This is the time of year that tests early-morning hikers' soles — sorry, souls. Every since the winter solstice the mornings have been gradually getting lighter — each week a perceptible difference — and so what was dark at 6 a.m., became gray gloom, then twilight and recently full light for the 6-ish start. All that, and the similar steady darkening that will start in June, is natural and just.
What isn't either natural or just is the sudden brutal loss of an hour as the clocks put forward and suddenly we are pitched into blackness again. The words "just another five minutes" have ruined many seemingly strong characters.
That, of course, is where the test comes in that sorts the mens' boots from the boys' boots. Or maybe the masochist from the sane.
The self-inflicted pain starts in the bathroom for me when fearful of waking up a sleepy wife by turning on lights I instead wake up the whole household — including cat — by knocking over whatever I left around the wash basin the night before.
Unwilling to learn a lesson, I continue this exercise in braille by crashing around the kitchen, waking up anyone who has just gone back to sleep. I'm not done yet, however. As I back out of the driveway my headlights sweep every bedroom in sight and only the noisy engine drowns the sounds of curses from family and neighbors alike.
Angeles Crest Highway is rightly known as one of the most dangerous roads in Southern California, perhaps the most dangerous. At 6 o'clock on a pitch-black morning with strings of cars from Palmdale and surroundings — 20, 30 at a time — coming at you, headlights on, shining straight into your face as you twist and turn on these hairpin bends (no wonder they are called blind curves) you are running more risk than at any time for the rest of the day. Sometimes it is obscured further by rain. On a few terrifying days a year that defy reason you are forced into the center of the road to overtake a cyclist, an even more suicidal pastime at this time of day. And, remember, you are doing this for pleasure.
The hike itself starts in darkness and you are quite alone. Every now and again you have the uncomfortable feeling that something is following you. Having seen a bobcat stroll past your bedroom in broad daylight a few days earlier, you have the uneasy sense of being stalked. More ominously still, it stops when you do, as if waiting for the moment of maximum vulnerability. Only until your heart has stopped racing do you realize it is your own shadow cast by the pale moon.
Amazingly, as I've discovered over the years, even on the darkest night there is enough light in the sky to plod ahead drinking in the mystery of it all until, first, you see the first faint trace of orange far away in the east, and then the glorious moment when the sun comes up and quickly climbs high in the sky — much higher than any other place where I've lived — and the chill of nighttime gives way to all-enveloping warmth.
In this climate it is the normal daily miracle. You breathe in deeply and ask yourself: "How could I even have thought of staying in bed?"