Vision of the skulls
A true story in three parts
“Man, for all his daylight activities, is at best an evening creature. Our very addiction to the day and our compulsion, manifest through the ages, to invent and use illuminating devices, to contest with midnight, to cast off sleep as we would death, suggest that we know more of the shadows than we are willing to recognize. We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition. Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories. … We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.”
– Loren Eiseley, “The Unexpected Universe”
I stand on the topmost hill of Round Valley and gaze southeast. Below me the densely spaced oaks of lower Hardy Canyon thin out as my gaze swings southwest and the canyon climbs to its barren crest. Behind it the lofty ridges of Morgan Territory and Los Vaqueros slant away toward Ohlone Wilderness 25 miles distant.
I see these things only in my imagination. It’s midnight; the Sun won’t rise for seven hours.
The landscape is a chameleon. Its patterns and colors shift from dawn to dusk. In the horizontal light of sunrise, shadows lean acutely west; in the horizontal light of sunset, east. Shadows in the egalitarian glare of noon fall straight down. Just as we don’t begin to understand the trail till we’ve hiked it in opposite directions, so we don’t begin to understand the landscape till we’ve viewed its opposite shadows – and viewed it at night.
At night, you’d imagine, the scenery becomes one enormous shadow. And you’d be right – but for one enormous light.
When it comes to the Moon, I can’t claim objectivity. In the course of roughly 200 solo night hikes I’ve seen the Moon – as I might see an old friend or lover – in countless moods: the slenderest of crescents suspended featherlike in the delicate updraft of dawn, or a pearl glowing from the Milky Way’s river bed as clouds flow past her like leaves caught in the current. And I’ve seen her in eclipse, an angry queen robed in red, majestic and terrible.
The landscape in moonlight exudes a luster unmatched in daylight: leaves tinged in silver; shafts of lunar light slanting through gaps in the forest canopy; the extreme contrast between light and shadow calling film-noir phantasms into being. In that dreamlike interplay of a hundred gradations of gray, senses other than sight are heightened. I don’t use a flashlight. Whatever's out there, I want to see it before it sees me. I go quietly. Whatever's out there, I want to hear it before it hears me.
Round Valley, Morgan Territory, Mt. Diablo: these have become my private haunted houses. In moonlight the most harmless object – a boulder, a fallen tree limb – can assume the most threatening appearance. I get a lot for my entertainment dollar.
Sure, a few big cats and wild boar roam these parks. But their danger is corporeal; analyzable by the science of vertebrate jaw mechanics and the physics of cutting compliant substrates – such as my neck. The greatest danger at night comes not from without but from within. The solo night hike provides optimal conditions for machinations of mind. Absent the distraction of day-lit scenery, the mind is free to roam for hours through realms of introspection, fantasy, fear. The night hike becomes a waking dream.
This isn’t always a good thing.
If fantasy and reality are states separated by an objective boundary, the night hike has the power to obliterate that boundary. You round a bend in the trail and without knowing it, skip straight into Oz, plunge straight down Alice’s rabbit hole. Only much later do you understand you’ve come to a faraway place by a route you can’t remember.
The setting: the Scuppernong Trails in Kettle Moraine State Park north of Eagle, Wisconsin (visit http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kms/pdfs/kmsscuppernongtrmap.pdf). The time: October of 1989.
An oval moon rode low in the east, fragments of pale gold flashing randomly through gaps in trees as I ran – not to or from anything, but to get my circulation raging. It was cold.
I flew through the dark wood intoxicated by the sensation of speed, of serotonin geysering in the brain. My face plowed the cold, moist air like the prow of a ship as I wheeled eastward onto a broad and flat avenue of trail and closed my eyes on the fly. That’s when I saw them.
Against the black backdrop of my eyelids’ inner walls appeared two pale ovals the color of bleached bone and shape of human skulls, minus the sockets, just floating there side by side. They were large – about the size of 3-inch-tall discs held 5 inches away and 5 inches apart. I opened my eyes to re-center my line down the trail. When I closed them again, the skulls were still there.
I was getting a lot for my entertainment dollar. No hallucinogens required.
