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Article: Carbiding

An account of walking the woods at night by using a carbide lamp


Fall 1963

Lately, I have been spending my free nights walking the woods by the light of a carbide lamp attached to a special orange cap. I have even coined a verb for this action: "carbide." Now carbiding is my favorite hobby; for I have found that there is nothing to compare with the mystic sights and sounds of the night.

One Friday evening, I decided to make a four-hour hike to a point which overlooked all of Gadsden. At six o'clock, I started to get ready for my trip. I got out my binoculars and my carbide lamp. I filled the lamp with calcium carbide and water, and I walked out into the shadows of my backyard and there clicked the lever of the lamp until I was satisfied that enough water was dripping on the carbide. The garlic odor of acetylene was soon apparent. Putting my hand across the reflector of the lamp, I waited for the amount of gas to build up and then whipped my hand across the sparking device. There was the low pop of an explosion and a blinding glare of light. I cut the supply of water down, put the lamp and cap on my head, and started out through the woods.

A few minutes later, I was standing in a clearing near Noccalula Falls. I looked up in the sky and spotted the Pleiades, which, to my near-sighted eyes, looked like a soft blur of light. After looking at them with the binoculars, I focused in on Jupiter and three tiny points of light which were his moon that I could sense, even if I could not see, revolving around him. Finished with my star gazing, I gave the sky a final glance and saw the streak of a shooting star. The "star" etched itself into my vision so strongly that I could see it again clearly by closing my eyes. I knew now that my trip could not be a failure with such a good omen!

Taking long swinging strides, I followed the path that led away from the falls. Soon I felt swallowed by a bewilderment of swaying shadows that seemed to be trying desperately to smother my lamp. Every now and then, I turned my lamp around so that it threw its beam behind me; then I would follow the deep black snake of a path that seemed to be writhing its way through the trees. Finally, I reached a place where the path seemed to come to an end. I carefully clambered down a low cliff and crossed a small stream which was more moist than wet; there I saw dozens of glow-worms involved in imitating the stars. Carbiding further along the trail, I came to a sandstone cliff that almost completely blocked my way. I eased myself across a narrow ledge that hung precariously over the waters of Black Creek. Then I hurried a little as I passed through an ominous swamp and came out into a clearing below a section of Alabama City.

A dog howled in the city above as I looked ahead to my greatest obstacle. This was a deep, narrow valley through which flowed a small creek that had the yearly habit of flooding its banks, leaving behind a nightmarish conglomeration of small twisted ironwood trees, deep gullies, and assorted junk from the city above. The sensation I had as I battered through more than half a mile of this jungle was similar to the sensation of dreaming about running. Action exists, but motion does not. I felt as if I would continue to fight through that valley for the rest of my life. But the incredible happened, and I finally struggled my way through and onto Hind's Road.

I walked down the road until I came to a silent house across from a black lake that twinkled with reflected starlight. I blew out the lamp, so I wouldn't disturb the people in the house and groped my way up to a low hill overlooking the lake. As I descended on the other side, my feet slipped on the close-packed pine straw, and I desperately clutched my lamp and started to carefully pick my way through a dense blackberry patch.

When that ordeal was over, I quickened my pace and headed down a path that had become confused with a creek. Needing more light to see by, I clicked up the lever on my carbide light two more notches. As the flame increased, I found myself walking in a daylight brightness. I yanked the cap off of my head and tried to decrease the flame, which was now a scimitar-shaped jet of fire well over an inch long. As the flame began to die, I started jogging in the direction of my goal. The path gradually steepened, winding upward at a 30° angle. Higher and higher I climbed. I crossed Scenic Highway, which, unlike most highways, is almost impassable. I crashed my way through some thick brush and climbed onto a massive rock that gleamed faintly with lichen, perched high on the spine of the mountain.

In the distance, I could see Gadsden and Attalla sprawled out beneath me. With my binoculars, I could even see the Goodyear blimp "Mayflower" parked at the airport. Beneath me was the Chattanooga highway traveling straight up the dark valley below me as far as the eye could follow. I looked all around, studying the tracery of lights in the cities below, the brilliance of the sodium vapor lamps marking the highways, the fiery red heat of the hearth at Republic Steel, the barely readable red sign on the Reich Hotel, and the lights from the thousands of buildings and homes all around and below me. Except for a few lone pine trees, everything and everybody was beneath me. I felt like the king of the mountain, one of the omniscient gods looking down from Olympus. I felt above everyone in more ways than one. Who below me, watching the good guys shoot it out with the bad guys on TV was, in another sense, above me? Which one was experiencing something greater than I was? Among the tens of thousands below me, how many had ever walked through miles of swirling darkness, startling noises, and clinging stick-tights to see what I was seeing?

I almost felt like pitying them as I returned home, walking down the dusty and moon-lit Scenic Highway -- for the moon had risen since I had begun my trip -- aware of Jupiter's moons slowly revolving above me, the friendly Pleiades softly glowing in front of me, and Orion the hunter rising in the sky.

Note: My interest in using a carbide lamp and in walking at night continued. However, I used the carbide lamp as I began to explore caves, and I walked the woods at night mostly without a light or with just a flashlight in the event of any tangles. I highly recommend walking at night, as it is a way to experience an entirely different world. Be sure to be watch for two dangers: falling due to decreased depth perception and getting poked in the eye by branches. The danger from wild animals at night is very slight in most areas.

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