the stall door to see if I can see anything that would be making noise. I can’t see anything, and if I turn on my flashlight my eyes will take a half-hour to readjust to the dark again. I need to be able to see and I don’t want the purple dot in my vision. This time the flashlight wins out. I walk out of the barn and listen to see if I can get a direction on the sound. Nothing. I know it came from over there by the haystacks, but that’s all I know.
I can’t stand here like a statue for the rest of the night. That isn’t going to work. Where did the sound go? It’s far too quiet. I should have listened to my grandparents. The loud music must have damaged my hearing. Every night during the summer I hear little critters outside my bedroom window, and tonight, of all nights, all’s quiet. I suppose it could be a predator that scared off all the smaller animals. It could be a cougar. I remember the footprint of the cougar I saw in the mud about a month ago. Big as my whole foot. I have to strain to hear even a car on the distant two-lane. I feel for the first time that I may not hear everything that I should. Or is it that quiet?
Standing ready to respond with the click of the flashlight for anything. Yes, anything, at this point I am so frustrated. I need to be able to see what I am hanging out with.
Whoosh, I could feel the breeze on my face as something flew right by my head.
“What the hell,” I said as I click the light on and scan the terrain. Nothing. Not a single thing.
“I bet that is Hooty, the barn owl,” I said as I kept scanning with the flashlight for logical spots for the owl to roost. Still, nothing, and now I have the annoying purple flash every time I blink.
“What am I thinking, I know better,” I said, remembering my dad teaching me to keep a patch over one eye.
It keeps one of the eyes adjusted to the dark, while the other is scanning with a light. Funny how some facts you learn are remembered after you need to use the information. Next time I thought. I head into the barn to see if I could fashion an eye patch.
“Argh matey,” I said as I rummage through the horse tack odds and ends.
“Ha, found it,” I said as I tried out the bandanna.
“Perfect fit,” I said adjusting the width of the part that would cover my one eye.
Back to my post. I bring a wood box with me this time. It might be awhile before I hear something again, better get comfortable. An hour passes, stray sounds here and there but nothing like the stick that cracked before. Another hour goes by and the best I can do is to create a list of chores that I know I need to do. I can see the shimmer of the wire, which sends me into fixing the corner posts, from there I’ll be in the lower part of the pasture, so I might as well fix the irrigation junctions. It goes on and on.
Snnnnaaap, the branch – not a stick- broke under the weight of something heavy.
Bandanna in place, I scan the area with the beam of the flashlight, and I can see the evidence of something that had passed through. The branches are still waving at me. Are they coming or going? My dad taught me to look at the branches to see which direction they came from. The branches stop so quickly I can’t tell. Maybe I’m not practiced at doing that. I’m going with that. Better next time.
Now I know why people stay up late. It’s not for activity, it’s for the potential of activity. The critters that hunt at night, the migrating herds of deer that go through the property from time to time, all create the potential for something interesting to see. Hopefully closer than you would during the day when they can see you – from a mile away. The occasional hoot of the owl confirms it’s still in the area but not as close as before. Another hour in the books. Nothing to report as I tour the barn.
Our barn has doors at both the north and south ends with openings for the horses on the east and the west sides. In barn terms, it’s no big deal. The neighbors all have bigger barns than us, but I think it works the way a barn is supposed to – without want. I take up a position at one of the corners, cover myself in a horse blanket, and hide out. Yep, that’s the plan. The horse blankets are all stacked in the tack room. I grab three, one to give me a cushion to sit on and two to hide me. The scent of the horses on the blanket will hopefully disguise my human scent so the animals don’t stay away because of that. The night shift must be different from the day shift. I’m sure the night shift can’t see all that much better than me, so they use scent and humans are on the stay away list.
All settled in, again, I wait for the landscape to offer up another creature for my amusement and education. It has been a half-hour since I set up my makeshift blind, I have the uncomfortable feeling that I need to pee. I forgot about soda in, soda out. But my scent would throw the balance of the animal scents out of whack, so I can’t just pee anywhere I want.
Crack, crack, snap, snap…crack, crack, snap, snap, the sound is getting closer. I can feel the weight of the animal with each step as it vibrates in my bottom. A big 6 point buck? Or a Bull Elk with a full rack. We don’t get a lot of those around here. But who knows, at night the magic of this property is in the patterns of the wildlife.
“This is so cool,” I said aloud.
At last, I can see the first big animal. Not the actual animal itself, but the void in reflections and shimmers that the tree leaves broadcast in the night. Big. The animal leaps to clear a downed tree branch I am supposed to cut up sometime this week. I can see from the negative of the reflection this must be an Elk, I can’t tell yet if it’s a Bull or a Cow. I wonder what else it could be, a moose maybe?
“Yikes, it’s coming in here to eat some horse hay,” I said as I tried to stay still, but it’s so worth it.
