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October 2005

Wide Awake And Dreaming

The author sets out to camp in New York's Central Park--and winds up roused by matters of life and death.

I crawled into my tent. I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about Victoria. It was good to have spent time with her friends and family in the morning, but it was better to be alone at night with my thoughts of her. I was glad to be outside. I wanted nothing between me and the night. I knew that I could just as easily be steeped in my ponderousness at home, a few miles away. But it wouldn’t be the same. I wanted some of the clarity, some of the direct connection with night that tends to be obscured by the comforts of one’s own bed. I watched one of the rangers patrolling the campground, talking quietly into his cell phone. I heard helicopters hovering low overhead. I lay atop my sleeping bag and settled into the night.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the oddness of what I was doing–pretending to be on a camping trip–and the further oddness of having no desire to be doing anything else. It occurred to me then that merely sleeping, or trying to sleep, may be our most undervalued outdoor activity–if sleeping can be considered an activity at all. Sleeping, to my mind, is a more primal act of intimacy with the outdoors than hiking, climbing, paddling, even hunting. It is what separates the indoors-person from the outdoorsperson. It requires no expertise, nothing but a commitment to being out there, bedded against the dirt. It is a temporary return to the elements from which we usually take such extravagant means to shelter ourselves. When we sleep in the woods, we are just one more nesting animal whose rhythms are dictated by the rise and fall of the sun. We’re accustomed to thinking of outdoor adventure in terms of daylight possibilities: the mileage we gain, the vista to which we ascend, the pristine stream we reach. Night in the unlit reaches is about negation. We’re not going anywhere. There’s nothing to see. We’ve arrived, and that’s enough. Soon, if our exhaustion catches up with us, there’s the blissful emptying-out of sleep.

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