Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Photo by JOHNGOMEZPIX/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by JOHNGOMEZPIX/iStock / Getty Images

Are you afraid of the dark?

My first time alone in the woods at night was the summer before my senior year of college. All of the rising seniors in my small Reserve Officer Training Corps Battalion attended the Leadership Development and Assessment Course, or LDAC. It’s the annual trial by fire for a few thousand cadets preparing to become Army officers. LDAC is our last hurdle before we commission as Army second lieutenants. At the time it was located on Fort Lewis in Washington state. This was before Hunger Games and Divergent so our lexicon was limited yet we knew the stakes were high. We wore uniforms and studied military fieldcraft. There were confidence courses and a physical fitness test (APFT). While a handful of unlucky cadets washed out by failing the APFT or contracting some bizarre illness the obstacle that loomed large for most of us was Night Land Navigation. 

The classroom portion went easy enough. I was really good at Land Navigation—on paper. I could plan routes and find the intersection of two points. I could rattle off the major and minor topographic features and calculate True North. None of that translated to real life. I had almost zero practical experience. I knew my 100 meter pace count enabled me to accurately measure distances without using technology. I didn’t know that damp boots and “wait-a-minute” vines meant I had wandered into a draw regardless of where I thought I was on the map. Mostly my problems were a matter of confidence. I had no reason to feel confident when I didn’t have enough experience, the right experience and I was afraid of the dark. Not in a pragmatic sort of way. Not in any specific way. I didn’t have the sense to be afraid of meth labs, illegal hunters or of injuring myself. I just had a general fear of being alone in the dark. 

Day Land Navigation had already occurred and it was easy. After all this was 12th Regiment: ‘second to last but second to none!’ The end of the summer was upon us and thousands of other cadets from 1st-11th Regiments had literally blazed a path through the dense PNW forest. A highway of flattened grass led from the starting point to each our Land Navigation points. We would pay it forward for 13th Regiment. Yet, we all knew that Night Land Navigation was a different matter entirely.

Despite growing up in and around military bases I was inexperienced in the woods.  I did not spend my childhood camping, hunting or fishing. I spent it at the public library reading 80s pulp science fiction—think telepathic heroines with big hair and skin tight spacesuits. I have no regrets about that. Alright, I now have some regrets. I knew I didn’t have the same confidence that my peers: mostly White, male and from Ohio seemed to have around terrain association, dead reckoning (two forms of navigation) and basic fieldcraft. I was never a Boy Scout. I lasted one year in the Girl Scouts where I performed at or below the level of my peers while making plastic jewelry and selling Thin Mints. I had to remind myself not to make rookie mistakes: like wearing every single layer of polypro (base layers) on a winter ruckmarch or leaving my boots outside instead of tucked inside of my sleeping bag. But my dread of night Land Navigation seemed to be a fear I shared with a lot of others. When in my career will I ever be alone in the woods by myself, I wondered? And if it does reach that point won’t I have bigger problems? Like how did I lose my entire platoon? 

The upside was that I only needed to correctly identify three out of four points to pass and we had three hours to complete the event. The instructors waited until dark to hand out our sheets with the grid coordinates. I found a spot on the grass and took a long time to carefully plot and recheck my points on the map using my red lens flashlight. Then I started walking. I found my first point in an hour. My second point put me at two hours and fifteen minutes which was not good. My third point was on the back side of the course; almost two miles from the start point where we had to turn in our sheets.

 A sliver of moon was out. It was late in the event and most of the cadets were already heading the two miles back to the start point to turn in their sheets. Not me! My third point was eluding me. My heart was pounding in my chest. I knew I had to turn in my sheet on time or fail but I also had to find at least three out of four points or fail. Failure meant repeating the entire course next summer when my friends would be pinning on their rank and moving to Army bases across the country; or worse—giving up my dream of becoming an Army Officer.

I reshot an azimuth to my point from the closest intersection. Then I walked 200m into the woods and looked around. Nothing. I hoped to see the moon glinting off of the slightly reflective sign. Still nothing. I started to panic. My throat was dry, my heart was racing and my palms were sweaty. My head whipped back and forth searching. Nothing. 