The Elk? It’s getting closer as it grazes its way toward the barn, eating stray alfalfa dropped by the horses. Up to my corner now, the animal still can’t be confirmed as an Elk. A moose? No, it would be a smaller moose but… “
“Snaaaap,” the animal stepped on something plastic, and it shattered underfoot. Unfazed, the animal is close enough to me to make out that it’s an Elk, and she is a cow. I wonder if she has any young ones following her. Big and stealthy, she moves through the hay like she is never going to eat again. Those big hooves are up to me now. I can feel the impact of each step like she is going to squish anything in her way. This is beyond cool. At times being less than a foot from the Elk is amazing. She doesn’t seem to know I am here. I can hear the hay grinding in her mouth as she chews. Her scent is strong and gamey. I can even feel the heat from her breath as she turns to look for more hay. This is beyond what I had hoped for tonight. The Elk methodically eats her way out of the paddock. Into the brush of the woods. Gone.
The owls hoot again, two of them now. On opposite sides of the pasture, they seem to be talking to each other. A family hunting party? The sounds are slightly different.
“Damn, now they stopped,” voicing my frustration out loud.
“Enough,” I said.
I’ve got to find a way to relieve myself. I get to my feet. Feeling the tingles, I know I’m not stable to walk yet. I shake out my legs and take my first step.
“Yikes, that stings,” I said, the nerves coming back from their hiatus.
My first couple of steps are a bit shaky but I feel the need to pee so strongly I don’t care. I pick up the speed and head toward the corner of the barn. Hoping not to trip on anything, I click on the flashlight as I round the corner. I feel the distinctive whoosh of a massive bird. The magnificent creature is diving for a mouse right in front of me. This is amazing.
From the proximity to my ears, the screech that the Owl makes is ear-shattering. My balance, now corrected, I halt my progress. Right in front of me, I watch the massive wings adjust for the final time. Unaware of the danger, the mouse freezes in the light. Until the screech of surprise from the Owl, caused by my sudden presence, the mouse doesn’t move. The talons extend toward the mouse. The mouse has one chance to change directions and not be dinner. It chooses wrongly. The owl grabs and squeezes the mouse, then takes off into the woods. The sound of brush being disturbed from about a hundred yards off is the last of the event. The wingspan on that bird is immense, especially so close that I could touch it. I bet it’s four feet if it’s an inch. That distinctive white face and underbody confirmed it’s a Barn Owl. I want to run into the house and tell everyone, but not yet, there may be more to come.
My dilemma about needing to pee ended at the screech. A blast of fluid trickled down my leg. Ashamed, exhilarated, and alarmed I still need to find a way to pee without leaving any human scents. My soda bottle seems the best option, and I work my way over to the stall and find it. The horses are stirring, but they don’t seem too alarmed at my frantic presence.
Mission solved. But still wet, on one side. In my now fully energized brain, I come up with the idea to use a horse blanket as a wrap and stake out another location for night recon work. Stripping out of my jeans, I wipe up the moisture with something from the horse tack box. I make a kilt from one of the thinner blankets. Scratchy from hair left in the blanket, it isn’t ideal but is going to have to work. I settle on being a bit braver. After all, I survived a near-death experience with the owl. I take my place out in the pasture under one of the trees. Getting as comfortable as I can, I hope I see the Elk again, or something even bigger. I would love to see a moose.
The second owl is nearby. I can hear the rush of wind as it moves through the air. I must be close enough to see it. It’s so dark. This dark is so crazy. The one good thing is the stars look so clear and close. It looks like I can reach up and touch one. Dark, city folks never get to know. Here I am sitting in a pasture out in the woods, an Elk, a couple of Barn Owls, and who knows what else, are within feet of me and I can’t even see them. The negative against the sky is all I see when the Owl circles or the Elk rubs against the brush.
I wouldn’t trade places with my city cousins for anything. The fact that I can be out here alone and feel safe is not a choice at my cousin’s place. His mom is always telling him to lock the house and make sure the lights are on in a bedroom. The usual stuff city folks think about when they are trying to fool an unknown, but surely awaiting, intruder.
Up here, I’m not sure where the house keys are. When we leave, it’s dark all over the house. The worry we have is avoiding something breaking in to get to the food. The bear, that came in through the kitchen sliding door last year, made a complete mess getting the cereals out of the cupboard. His meal ended when we surprised him as we came in the front door. The sound of a bear slipping and sliding on the kitchen floor is something I won’t forget. The mess is spectacular.
That second owl must have moved on. I haven’t heard or seen him in a while. Little did I know before but being out in the dark of night is so freeing. I give up on the wildlife experience and get dressed again. My pants are only partially dry but that’s OK. One final Cherry Cola and I am ready to greet the day. I can see off in the far distance a glimmer of light about to peek through the tall trees on the Howard property. The tell-tale that I have nearly made it. A whole night without sleep, the near-miss of a Barn Owl, close to being trampled by a cow Elk and the mysterious cracking. These signs tell me that surely more adventures will surface in the dark of another night. Next time under a full moon?
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