Afraid of the Dark: The Overnight Backpacking Trip That Changed My Life

I guess I could have hiked down. I had a flashlight. But I was exhausted, afraid, unsure of my footing. So I stayed the night on a boulder, with no tent to offer the illusion of protection. It was me and the desert. Every sound that echoed in my ears was a creature bent on biting, poisoning, or eating me. I didn’t sleep.

A selfie of the writer with a dark background and he has a very tired look on his face
4:00 AM, tired, afraid, and ready to get off my rock.

It was July 2020, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, I rediscovered a love for camping, backpacking, and “roughing it”. For years, I had heard about the Flat Iron hike in the Superstition Mountains, but had never ventured there. I figured it couldn’t be that hard and that I could hike up after work on a Friday, stay the night at the top, and come back in the morning.

Friday came, work ended, and I geared up and headed out. My pack was heavy. There would be no water on the trail so I needed to carry it all with me and given that it was July in Phoenix, I needed a lot of water. Like the backpacking rookie I was, I packed a steel, vacuum-insulated bottle, and a frozen Nalgene. It would barely be enough water, but the weight of the bottle would be more than enough to weigh me down. I also packed a book and other frivolous bullshit. For my first, one-night backpacking trip, I probably packed twice as much as I should have.

As I started, I was excited. I had my trusty hiking stick in one hand, my heavy pack on my back, and a confidence about my abilities. The trail started with a little over a mile of flat and slightly up-hill grades. It approached the majestic Superstitions and slowly brought me into their grasp. I could feel the history of the trail, apparently used by Apaches as a hunting trail in days long gone. Having grown up in the Arizona desert, I was in my element.

As the trail climbed, I started to really feel the weight of my pack. It was over 100ºF and there wasn’t a soul around. As I climbed, I kept looking back, watching the views of the city getting wider and wider. All the while, the sun dipped lower.

Soon, I reached a portion of the trail that became hard to follow, marked by faded arrows painted on the rocks. It became a scramble, with some sections that required literal rock climbing to get over short walls of stone. I was loving it, but my energy was waning. I ate something, drank water, and kept moving. I could see the Flat Iron rock cliff above me, and I knew the top was a little less than a mile away. The problem was that I was moving at about fifteen minutes per quarter-mile, barely inching my way up the hill.

I sit down on a boulder to catch my breath. I make a mental note that I used to be in much better shape. I look out over the Valley of the Sun and watch, in real-time, as the sun disappears over the horizon, completing its journey across the Arizona sky. The black desert night is almost on me and I still have about half a mile to go.

The residual light of twilight faded quickly, and I was suddenly hiking in the dark, with my flashlight, trying to follow a horribly marked trail. The painted trail markings that did exist all but disappeared. I took a right, where I should have stayed left.

Suddenly, I noticed that the ground under my feet was covered in large rocks, bigger than bowling balls. They shifted under me as I walked over them and at one point the entire hillside seemed to shift. I froze, coming to the realization that the whole hill could slide, taking me with it. I knew I had gone off trail and now I was too afraid to try to get back down in the dark. I was mentally and physically exhausted, but I knew I had to make a decision.

I wasn’t sure whether I was on the trail, so I didn’t know where I would end up if I kept climbing. I was too unsure of my footing to try to climb down and find the trail in the dark. I didn’t want to go up. I didn’t want to go down. It was then that I realized I needed to find somewhere to hunker down for the night. A quick scan with my flashlight brought my attention to a large boulder on the hillside. Below it were some bushes, and above it were smaller stones. The boulder itself seemed to jut out of the hill and offered a relatively flat surface to sit on and lay on.

It was my only option.

By the time I picked my way to the boulder, the darkness had really enveloped my hillside. The moon was bright, but the Flat Iron cliff cast a shadow and left me in a shroud of black. Down the mountain, I could see the glittering lights of the city taunting me in my precarious situation. At this point, I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t scared. I was stressed.

I skipped my dinner, forced down some goldfish crackers, and drank the one beer I brought hoping it would calm my nerves. It was warm. Warm IPAs do not taste good. The boulder that would be my home that night was too small for my tent, so I just laid all my gear down on the boulder and tried to find a comfortable position on it. Tried.

