Walking on a dark winter evening never posed much of a problem when I lived in cities or suburbs where adequate lighting and shoveled sidewalks ensured I could see where I was going, but walking through the unlit fields and pastures surrounding a small village in rural western Hungary is a different matter entirely. The streets and sidewalks of my village are mostly lit, but I don't enjoy walking there in the winter after I come home from work. For starters, the settlement is so small that it requires three laps around the circumference of the village to clock an hour. Though a little monotonous, this in itself would not be so bad if it were not for two things - the smoke and the dogs.
Most of my fellow villagers heat their homes with wood or any other combustible material they can cram into their furnaces. During the winter, a thick blanket of smoke settles down over the streets and houses in the afternoon and remains until well into the night. The few times I did go for a walk around the village in the evening, I came home smelling like a smoked salami, not to mention the unpleasantness in the lungs after breathing in chimney smoke for an extended period of time. Even more aggravating are the dogs, which are a staple of nearly every rural Hungarian home. Sixty minutes of being incessantly growled and barked at makes for neither a relaxing nor soothing walk, I can assure you.
Three or four smoke-filled walks accompanied by the comforting sounds of ninety-pound German shepherds howling and hurling themselves against steel gates and fences were enough to convince me that evening walks in Fertöendréd were not conducive to either my health or my peace of mind. For a while, I contemplated buying some kind of exercise machine, but I knew I would likely grow bored with it, and it would end up nothing more than a bulky and unsightly towel rack after a month or two. All this time the fields and woods around my house beckoned.
In the end, I found a simple solution to my dilemma and invested in an affordable head lamp, one with illumination strong enough to light up the patch of space before me as I walked. The head lamp was all it took to make the fields and pastures accessible again, and I have been going out for long walks in the fields after work ever since.
In many ways, I prefer walking in nature at night in the winter than in the spring or summer sunshine. There is a stillness in the winter night landscape that cannot be replicated at any other time of the year. No insects buzz past your ears; no birds twitter in the distance. The only sounds are the crunching of my footfalls on the snowy ground and the rustling of dried grass and the frozen branches of trees I pass. Every once in a while I will stir up a duck as walk beside the river bank, or startle an unsuspecting red deer resting in a thicket next to the corn fields. On clear nights, the stars blaze in the blackness revealing the enigmatic beauty and vastness of space, while on foggy nights the vast open landscape is reduced the circle of light before my feet, leaving me no option but sink into deep, contemplative thought.
Regardless of the weather, I am always the only person in the fields at night during winter time, and in my more playful moments I imagine I am the only person left in the world. For the better part of an hour I relish the solitude, but as I make my way back toward my house and the illuminated steeple of the village church comes back into view in the distance, I think of my wife and young son waiting at home. I whisper a quick thanks that I am not truly alone in the world.
As I do so, I consider all the people in the world who are. Those countless faces, some known, others forever unknown, for whom life has become - perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently - nothing but an endless, dark winter landscape, with no illuminated church steeple in the distance and no family waiting at home. Those countless millions for whom solitude offers no solace; for whom the awe of a starry night sky strikes nothing but unease and despair.
As I get back onto the street leading to my house, I kick the snow from boots and utter a quick prayer for them all, wondering, if and when, my turn will ever come. If it does, I hope some solitary walker in the winter night takes a moment and whispers a prayer for me.