It was dark when a man named Biscuit asked if he could join our campfire. Hirsute and lisped, we’d met him a few hours earlier when he made a conspicuous reference to an AK-47. A few hours later, with the flames tossing shadows against our tent, we said sure, he could come and sit. There was a long night ahead, and we figured we could use the company.
For ten minutes the three of us—Biscuit, my friend Colin, and I—talked around the campfire. Biscuit told us about his 5-year old child, his surfing life in Humboldt County, and his sizable blunt. Colin and I told Biscuit about the job we’d left, and why we’d taken buyouts from a company that was pointed in a different direction than we thought we were headed. Colin and I had come here, to Joshua Tree National Park in the southeastern wing of California, to stretch after two years at a desk. By day we rock climbed, by night we shivered in twilight.
Before Biscuit called out to us, Colin and I had been having one of those campfire conversations about love, fear, and everything in between. Reeling from a sleepless first night in our tent, I had mentioned where I first picked up a fear of the dark. I couldn’t have been older than 10 when I was in my basement with my dad as we headed back upstairs. I lingered slightly behind, turning out the lights as I went. As I hit the last switch and turned up the stairs, I walked by the circuit-breaker closet, unaware that my dad was inside, good-naturedly waiting to give me a scare. One-step, two-step, three…and then somebody’s hands were on me with still so many steps to go. I screamed, I ran, I sobbed and I sobbed and I wailed. My dad was horrified and apologetic, but I was never able to walk up those stairs in total darkness again without feeling like there was something waiting to go bump in the night. Even now, in apartments and homes I’ve been in countless times before, tip-toeing through the halls at night makes my shoulders feel vulnerable, like they could be split open with the slightest touch.
What is it to be afraid the dark? Is it the loss of control? Is it knowing that one’s control can only stretch so far; that there’s a natural limit to what we can see coming, and a vast, nebulous stretch of random events that we can’t? It’s that for me, but there’s a masochism to it too. To be afraid—of the dark, of flying, of vomit, whatever—tempers the experience of the present. Anxiety crowds out any pleasure, worrying what might await in the obscured, unknowable future. Lurking behind every sunset, every light switch, is the unknown unknown—the thing that could change everything without so much as a courtesy warning. In the shadows, there is no true and false, no empirical measure by which to judge anything. You can’t make sense of what is and what isn’t because there is only what could be.
Back with Biscuit I felt the familiar tension in my shoulders, the same preoccupation with what might spring from the hollow darkness to eat me alive or scare me dead. Then, mid-conversation, Biscuit howled. He stuck his neck up, listened, and let out an animal moan. Colin and I looked at each other. Soon the whole campsite was howling with him. I worried we’d stumbled into an Animorphs book.
Awooooooooo! I thought I heard them say. But then I heard the articulation: Doooooooooom!
You guys want to meet your doom? Biscuit said, eyes wide. I remembered his AK-47 comment from earlier. Colin sat still by the fire. We asked what he was talking about. He said to come and find out, and then he left us as suddenly as he came.
Twenty seconds went by. Guttural moans echoed around the campground, bouncing off the rocks, sneaking up from behind. Colin and I looked at each other. One of us said, we sorta have to, right? And then we were up, chasing Biscuit down the road, off to meet our doom.
There was a group of eight others waiting. Brooklyynnnnnn! they shouted, repeating the one detail Biscuit had relayed. As we walked—to where? to what? to whom?—there were scattered introductions. A guy named Eamon told us he had just quit his Cirque du Solei job, and that he knew the best place to buy pot in San Francisco. A woman named Lauren had no idea whom any of these people were 24 hours ago—she had answered an online ad when one of them needed a climbing partner. A man named Justin buzzed around loudly, high on something but low on self-assurance. The night had called out to us, and we had answered.
Headlamps swung through the black. Paranoia set in. I scanned for assailants, thinking of the elaborate deathmarch that the other eight people had planned for Colin and me. I was disoriented, walking on pavement with huge rock formations towering overhead, bending over to intimidate. The sky was clear enough to see the hazy sheen of galaxies overhead, portals to more of the unknown. I shook with fear.
I asked what the Chasm of Doom actually was, and somebody replied that it was a rock scramble, one of those things where you’re on all-fours as you summit a pile of boulders. No technical rock climbing skills would be required, but we’d be squeezing our way through passages no wider than our shoulders, passages carved by millennia of water. Claustrophobia I could do. Darkness was the problem.
