Growing up in the city doesn’t afford many opportunities for quiet or solitude, but I would seek them out nonetheless. Some of my earliest memories involve me being alone, in relatively quiet places. Whether alone atop Mt. Tabor, or sitting on the roof of our garage – which was a favorite place. Sometimes I would find solitude in my bedroom, behind the couch, or even riding my bike. Later, in my teens, we always had a tree fort where I spent many afternoons seeking peace and quiet.
However, as a child of the city, what I thought was quiet was merely a lack of distraction. The ever-present background noise never stopped. Being a child of the 60s, my transistor radio and 45rpm records – later cassette tapes and a stereo – always played music. In the car, in my room, or as a young adult on my motorcycle, there was always music. And of course there were the sounds of traffic, people, and the accompanying commotion. Sirens, trucks, airplanes, and the whine of tires on the highway. It was, in the truest sense of the word, ubiquitous.
Even my early childhood exposures to the great outdoors were filled with noise. My family always camped in crowded state parks and my grandfather always trolled when we went fishing. Somehow, despite the drone of the trolling motor, or the business of the campground, I was still able to find solitude. When camping, I’d build a shelter on the beach and my dog and I would watch and listen to the surf. It was soothing, refreshing, and energizing. While fishing with my grandfather, I’d lie back and let the hum of the boat motor envelop me in a hypnotic trance of daydreams.
After a severe personal crisis in my early 20s, I began to seek a better way of living. I sought peace and serenity – which led me to spend time in the mountains of Western Oregon. The most significant of these experiences was a five-day journey near Lolo Pass, on the Pacific Crest Trail. Not only was I alone, but I purposefully didn’t tell anyone where I was. Though not safe, and I would never recommend this, there is something very freeing about making it difficult to be found – especially by those who would want to find me.
Those five days in the woods were filled with beauty, solitude, loneliness, freedom, release, and healing. The view of Mount Hood was stunning. The wind cascaded through the trees with a dichotomy of terror and gentleness. I feared bears and cougars, but never saw any. I feared being discovered, but never saw another soul. I reveled in the sunshine and enjoyed the rain. I felt wild and alive – and it was quiet.
Over the course of the next several years, there were a few times of quiet, but mostly life was just filled with stress, business, and noise. Visual noise, auditory noise, and the detritus of human interaction. I played the soundtrack louder in order to overpower the noise, but this, in retrospect, just created more noise.
I remember nights spent on Council Crest or Mount Tabor, soaking in the starlight and cityscape. There was solitude, but it was never quiet. Sometimes the wind blowing through the trees would drown out the cacophony of city life below, but often that city life was a comforting presence – reassuring me that I was not alone in my stress. More than once I approached one of these high places, doubting I could continue to trudge forward, but the bitter-cold winds blowing through the trees and the crystal, twinkling starlight hovering over the sparkling city, all cooperated to bring peace to my soul.
I will never forget the first time I experienced absolute quiet. It was also the first time I heard an orchestra in my ears. Like voices, but not. Like music, but not. Like the roar of a busy city, but not. Like putting your ear up to a seashell, but not. Honestly, I don’t know how to describe it. It was so strange, so unknown, and so seldom experienced – I have no way to explain it to someone who has never heard it. There are probably several people who have heard nothing – absolute silence – but I’ve never heard anyone try to describe it.
To be honest, I didn’t like it. I wanted to turn on a radio, shout into the sky, or make it go away. I forced myself to listen. I forced myself to stay with it. I almost thought I was coming unhinged. I closed my eyes and listened. It scared me – but I knew there was nothing to fear. Or was there?
Read this man’s experience with absolute silence.
“after a minute or two, I became aware of the sound of my breathing, so I held my breath. The dull thump of my heartbeat became apparent – nothing I could do about that. As the minutes ticked by, I started to hear the blood rushing in my veins. Your ears become more sensitive as a place gets quieter, and mine were going overtime. I frowned and heard my scalp moving over my skull, which was eerie, and a strange, metallic scraping noise I couldn’t explain. Was I hallucinating?” ~ George Michelson Foy
What if the repressed fears of my soul could be heard? What if I began to hear the screams of fear in my heart? What if there were memories, regrets, or desires that are hidden in my soul? What if I listened to all those private, inner voices? Would I go crazy? Could I handle those voices? I began to cry – not just soft, whimpering, but deep, heaving sobs. The silence was broken.
