Talk of the Town - Wild night July 15 2000

Hiking from dusk till dawn on Cumberland Island

My pupils swell in the midnight forest. Without a flashlight, I am reduced to instinct. Darkness hides here, sliding along the backs of wild palms and breathing a heavy silence through the pines. A shriek. I freeze. Two screech owls glide between trees, leaving shrill whistles to mark their territory. I listen to the ribbons of sound disappear into the dark.

I'm on an all-night, 18-mile hike through the Cumberland Island Wilderness — an 8,800-acre web of enchanted forests, windswept marshes, and virgin-white beach along the Georgia coast. It's one of the largest barrier island wilderness areas in the country and — thanks to its thick live-oak canopy — one of the darkest.

During the day, hundreds of visitors ride the ferry over to the island. Couples comb the beach collecting seashells. Children climb in the arms of 300-year-old oaks bearded with Spanish moss. Artists set up easels atop 50-foot dunes to admire a pallet of sky colors reflected in the surf.

But at night, the day-trippers go home, campers hide in their tents and, for a few hours, wild animals can wander freely through the woods. They cram their wildness between the evening ferry's departure and its morning arrival. Tonight I've decided to join them.

In the tar-black Cumberland night, every experience is heightened. Twigs in the trail are timber rattlers. An armadillo foraging through the leaf litter sounds like a wild boar crashing toward me. Even after 20 minutes of hiking, I still can't see my hand in front of my face.

Then, as I tromp past Whitney Lake, I hear an alligator's deep-throated bellow rolling across the water and my whole body tightens. I stand still, my eyes slowly adjusting, until I can see a pair of unblinking red eyes above the surface. They disappear a few moments later.

I hike — a little faster now — toward the beach. Along the way, I pass a bloated raccoon carcass, its eyes picked out by vultures. The margins of life and death are narrower out here, and bleed into one another. Back on the mainland, death is pushed to the shoulder of the road or hidden in wooden coffins. But on the island life and death are knitted together, stitched into the same fleshy fabric. Coon becomes vulture, vulture becomes marsh grass, grass becomes deer, deer becomes gator. Life doesn't stop out here — it only changes shape.

Finally, the dark forest gives way to sky-spreading dunes. The island is morphing, too: soil slipping into sand, oak limb rotting into forest floor, tides sculpting the soft beach, boundaries dissolving into one another.

I chase the beach hungrily, my ears ringing with the roar of the ocean, and dive naked into the wild water. I float on my back and watch the stars spin above me. It's orgasmic. The hairs on my neck bristle. My scalp tingles. My eyes roll in their sockets. I climb out of the ocean and sprint down the beach, the cool ocean breeze drying me clean, the bubbly surf popping between my toes.

If you've ever seen Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video, you'll understand what it's like to run on Cumberland's beach at night. With each step, phosphorescent phytoplankton break apart beneath my feet scattering flecks of light across the beach. My footprints glow in the summer sand.

Suddenly, I stop dead in my tracks. Five feet in front of me, a loggerhead sea turtle is crawling out of the ocean. I scamper downwind and hide in the dunes to watch. Slowly she drags her ancient body through the sand, pausing every few minutes to catch her breath. Her winding, meandering tracks across the beach and along the dune ridge look like a "Family Circus" cartoon. Finally she plops down on a dune and digs her nest. She's breathing hard — I can hear her grunting and heaving from 20 yards away. Gooey tears drip down from her eyes as she drops her clutch of eggs one by one into the cavity.

She'll never see her hatchlings emerge, never see them break through their ping-pong-ball shells and scamper out to sea. Instead, she covers up the nest and slowly crawls back into the ocean, entrusting her offspring to the protection of the island.

"Don't worry, momma," I whisper. "I'll keep an eye out for you."

Tints of twilight are already blushing the horizon. In a few hours, I have to catch the morning ferry back to the mainland. Before leaving, I perch myself atop the tallest dune I can find and watch the sunrise over the ocean. After the black-and-white night, I'm suddenly swallowed up in color: the sapphire sky, the golden sea oats along the dunes, the clouds hanging like pink fluffs of cotton candy above the water.

I am alive, so completely alive. And I'm a little wilder, a little more pure and a little less afraid of death since I last saw the sun.

The ferry blasts its horn and all across the island animals slink back into the shadows. I have one more thing to do before I go. With my heel, I carve a word into the wet sand: THANKS. Moments later, the tide washes over it and carries it to sea.

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