We reached a picnic table and somebody told us to leave anything fragile behind, since it’d get roughed up while we maneuvered the chasm. Then the next directive came: the headlamps were to be left behind too. One person turned his on and a smattering of others jeered. If you can’t be trusted not to use the headlamp, leave it behind, one of the leaders said. I clutched mine and stuffed it into my jacket pocket, zipping it up so it couldn’t fall out.
Ten of us marched toward the chasm, piercing the night with our voices. Somebody tried to light a joint, but the leader, Zach, said to wait: Don’t smoke the joint yet. Follow my voice. We’ll take you to the most amazing place to smoke. And then we were through the entrance and into the total, utter darkness. I saw brown spots for a few seconds, my retinas clinging to light the way your lungs do when you dove a little too deep.
Follow my voice. We were a single-file line of people, groping our way forward like ants carving a labyrinth. We had nothing but our feelers to guide us. Hands out in front of the body. Reach, search, touch. Oh god, what’s that? Oh, it’s just the French Canadian guy.
The rocks were everywhere and nowhere, knocking our heads, colliding with our shins, scraping our fingers. We listened for the instructions of the person in front of us, did as they said, and passed the instructions to the person behind. It was a high-stakes game of telephone—getting lost in translation could mean getting lost in the chasm. We scrambled up, we chimneyed down, we pivoted sideways.
We came to a slightly more open area, the fabled most amazing place to smoke, and someone flicked a lighter. The glow of the joint hovered in the air, a firefly destined for extinction. I thought back to a text message a friend had sent on my way out to Joshua Tree, finally making sense of it. I had read it the day before, as the setting sun tossed pinks and golds in the sky and black silhouettes on the ground. Night was bleeding up rather than down, leaping from the silhouettes on the ground back to the sky that had brought them. “Enjoy and get weird out there,” my friend had written. “Chasm of dooooom! At night. No headlamps is the best way.” I now understood the darkness was the main event—doing the chasm without it was a pale imitation.
We were on the move again. Trust in my voice, somebody said. As we progressed, the climbing lingo intensified. There’s a big drop. Just over the thing. Stem the chimney. Use the foot jam. Reach for the sloper. We scrambled our way through, my body was too busy inching forward to know if my heart was racing. I called out for Colin with unashamed dependency, clinging to the only fellow scrambler whose face I could picture as more than just a shadow. Yes, I’m OK. Yep, I’m good. Right behind you, he recited.
We shimmied down a drop that might as well have been a gully, all of us searching for a floor that felt like it would never come. I dangled my feet below, not knowing if I had made a wrong turn, terrified not so much that I’d break an ankle, but that I’d be left behind alone in the dark as people ran—no, scrambled—for help. Trust in the ledge, somebody said, channeling a fortune cookie he had forgotten he read three years prior.
But I found the floor, and then I found the starlight. It was on the other side of a body-sized hole, ten yards above me. I crawled through the narrow passage, squeezing, yearning, reaching for the other side. Then, finally, out I came, birthed on the other side. My eyes gulped the light, and the darkness now looked so bright. Somebody pointed out Orion’s Belt, finding a landmark amidst the night. The darkness felt infinite with possibility, not danger.
But we still had to make our way back down.
And now I was stuck in a hole. Colin and I had somehow become the final two people in the caravan, and Justin, still monolithically stoned, had somehow become our guide. Offering directions without any thought to whether they made sense, he had charged ahead while Colin and I struggled with a particularly harrowing sequence of moves. Now I was chest deep in a crevasse and Justin told me to keep going.
I can’t fit, I shouted.
I didn’t think I could, either, he shouted back. Keep going down.
But, Justin, I Can. Not. Fit.
Justin. Justin. JUSTIN!
I was screaming now, the danger feeling raw. But it wasn’t coming from the blackness anymore—we could still see the stars and they were terrifically bright. Instead, the danger I was feeling was tangible and real; it was the visceral feeling of the present, not the manufactured peril of the abstract. It was the fact that I was being led through the Chasm of Doom by a guy who, when the joint reached him earlier, took 5 consecutive hits and didn’t pass it on even when somebody said, Pass the doobie, dude.
Somebody told Justin to come retrieve me, and he did, and of course he had guided me into the wrong hole. Then we plunged back into the darkness, knocking, colliding, and scraping all over again. By the time we reached the ground two hours had passed inside our doom.
The ten of us made our way back to the campsite underneath a blanket of stars. It was dark, but nobody turned on their headlamps. Not even me.