In the early 1990s some friends and I went to Alaska on a sea kayaking adventure. We spent nearly three weeks away from our homes and jobs. It’s the first time I’ve taken vacation that long. The first week was spent traveling up the coast by ferry, from Bellingham, Washington to Juneau, Alaska. And after a night or two in Juneau we flew to Gustavus, at the opening to Glacier Bay Alaska, and spent another two days there before setting off on our great Alaskan vacation.
For the next two weeks, after being dropped off far up into the bay, we camped and paddled amongst the beauty of unadulterated wildness. It was an amazing opportunity to experience whales, bears, birds, and calving glaciers. The clarity of the night sky was beyond description – with an untold number of stars that are rarely seen by those in more civilized climes. There were no outside distractions, no electronics, and nothing to break the quiet.
But it was our last night when the whole experience exploded. It started with a pack of wolves visiting our camp and a full moon rising above a neighboring mountain horizon. With the arrival of the moon, the wolves began to howl. They were all around us and it was the most amazing symphony I’ve ever experienced. They howled from the forest, they howled from down the beach where we were camped, and they howled from the neighboring mountain. We were surrounded by wolves and they sang in perfect harmony.
And yet, God wasn’t finished delighting us. With the accompaniment of the wolves, and the light of a beautiful, late Summer moon, we were treated with the most spectacular fireworks display powered by the aurora borealis. There were streaks of green, flashes of amber, and even some red highlights. The sky danced with light and color. (Later, a local forest ranger told us it was the most spectacular display of Northern Lights he’s ever seen.)
The night was far from over though. My six friends, not being night owls, had escaped to their sleeping bags, but I couldn’t even begin to think of sleep. The night was magical and I stood under the canopy of stars, listening to the wolves, watching the sky writing of the Northern Lights, and marveling at the rising full moon. I could only say “Wow. Wow….. Wow.” And then I heard movement in the water behind me.
At first I thought it was a whale, maybe sea lions – of which we’d seen many, but soon I heard the exhalation of many breathing holes. It was a pod of dolphins! Just when I thought the night couldn’t get anymore fantastic, a pod of dolphins shows up to patrol the small bay where we camped.
Though the show continued through the night, I finally resigned myself to the inevitable and crawled into my sleeping bag. I drifted off to sleep to the sounds of the happy, howling wolves.
Arising to the sunrise, I was the first up. The sky was clear, the bay was still – very still, and there wasn’t a sound to be heard. I walked down to a nearby creek to bathe and start my day. The sun was already burning brightly on this warm August morning. A wolf sat about 50 yards away, watching me bathe in the creek. But it was the stillness of the morning that struck me.
I was still basking in the afterglow of last night. My heart rose in song and worship, while the wolf studied me curiously, his head cocked to one side. After I dressed and walked away from the creek, I sat on a rock and looked at the mountains across the bay. The stillness was deafening. The water was still and the mountains were perfectly reflected on the water. There wasn’t even a wisp of wind.
Once again, like it had years before, the quiet overwhelmed me. But this time I was better prepared for it. My heart was at peace because of the magical night of wolves and Northern Lights. As I sat in the sunlight, bathing in it’s warmth, I heard nothing. It is always disquieting. But too rare in all our lives. It saddens me to think that some have never heard absolute quiet.
Like before, the quiet remained indescribable. The sounds of my heartbeat and breathing were very pronounced. And like before, the voices of my soul were noticeable. But unlike before, I relaxed in the quiet. It didn’t unhinged me. I just reveled in the sound of nothing.
Too soon, the morning came to a close. My friends walked down the beach to find me – they were afraid I’d been eaten by a grizzly. We packed up our camp and within an hour the boat returned to take us home to civilization. Two days later I was home.
For the next two weeks, I slept in my sleeping bag and lived out of my pack. I hung the Glacier Bay map on my wall and lived on trail mix and dried fruits. To be honest, it was a bit depressing coming back to civilization – especially after the visions of grandeur I experienced in Alaska.
Twice, since arriving in Valentine, I’ve experienced quiet like this – absolute, pure, unadulterated quiet. Accompanied by a canopy of a billion stars, I revel in this world created for us.
Have you ever experienced quiet like this? What was it like for you? Did it unhinge you? Were you moved? Where were you? Do you seek moments like this? How did it affect you? If you can’t find quiet like this, what do you do to replace the experience – in order to remain serene and healthy?
I am content with the sound of the ocean, the wind blowing through the trees, or the babble of fast moving stream. Even the sensory deprivation of a long hot shower will work. Each of these experiences reset my internal clock and give me the courage and peace to continue the battle. But nothing is like absolute, perfect, disquieting silence. I wonder if it’s possible to experience this, Zen-like, in the midst of a cacophony of noise and commotion.