Sometimes, as I lie in bed in the dark, an image will appear in my mind’s eye – a fractal pattern resembling a tree branch; sometimes a Euclidean form such as a mandala – glowing neon green or violet against the slate-grey screen of semi-consciousness. No matter how hard I concentrate on anchoring the image, it’s always on the move, shifting and dissolving into some amoebic figure and then into the melodrama of dreams.
But as I ran through the woods on that October night, the skulls hanging inside my eyelids were sharply drawn and stationary, allowing me the luxury of etching them finely into memory. It was tempting to give their shape a cheerier taxonomy than skulls. Were they eggs? No, their tops and bottoms were too flat; they lacked the egg’s graceful ellipsoidal curvature. Skulls they were.
But what exactly was I looking at; what did the skulls represent? Were they the manifestation of something within or without, a message I was sending to myself or a message sent from another? Perhaps they were a rare but perfectly explicable neuro-optical phenomenon and no message at all.
It became a game: I’d close my eyes, study the skulls, open my eyes and catch myself veering off the trail. And then it became clear that the show had only begun. It wasn’t long before I realized that the black gap between the skulls had narrowed. They were converging.
It was like watching the minute hand on a clock. The skulls seemed perfectly inert from one moment to the next. But as every 20-to-30-second interval passed, it was clear they were on a collision course. What would happen when they met? Would they meld to form a brighter object? Would that object reveal its identity? Perhaps the skulls were more than metaphor. When they merged, I wondered, would eye sockets and nostril slits appear? Would a grinning mouth take shape and speak to me?
I approached the point where the Green Trail forked north off the Red and Orange trails. Decision time. The skulls, though intriguing, were fraying my nerves. Should they merge and become truly scary, should something manifest itself on the trail ahead, something man high and wearing an eyeless skull on its shoulders, I’d rather not confront it in the claustrophobic heart of the woods. I hooked left and burst onto the open and moonlit prairie that dominates the trail’s northern arc.
I hadn’t shut my eyes for about a minute. The Moon hung impaled on the tip of a tall Scots pine as I followed the trail down a slope into the cool and moist air of a hollow rich with the aroma of wild mint. I filled my lungs, hoping to keep alive whatever psycho-chemical process was fueling the image. Then I closed my eyes again.
There, like lamps in a cavern, hung the skulls in dim florescence. Only now the gap between them was a hairsbreadth. I watched them, hoping to catch the moment of contact, but felt and heard the swish of grass on the trail’s shoulder. I opened my eyes, re-centered my course, finished a shallow curve and headed up a straight stretch north. When I closed my eyes again, the skulls had begun to overlap. Like a pair of suns in the act of eclipse, their light bled into a single light betraying no boundary.
My fear of a horrific climax to the pageant of the skulls was unfounded. As I streamed north along the prairie’s eastern perimeter, the light of the now-single skull – almost fully formed – began to fade, dying from the center outward like the nucleus of a galaxy being devoured by a black hole. Soon only the sharp outline of the rim remained. And soon that too passed into the void.
But I needed answers; I needed the skulls to speak. I kept running, hoping to bring the vision back or conjure a new vision. But the show was over. I geared back.
Considering the array of possible unpleasant outcomes, I shouldn’t complain that the skull didn’t speak. Some machinations of mind are best cut short. One of my recurring boyhood nightmares involved teetering on the edge of a tall building. One night in mid teeter my conscious self burst onto the scene. “You’re dreaming,” I heard it say. “Don’t fight it; go ahead and fall.” So I launched myself off the edge like a cliff diver … and plunged straight into a different dream. The teetering nightmares went away.
There’s another reason I shouldn’t complain. In Emerson’s formulation, “A beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.” If the skulls were more than a psycho-chemical phenomenon – if they were a coded message – it’s a message I’ll never decipher. The skull show was a one-night engagement. I’ve wandered in the dark many times since that October night, closed my eyes and scanned the back of my lids. So far: nothing; no chance to repeat the experiment.
I reached the north tip of the trail. The Moon was higher now and brighter. I swung south and plunged down a narrow avenue lined by tall pines blocking the Moon. The trail below was dark; the true trail was above: a stretched V of moon-washed sky cleaving the black forest like an ax blade. So I ran to the sky, wondering what machinations of mind it would set in motion. After all, it was only midnight. Plenty of time for more lunacy.