On Fresh Air and Election Night

“On top of that hill, the sky was wide and open, and we watched as the moon crawled. Lying there with the cold, wet grass underneath me, I was exhaling something stale and replacing it with fresh air. It was cleansing.”

By Daniel Weiss ’24
Date
Observatory

The first real, crisp chill of the season had finally crept onto campus, and Kenyon was roaring with talk of the night’s upcoming election results. My friends and I were gathered on the third floor of Leonard Hall. The room was tight and dimly lit, its wooden walls and floor darkened by age. It seemed hellbent on stewing each of us alive in our own sweat. The only relief from the pressure was the few rusty windows we’d opened. A news anchor’s voice kept us updated from one student’s laptop, and each new piece of data spurred an outcry of either joy or terror. Some students preached defeatist attitudes, some preached hope for the future. Some students cried, some tried to ignore the head-splitting tension, and some who swore never to drink were beginning to reconsider. But all of us were afraid.

The night drew onward at a crawl, the votes trickled in with no sign of stopping soon, and our shouts slowly melted away. As the clock approached 11, one of my friends spontaneously spoke up, breaking the heavy-hearted silence that had descended upon the room.

“I think I might go for a hike, if anyone’s interested.”

Over the past few years, I’d gotten increasingly adventurous. I’d never been willing, however, to do something like go hiking at night in unfamiliar woods. But it had been an unusual day. Standard procedure had been thrown out the window along with, at least for the moment, our mental health. Going for a hike at night when you’re on a very safe, secure college campus may not sound like a daring endeavor that requires nerves of steel, but as an anxious freshman, it took a lot in me to force out my answer:

“Sure, why the hell not?”

A few other friends agreed, and around 11:30, three of us headed out, went back to our dorms and picked up any materials we needed. We decided the Observatory Trail was the best option. I’m still grateful that one of my friends who came along happened to be an Eagle Scout. The confidence with which he would later navigate the forest offered some reassurance that, if worse came to worst, at least somebody knew what they were doing. We walked down the hill a little ways and marched forth onto the wet leaves of the forest floor. It was refreshingly quiet.

I have two vivid memories from the hike that night.

The first was made when we reached a small stream. A footbridge (if you could call it that) was precariously balanced over the water, and we stopped for a while to breathe and soak up the tranquility. We spoke only in whispers. The only other noise around us was the water softly trickling and bubbling over the rocks. I think I was worried that if I raised my voice, I would somehow wake the forest, and then the night sky, trees and stream would suddenly disappear.

As the water dribbled onward, the moon’s reflection, a luminescent, ghostly shade of white, rippled and shook precariously, as if it, too, was only brave enough to come out if we stayed silent. We sat there for 20 minutes or so, and I don’t know if my friends felt as comforted as I did. But I know that this memory has inexplicably consumed many of my Kenyon-related thoughts.

The trail led through more forest until it eventually spat us out onto a steep tar road which led up a hill neighboring Kenyon’s. At the top of this hill sat the namesake of the trail: the observatory. It was neatly situated within a wide clearing in the woods strewn with patches of grass and prairie. I almost glanced at my phone to check the time as we walked, but restrained myself. Doing so would remind me that we were still awake. We were standing on a different hill, and so I wanted to believe, somewhere on a different world. We made our way to a small spot in the grass and the three of us lay down and watched the night sky move.

Coming from Chicago suburbia, I wasn’t accustomed to the moon being bright enough to light up the world and cast vivid shadows. On an average clear night back home, the sky was virtually vacant, and was stained with the off-color orange of downtown’s constant pollution. But on top of that hill, the sky was wide and open, and we watched as the moon crawled. Lying there with the cold, wet grass underneath me, I was exhaling something stale and replacing it with fresh air. It was cleansing. Any conversation felt forced. After all, this excursion was meant to free us of the clutter and white noise of campus during the election. We didn’t want words to overcomplicate the simple joy of escaping.

The rest of our time there on the hill was quiet. I didn’t mind it. We would have stayed there longer if it weren’t for Campus Safety. We saw the headlights of a truck driving up the hill, and were relieved to discover it was Campo. Still in a blissful dreamstate, we staggered back home through the forest, into the real world on the Hill.

From readings and hearsay, I’d certainly been aware that nature could be a source of solace, but I’d never felt how profoundly true that was before. Every additional step away from campus was a step further away from the looming haze of the election, and the silence of the forest and the night sky was a sobering breath of fresh air that I very much needed. I miss the BFEC and the forest, and it is sad to think that they now sit about 350 miles away. I often think about them when I’m stressed, but I look forward to seeing them again upon returning this fall.

Daniel Weiss ’24 is an undeclared major from River Forest, Illinois.