This was the most difficult part of Land Navigation for me. I wasn’t much of a closer. Sure, there were search techniques for finding your point once you got close but they required a clear head and calm mind. They required confidence that I didn’t feel. Having the experience level to know I usually drifted a little right of my azimuth or that my stride was not as long in the dark so that, even now in the darkness, I was probably short of it. I didn’t have that experience. What I did have were sweaty palms and that just on the verge of panic feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I was the only Black cadet from my school. I was one of two women from my ROTC unit to go to LDAC that summer. How would it look if I failed? They already knew I could barely swim. Was I really about to confirm every stereotype about Black people by failing this course? I went a little further into the woods. Just as I turned around in defeat; ready to head back, I glimpsed metal—my point was right in front of me! I grabbed the hole puncher which dangled from a piece of cord around the sign, punched my answer sheet and folded it into my pocket. Then I crashed through the woods back to the intersection. The instructor sitting on an overturned crate looked surprised to see me. Cadet! What’s your name Cadet? You know you only have 14 minutes left. You’re not going to make it back in time. I fidgeted nervously as he wrote my name down. The euphoria from finding the point had turned back into dread. What if he was right? Had I really found my points just to fail because I was over the time limit? I could hear him relaying my name over the radio as I turned and started to run.

Running is what I know. I ran fast until I felt a familiar burn in my quads and each breath felt like agony. I ran alone. The night was black and empty. The road was made of compacted gravel that gradually turned into a loose gravel trail. I kept running and prayed I wouldn’t trip or sprain an ankle. Eventually I started to hear shuffling and other noises ahead. There was a large group of cadets ahead moving slowly in the dark. I couldn’t see them but I could hear voices and the rattling of gear.

“I’m not going to make it. Go on ahead.”

“Don’t give up; you can do this!”

“What time is it? How much time do we have left?”

“I’m finished. There’s no way I’ll make it back in time. We’re still a mile away.”

Some were jogging slowly. Every once in awhile I would hear an “oh shit” as people stumbled in the dark. I could tell from the steady crunch of gravel underfoot that others were walking. They had given up. A dark shape fell then got back up. I slowed to pass the group then I sped up again. One more mile. I can do this. As I sped back up a few shapes fell alongside me. We ran together in the darkness, our breaths and the metallic clanking of our gear gradually synchronizing. After awhile, the shape on my left fell behind wordlessly. Then I stumbled and the shape on my right pulled ahead. All around me under a moonless sky human drama unfolded. Careers were saved or lost on the dark road. I kept running. 

The last mile was challenging. The gravel was larger sized and loose so I kept stumbling. I was tired but too close to give up. My clothing didn’t help any. I was wearing the required uniform: heavy boots, BDUs, Load Bearing Equipment (think utility belt with suspenders) with compass, flashlight, two 1 quart water bottles filled to the brim and a 2 quart CamelBak. And I had to return with full canteens and with all of my equipment intact. My heart was pounding fast and I was drenched in sweat. I hadn’t showered in days. I was afraid of the dark but my fear of the dark was overshadowed by my fear of failure. So I ran. The gravel turned to grass and my stride lengthened.  As I got closer I could hear instructors shouting at stragglers to hurry up and, above the din, another instructor counting down the last 90 secs on the clock. I sprinted into the finish line just as the big clock counted down to zero. It was the fastest two mile I had done in years. But my nightmare wasn’t over yet; I still had to turn in my sheet and find out if I had passed or failed.

A few minutes later my night was at an end. All three points were correct. A huge weight was lifted off my chest. I could finally leave the darkness behind. I knew that whatever happened next my future self was safe. 

Does being alone in the woods at night get easier over time?

My answer is yes. Flash forward nine years, you’ll find my future self isn’t an Eagle Scout although I am a Pathfinder [an Army school that teaches you how to be alone in the woods and air drop 102 of your closest friends...or a HMMWV if you get tired of walking]. Now my fears are more practical: meth labs, illegal hunters or accidentally injuring myself. Since graduating from college I've spent hundreds of hours alone in the woods during the day and night; mostly running. The Army taught me how to combine my greatest love with my biggest fear. Just like skydiving which hasn’t erased my fear of heights, time and experience haven’t erased my fear of the dark—it’s taught them to coexist.