I ended up laying up against my pack, the hard boulder offering no comfort. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but sleep barely came. The Sonoran Desert is home to bats and while they just eat insects and fruit nectar, they fly around and make a loud buzzing sort of sound. I was grateful that they were there, though, eating any bugs that might have made my night even less enjoyable. There was also a mouse nearby that was squeaking, which I appreciated. A squeaking mouse is not afraid of a nearby predator. A quiet mouse is. My little neighbor gave me comfort. So far, my animal companions were welcome.

With my eyes closed, I thought sleep was close. I thought.

Was that a snorting sound?

It was.

Javelinas. Lots of them.

I didn’t open my eyes. I was frozen. Javelinas are desert hogs and they are brutally aggressive. I was more afraid of them than I was of coyotes. Javelinas don’t have a flight or fight response. They’re all fight. I didn’t move a muscle, kept my eyes closed and just hoped that they would move on. Maybe they didn’t care about me, or maybe the big, loose rocks that surrounded me kept them from venturing any closer, but after what felt like hours, their snorts faded. I was shaken.

I dug through my pack and found my camping knife. It’s a big, fixed-blade survival knife that I had never used for survival because I had never been in a survival situation. I squeezed the handle with one hand and my hiking stick with the other. They were my safety blankets, despite feeling horrifyingly inadequate. I had been visited by one dangerous desert critter— what if the other one showed up?

The minutes ticked by like hours. The city never stopped glimmering in the distance, taunting me. The moon stayed hidden behind the cliff. I was hungry, since my dinner stayed untouched in my pack. I was too stressed to eat, and I was afraid the smell of my soup would attract unwanted attention. All that stress, however, did not stop my stomach from growling.

Growling.

I spent most of the night coming to the precipice of sleep, only to wake suddenly when my mind mistook the sound of my stomach for the sound of a mountain lion coming to end me. For the first time in my life, I felt afraid for my life. Truly afraid.

But the hours continued to tick by. The shimmering city became a source of comfort for me, relentlessly rebelling against the black of night. I watched it, dozed off for a few minutes, awoke again, and watched it again.

Eventually, I looked down at my watch and it read 4:30am. I realized that the moonlight was approaching my boulder. The moon was finally peeking over the cliff-side, just as the morning was about to begin. I could see better, and I could even see the flashlight of an early bird hiker down the mountain.

It was time to get off this boulder, off this mountain, and back to safety.

A happy camper with mountains in the background
Happy to be off the mountain and back to safety.

I packed everything up, shouldered my pack, and began my careful descent. As soon as I cleared the big, loose rocks, I found the trail again. Comforted by the sight of footprints in the dust, I all but ran down the mountain. As I reached the flat part of the trail that marked the beginning of the last mile, I stopped and took a selfie with the Superstitions looming behind me. My smile was that of genuine relief, but also one of gratitude.

I learned something that night. I learned we live on a planet that doesn’t care if we live or die. We live in a world that is fully capable of ending us. If every human disappeared off the face of the Earth tomorrow, this planet would flourish and thrive. I learned to respect that in a way that I wasn’t capable of before. Nothing happened, but I was at the mercy of Mother Nature. And Mother Nature decided to be kind to me that night. The mouse never stopped squeaking, the bats kept the bugs away, and whatever nightmare could have been lurking in the dark didn’t bother with me. It may have been the first time I felt true fear, but it was also one of the moments in my life when I felt most alive.

If you are reading this, chances are you live in the same lavish comforts that I do. You have a bed, maybe multiple pillows, walls that protect you from the world, air conditioning or heating that keeps you comfortable, and the ability to sleep peacefully without fear. After my night on that boulder, I will never take that for granted again.

To be clear, I know that many have experienced much worse. I do not claim that my experience was as harrowing as one of war or natural disaster. I’m simply stating that, in my sheltered life, this was a transformative experience.

Since this trip, I have slept out in the open again. On numerous occasions, I’ve chosen a simple lean-to tarp shelter instead of a tent because I have come to enjoy the exposure to nature. The bug bites are worse, and the sounds of nature more jarring…

… but that feeling — the feeling of being a part of the natural world, exposed and raw, has become one of my absolute favorites.

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