Phil Hugo: A night walker for all seasons

By Phil Hugo - Guest Columnist

It is the night before Christmas Eve, and I am walking in the west end of Lima — down High Street, then around Dale Drive, over to Oakland Parkway in a somewhat circuitous route. The evening is pleasant, low 40s, mostly calm and clear with stars and planets decorating the sky.

Many of the properties are bedecked with lights and decorations befitting the holiday season. Some are simple, like a couple of colored bulbs in porch lights to a major display at Dale and Idlewild. Talk about being lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree! I’ve never seen so many blow-ups, such as Frosty, Santa, a Snoopy airplane that is grounded, to name a few, and a host of colored lights all situated on a small yard.

It was the piece de resistance of all the displays that delighted my eyes and mind. Thanks to all the residents who made an effort to bring cheer and joy to the world.

I prefer to walk at night, and while that evening might be the first time I can recall taking in such sights, I should do it more often. The holiday season of 2021 will be here before we know it.

Walking after dark is something I enjoy for any number of reasons. I consider myself to be gregarious, social, someone who enjoys the company of others, but I am very comfortable with my place in a world of solitude. A world of my making. Ergo I walk alone.

But, I’m not really alone, and you know why? Depending on the angle of the lights I have anywhere from one to three, maybe four Phil shadows in my company: Me chasing, one of them chasing or another at my side. A version of me, myself and I.

Unlike others who walk, I do not talk on a phone or have earbuds in my ears to listen to music. It’s that wanting to be free of, what shall I call it, intrusion. However, I do have my phone with me should the need arise.

If we pay attention to the world as we walk at night, there are sensory aspects at hand. Spring and summer evenings treat us to the high pitched trilling calls of gray tree frogs off in the trees and shrubs — love songs to a potential mate. Most people have never seen one of these small amphibians that can change color depending on the background: bright green, gray or brown. Camouflage. Survival.

Quiet cars, loud motorcycles, a jet headed to who knows where, a young lad shooting baskets and barred owls calling their young. Barking dogs acknowledge my presence. Off in the distance, the chemical complex perks along. I collect the sounds and process them.

A common aspect of my amble-abouts are the varied odors my sniffer brings to my attention. Walking along curbs and gutters of the streets puts me in close contact with the catch basins that divert stormwater into the city sewer system. But what vents out of said basins on certain parts of my route are the odors of toilets, dishwashers, washing machines and the remains of a bubble bath, among others.

I know when folks living in the many houses I pass are doing their laundry, and it’s not because I see them putting clothes in the washer or pulling them from the dryer. No, it is, to my olfactory sensors and, in my opinion, the very off-putting smell exiting from dryer vents. Whose idea was it to put perfumes in laundry products? My clean clothes smell just fine without that stuff.

When I was a working naturalist I led many folks on night hikes: to see the forest from the perspective of a screech owl or a raccoon and to realize how much one can see after the sun goes down. Even though there is plenty of ambient light on my walks, I still rely on my night vision as my eyes adjust.

I observe the silhouettes of trees. Where living ash trees once graced yards, there are now only memories. The trees fell victim to the emerald ash borer. Empty spaces. I recognize a ginkgo, then a maple. Conifers like spruces and pines self identify with their distinctive forms. There are the large oaks, the dominant trees of the night landscape where birds and squirrels rest, waiting for a new day.

If the sky is clear, I study those aforementioned points of light, marveling at the beauty of it all. A distant star ignites a memory. Years ago my late father and I were standing high in the mountain wilderness of Wyoming, looking at the night sky. I asked him if he ever looked at it and wondered how far it went. His response: “Hell no, it could drive you mad. I prefer to enjoy the beauty of it.”


I’m not an astronomy buff, but I do know the difference between stars and planets. I use the Big Dipper to locate the North Star. Sometimes I would come home and call my late friend Tim Motter, a very knowledgeable astronomy buff, curious about two large planets I saw. His answer: “Jupiter and Saturn are visible now.”

I don’t walk as much as I should, but I enjoy it because among other things it benefits me physically and mentally. If I value those attributes and all they entail, I must discipline myself to be a more consistent night walker for all seasons.

By Phil Hugo

Guest Columnist

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

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