Along the spiral arm of our galaxy, the band of stars that forms the Milky Way was bright while companion dots salted the rest of the black. Orion’s belt and the Big Dipper marched around the heavens above. Down below, the warm, breath of the world calling it a day rustled leaves and whispered through branches only beginning to bud, creating just enough mystery to be exciting. In the void between, navigation lights on a jet soundlessly high blinked far and fast through the night, moving on a mission, carrying people who had it all figured out, people who knew why they were here, who had a purpose for what they were doing, smart, well-dressed people going somewhere exciting, to places I could only imagine to do things I might someday do.
The night breeze gathered speed and wrapped around us. With our backs to it and our faces toward the fire, we felt it push against us, watched it whistle through our legs crowded close to the flames, saw it gutter the blaze that rose from oak logs turning to ash from coal. The turbulence roiled the smoke and bent it this way and that like an unguided river coursing through the night. I doubt it followed age or beauty, as the old saw goes, but it certainly followed me.
In the glowing heat from the floor of the campfire – that first of all innovations that separates man from beast – water turned to steam deep inside green wood, popping like rifle shots, giving rise to flocks of sparks that fled along the breeze, cutting and darting like doves crossing a September hay field.
Eventually darkening embers watched the last open flames wane, then disappear, return on a spark, then disappear again. As the glow subsided and we called it a night, we carried what residual warmth we could to our sleeping bags that lay cold against tarps spread over hard ground. As rustles and zips faded to silence, lying with backs curved against the planet and nothing between us and eternity but thin nylon, it was easy to feel small in a universe large beyond all imagining. Eventually exhaustion surpassed discomfort and carried its weary travelers through the night. In places like this, the body rests as it will, but the mind rests like nowhere else.
In the wood smoke and the wind, in the quieting dark, in places too many to name and times long forgotten, the overnight connection to nature offered by the nocturnal outdoors is handy medicine for the soul. I’m ready to get my prescription refilled.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.