Moon Walking

M. Garrett Bauman


[Table of Contents]
[Editor's Note]

February 9, 1993. Two degrees Fahrenheit. A mile from the nearest road on the western fringe of New York's Finger Lakes region. Elevation: 1,834 feet. Latitude: 42 degrees, 38 minutes. Longitude: 77 degrees, 49 minutes.
      I like the frozen crunch of fact underfoot when I set out for a winter walk at midnight. With just a wedge of moon, I will walk for miles in the woods. If that seems intimidating, consider that Nunda, New York (where I live), orbits the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, and the Milky Way rockets through untracked space at speeds scientists cannot determine. All while we think we're well located at our lighted addresses. So when a winter itch creeps up the back of my legs, I know it's time to walk in the dark. If I wait until spring, I won't be within a billion miles of where I am now.
      Two days of snow and ripping winds have dragged drifts into hollows and rippled dune patterns across the field. Tonight the wind died and the moon shines. The wooden porch steps crack under my weight like branches splitting in an ice storm. The sound echoes from the woods.
      Cold assaults my nostrils—the ether cold of a windless night that radiates heat into space. My body heat drains through my sweater and coat. My ears know where the pores in my knitted hat are. On a night like this I realize how cold the universe is, how few are the stars, and how little heat those nuclear candles give us. Twenty times as many cells warm each of us.
      The pore between our sun and the nearest star is 25 trillion miles wide. Into that gap radiates heat from anything on earth with heat to give: maple buds, crevices of car engines run hours ago, steam in kitchens, and the fluffed-out owl. Simple physics—heat moves to cold. If all life, all stars, all fuel were consumed in supernovas—if we spread all known heat like butter over the cold platter of the universe—could it warm space's absolute zero by even one degree?
      Maybe it is the fear of being absorbed by such cold that keeps us indoors on winter nights. Yet most people can walk more securely in the dark than they suspect. With the moon and reflecting snow cover, I can see the red barn and brown grass across the valley. On the trail here, prints from deer, fox, coyote and turkey show clearly. Tonight's brilliant moon flies above scattered, hazy clouds. The landscape glows in a pale, watery luminescence. Moonlight should be cold; yet when I step from under the trees, I can feel a wisp of heat as the light touches my face. I may be kidding myself, of course. It's just a sigh, a dream of heat from the cold sky. Certainly an illusion, but I do feel a few degrees of warmth.
      The dry snow squeaks with each step, and the flakes glitter in the moon's glow, so it feels as though I'm walking through a field of stars. Thousands of them sparkle in the flakes underfoot as the planet spins through those overhead.
      Walking in the night reminds me of an elderly blind woman named Eva who lived in my house when I was a child. She had been blind for 20 years and often didn't know her stockings sagged like elephant's skin around her ankles or that she sometimes misbuttoned her sweaters. But she taught me to read by identifying birds from an old encyclopedia. Although the years have closed over her and that lost book, I still recall the glossy pages with the exotic, brilliant birds. "Describe it to me," she'd say. And when I did, she might sigh, "Ah, that must be the oriole," and have me read the name under it. I'd stare at the flaming orange-and-black bird and then at the glint of light in her dead eyes. So we felt our way toward sight, each a moon for the other's midnight.
      I head for the gully trail, dropping 200 feet in a quarter mile. As I tramp under the trees, the sparkling stars at my feet disappear. My teeth and lungs sting. I spot fresh bobcat prints in the snow. This week we heard their mating screams, resembling wailing babies. There are stories of bobcat ambushing deer from trees. Branches hang thickly over me, and I hope the bobcat sees well and lacks ambition. At the bottom, the creek is stiffening into ice, gurgling halfheartedly as it grinds to a halt. Rocks that are awash already wear slick caps. It's darker down here with the grey walls rising on either side, but a few shards of silvery moon still glitter on the water.
      Here at the deepest, farthest edge of my property, I mark my territory, a pathetic wisp of steam vanishing upward. It's a joke I share with the night. This is mine! Here is my boundary line, I say, as our planet races through unsurveyed voids. Climbing back up from the ravine, my thighs, ears and cheeks pay for walking in such intense cold. The burning numbness means my body has begun shutting off its heat hoard to save its brain and heart.
      The cold-cracking tree limbs sound as if they could start a split through the earth, as though the brittle air could shatter like glass. As I pass the frozen pond, I spot the goose that camps on our property—white feathers against the white, snowed-over pond. She stands on one leg, silent, waiting for the water to return. A yellow light from the house blinks through the trees and the cold moon glows above. The bass lie on the bottom of the pond, the ice above them inching down. What would we do if the darkness and cold should really take hold? I slap my numb thighs and tramp home.


"Moon Walking" originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 1994 issue of Sierra Magazine.


M. Garrett Bauman has always inhabited places with cold winters. He was raised across the street from infamous Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ (portrayed in Lean on Me), and now lives in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York on 75 acres of land a mile from the nearest road. His essays and fiction have been in Yankee, The New York Times, Sierra, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications. He's the author of two books on writing: Ideas and Details (Harcourt, now Heinle, 2001) and The Shape of Ideas (Heinle, 1996). One of his essays recently won the New Letters prize for creative nonfiction, selected by Philip Gerard.