Two a.m., north Tonto platform, Grand Canyon, between Phantom Ranch and Clear Creek.

We awaken to silence, total silence, no wind, no sound from the river, no mouse rustling through our gear, no music, no cell phone ringing and no engine noise from aircraft.  It is so quiet our ears ring.  My wife and I speak in whispers, for to speak aloud would be a travesty.  Carefully, we crawl out of the tent and stand on the rocky trail, for we are camped at large, and a wide spot on the trail was as good a place as any.  Above us, we see the night sky clearly, the dim circlet of Pisces easily visible without optical aid.

Periodically, I go into the woods to get away from people and society.  If I am lucky, not only will I be in the wilderness, but perhaps I will have clear, dark skies and spectacular star viewing the way our forebears did.  Much as I might wish, I don’t expect the third and rarest of the “outdoor triad” — total, complete silence.  Think about it.  Most of us find the wilderness quiet but seldom soundless.  But occasionally, you get lucky.  Perhaps the silence may even awaken you.  If fortunate enough to have this experience, you find yourself speaking in whispers.  When it is really quiet, you don’t want to disturb it.

I’ll take total silence over dark skies if I have a choice.  Last year, I finally decided it was time to camp out overnight in the Santa Catalina Mountains, which I’ve day hiked for years.  I hauled my aging frame and overnight gear eight miles and four thousand vertical feet to the top of Mt. Kimball.  I’m fortunate that I can actually walk out my back door in Tucson and under my own power hike to the top of a mountain.  To my surprise and pleasure, I again awoke in the middle of the night to total silence, with the town of Oro Valley spread out nearly a vertical mile below me.  Yes, it was cold, and yes, my legs almost gave out the next day after descending four miles of twenty per cent grades with a heavy pack.  But because of the experience of total silence, I might do it again.  Well, maybe with less gear and a good light, so I could make it a day — and evening — hike.

One advantage to growing old is that my hearing is gradually deteriorating.  As a result, I find myself in an advantageous state:  I hear well enough to keep myself safe, identify birds, and not get my wife too upset that I missed what she said.  At the same time, I am finding a few more opportunities to experience total silence.

Don’t get me wrong — given my druthers, I’d rather not be losing any hearing.  It took me many, many years before I realized how “auditory” I am.  More than once, I’ve recognized somebody only by their voice and not their face.  But these days, I find myself less tolerant of society’s noise.  It’s polluting, it’s harmful, it’s annoying, and much of it unnecessary.  While earphones or soundproofing can produce total silence, that isn’t the same any more than walking in the city is the same as walking, miles from the trailhead.  And as Sig Olson wrote, being in the wilderness is only part of the experience.  The work entailed to get there matters just as much.

In the Information Age, there is a lot to be said for under stimulating ourselves, not only because it’s healthier, but allows us to appreciate the stimuli that later occur.  Part of what makes total silence so memorable is hearing the enhanced suddenness of the sound ending it.  That night in the Canyon, it was a slight breeze carrying the distant sound of water rushing down Clear Creek Rapids.  Once in the Boundary Waters, it was a loon wailing from far down the lake.  Another time in the Canyon, it was the kraaak of a Raven, followed by hearing the flap of his wings echoing off the Redwall.

It’s worth experiencing the triad while you still can.  The best way is to work hard getting to a place then choosing the campsite carefully, being patient and most of all staying quiet.  It won’t be what you see, and it certainly won’t be what you hear.  It will be what you don’t hear.


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