The Sound of Silence

By Jack Olson

Listen. Carefully. What do you hear? As I write this I can hear the motor in my refrigerator freezer humming. It does that from time to time. I live in an apartment building and there are all sorts of noises from the many functions of the building. You might call it “building noise.” I can hear a little traffic on Broadway and someone putting trash in a dumpster in the alley. None of this is bothersome. A person gets used to some sounds, and they don’t interfere with life going on, or even thinking.

    I can remember back in the day when I was young but not too young to be left alone in our old house. I’d turn on the radio and listen to one of those mysteries, “Inner Sanctum” or “Suspense.” Remember now, I’m an old timer. I’d be scared witless and then I’d hear our house creaking. I’d go around, turning on lights, peeking in closets and under beds, making lots of noise. The noise helped.

    Fast forward to the 1970s and after. I started driving all over the West to visit those magnificent places I’d heard about and had seen in pictures. Thus began one of the most exciting times of my life.

Monument Valley Mittens © D Laine
The Mittens and Merrick Butte in Monument Valley © Don Laine

    Sometime in the 1970s I headed to Monument Valley. We all watched the old John Ford Westerns where John Wayne and the cavalry came to the rescue of the settlers, a bugle blowing the charge. Back then we didn’t take notice that as they rode for days and days they kept passing the same geologic mitten formations. I arrived at an overlook and was transported to that scene from my teenage years. I stood on the rim of a cliff and was in awe of the sprawling red rock vista, right where John Wayne had ridden to the rescue.

    But then I noticed something. Or, rather, the absence of something. There was not one single sound. No bugle blaring. No people, no cars. No wind, no creatures. I had never experienced such a feeling. It was magical. Then it was weird. I became aware of the sound that’s always in our ears, but nothing else. It was spooky and I finally started scuffing my boots on the ground and talking to John Wayne. I thought, “that’ll never happen again.”

Arches Nat'l. Pk. © J Olson
Park Avenue in Arches National Park © Jack Olson

    But it did. This time, some years later, I was at Arches National Park in Utah. As usual, I got out there at sunrise. This was before the multitudes began to descend on the park. I stopped at a canyon called Park Avenue, just inside the entrance. No people, no cars. I stood at the overlook and it was deja vu. No wind, no creatures. Silence. It was overwhelming, but I had more experience in handling it this time. You could actually feel silence. I stood there, entranced, until the first car drove by and spoiled everything.

Redwoods © M Gaug
Redwoods © Maryann Gaug

    The third, and final, experience occurred in California. I had never seen the redwoods so I headed that way. I went to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, one of three California state parks associated with Redwood National Park. I took the Miner’s Ridge Trail. I’ll stop right now to tell you that this is one of my favorite trails in the U.S.

    OK, back to the subject. Early morning. No cars, no people. I stepped off into these towering monuments to nature’s best efforts. The trail was covered with a soft mixture of needles and plant matter. A layer of fog hung above. The redwoods rose into the fog and the tops disappeared. It was like a cathedral. I stopped with my jaw dropping. There was no wind and there were no creatures. Once again, I was standing still, deep in a magnificent tribute to silence. 

    I would lollygag along, then often stop and breathe in the experience. I must have slowly covered two miles, stopping just to feel the silence. You couldn’t hear it but you could feel it. But then, something changed. It was almost, but not quite, silent. I couldn’t put a name to it because there was no wind, but something soft and gentle had entered the experience.

    As I continued to walk quietly I could still hear this pleasant accompaniment to the redwood silence. I came to a high spot in the trail and looked ahead. I was staring, wide-eyed, at the Pacific Ocean.