It's a little after one in the morning. As anyone on this side of the world can see right now, the moon is full, and for that reason the clearing around me is somewhat illuminated ...all the way up to the treeline of the forest I'm surrounded by, at which point everything becomes black with shadow. I'm sitting at a picnic table at the edge of a small grassy clearing in a regional park above Berkeley. Now that I've been sitting for a while, I can hear noises coming from behind the dark wall of the forest. The light of my computer screen (even with the brightness turned all the way down) makes it so that when I hear a noise that is louder and closer then the others which causes me to look up, I have to stair for a while before my eyes adjust. I'll admit that I'm a little bit afraid, but this is the feeling I want to talk about.
I think everyone gets those moments of inspiration like I had an hour or so ago- those instants where you suddenly are overcome by an energy to stop thinking about something and just go out and do it. For me, these moments often occur at some early hour of the morning as I have a habit of staying up until around 4am every day. This time, the urge I had was to go night diving with my ROV.
This is the kind of thing we designed OpenROV for. Everyday people should, without any planning or even justification, be able to explore on a whim- just because their curiosity compels them too. I walked down the street from my house to the OpenROV lab, quickly stuffed an ROV and whatever else seemed prudent into a box, and left for the nearest isolated body of water likely to have good visibility I could find on a map- Lake Anza.
At around 12:30am, I arrived to a gravel parking lot slightly down a hill from the lake. With my laptop in a backpack and the ROV in a Pelican Case, I started up a trail that would lead me to the body of water shown on my smartphone. Though no one was around to hear them, my footsteps on the gravel walkway seemed intrusive to the silence and I tried stepping more quietly. As I approached the lake, I saw a light, which, as I got closer, revealed itself to be coming from inside a ranger station next to a large fence surrounding the lake with a gate and ticket booth at its opening. This place was not like the lakes I grew up around: even in the apparent natural surroundings of the Berkeley Hills, Lake Anza had been domesticated. For a moment, I contemplated the risks of jumping the fence, but ultimately I turned around and walked back to my car. I made an excuse in my head that likely getting cited for trespassing wasn't worth it, but I think what really made me turn around had more to do with the lake being so controlled by man. I wanted to explore something untamed and unknown.
At this point, my blood was infused with the essence of adventure, and I had to find something to explore with the ROV. I looked around on my smartphone for other bodies of water nearby. There was a reservoir, but that too would be surrounded by a fence and satellite imagery suggested that it might even be covered.
About 3km north-west, my phone showed a smaller body of water- really more of a pond then a lake- called "Jewel Lake". The map showed that roads could only take me some of the way there, and that to make it all the way to the lake, I'd have to hike a bit. I figured I'd scope it out anyway.
I parked my car as close to the trail head as I could find a spot, grabbed my stuff and started walking. At first, the trail seemed quite hike-able at night- it was really more of a small road that cars weren't allowed on. Under the moonlight, I could see well in front of me and to the sides of the trail surrounding me, and there were constant indicators of human touch such as direction signs and placards along the way. The very thing that had discouraged me from wanting to explore Lake Anza gave me confidence to move ahead. But soon the trail started to narrow. It turned out that what I had been walking on was just a pathway to a nature center for summer camps and tourists. I looked down the small dirt strip that lead into the woods the rest of the way to Jewel Lake knowing that I was not supposed to walk down it at this hour, and I turned around to walk back to my car. I made an excuse in my head that it wouldn't be smart to go walking so far into the woods alone late at night, but I think what really made me turn around had more to do with the fact that I wanted to be closer to my car for convenience.
On my walk back, I looked at my smartphone and found an even smaller blue circle - seemingly not much more then a big puddle- on the map just a few hundred meters from where I had parked. I must have overlooked this body of water during my initial search, or maybe it was so small that I didn't register it as consequential. At this point, anything wet would do, so I made my way past my car toward the little blue dot.
There must have been some mistake- I found some steps leading down a hill to a clearing, but the blue dot showed up on the map as being still past that point and into the brush. There were no trails, no signs, no man made indications of any kind that where I was had anything to do with a body of water. I walked into the forest.
I grew up in a very rural area, and trampling through untamed woods is practically a forte for me. But there is something about the imagination that haunts you when you venture into wild places at night. The forest is a living place, so there are always sounds of small things moving among the brush and trees. You learn to expect that, but at night, your mind automatically goes into what I can only presume is an instinctual mode of evaluating how big the thing creating each noise might be. Your senses get heightened to the utmost degree, and anything close to resembling a pattern of footsteps triggers you to stop and listen.
As I pushed further and further into the steadily thicker brush, I felt as though the things of the forest waited for me to take steps to make movements of their own. Each crunch of my feet against the sticks and leaves seemed to induce a lighter yet present crunching of sticks and leaves somewhere nearby. When I stopped to listen, the lighter crunching would persist just long enough for me to tell it was not from my own movements, but then it would stop.
This was scarier then the dark trail I had just turned back from and offered less reward then the fenced lake I had visited before that, but this time I wasn't going to give up. I felt as though I needed to face whatever part of me it was that made excuses not to go on adventures. I wanted to prove to myself that my ambitions had more value then my cautiousness. ..and there was also something else- something about the fact that I was out of the comfort of my known world. The very mystery that brought forth fear was also that which brought forth raw and unbridled curiosity. I pressed further.
The forest was so dark that I had to use the light on my phone to see where I was going. When the brush became so dense that I would have to start using fallen branches to trample it down, I checked the map on my phone and realized that the pool of water I was looking for was supposed to be right were I was standing. It was not there, and suddenly I realized that I was standing in the middle of the woods at 1am with a backpack and a pelican case, and only darkness and insecurity surrounding me. I stopped and listened for a moment and heard nothing.. I wanted to stay still until the forest resumed its normal background noise, but despite that intention, my feet started guiding me out of the forest. As I retraced my tracks, I felt compelled to start running. I didn't consciously feel fear, but I knew that somewhere in a part of my brain that had developed thousands and thousands of years ago, that was what was driving me to move faster. It took every bit of concentration I had to hold my slow and methodical pace.
In seemingly a quarter of the time it took me to enter the woods, I re-emerged into the safe, man-made clearing I had first entered from.
This isn't so much a story about fear as it is about curiosity. Especially during childhood, most of us can recall periods of being worried about literal and metaphorical dark places that we could not see but could only imagine. The same part of your brain responsible for producing images of things with long claws that you could just barely make out through the open closet door after being tucked into bed is also responsible for why you kept a flashlight on our nightstand.
The aspects of exploration which are innate are not drawn from a pursuit of data, they are the result of a curiosity about reality verses imagination. It is only when we fully understand our own self that exploration will loose it's luster, and I don't think that will ever happen.
Note: I have to admit that although I started writing this blog out on a park bench in the clearing I described, I finished writing it in my car down the street some distance. Coyotes which seemed to be surrounding where I was sitting started howling, and their howling seemed to be getting progressively closer and louder. Fear took over eventually, and I left. Here's a video of what that felt like.