The Last True Moment of SilenceI pulled into the trail head just after dawn, when the first rays of sun blinked on. Balancing my coffee on the damp roof of the car, I busily unloaded my hiking equipment. Pack, food, cooking gear, water, extra clothes, poncho, maps, and sleeping bag. I'd need all 40 pounds on this solo hike. Satisfied with preparations, I hefted the pack, swallowed the dregs of coffee, and set off with my wide brim hat set at a jaunty angle.
The going was a tougher than expected. The "moderate" trail my hiking guide described was considerably steeper and less well-maintained than claimed. I groaned under the weight of the pack and sweated my way uphill, immediately wondering if I could do without some of my equipment. But I pressed on, lulled by the squeaking of the pack and the rhythmic sloshing bounce of the canteen on my hip. My heavy breathing matched the rhythm of my equipment and I hit my stride - legs tight, a slight forward tilt to balance the pack, and sweat called out onto my cheeks by the rapidly rising sun.
Lost in the Wilderness
A series of paint slashes on the trees marked the narrow trail. At first, it was quite clear and I had no need for the slashes, but as I continued - head down and absorbed with the cadence of the hike - I didn't immediately notice the trail becoming more and more overgrown. Suddenly, I realized the thin bare-dirt path was gone and I'd worked my way deep into a rhododendron thicket.
I stopped and looked up. Clearly, I could go no further in the thicket and I couldn't see any paint slashes above the shoulder-high tangle. I retraced my original steps until a more clearly defined string of bare earth emerged from the pungent undergrowth. Rising up like a groundhog and peered out into the distance and there - a few hundred feet away - were the paint slashes ready to show me the way.
Clearing a copse of briars and bleeding from a thousand sticker pricks, I found the tiny thread of trail. Watching more closely for paint slashes and a visible trail, I mushed on with my pack and my squeaks and my sloshes setting the pace.
Over the next two hours I lost the trail three more times, despite my careful eye. Small side paths - presumably from those who lost the trail in earlier seasons - splintered off and fooled me. As often happens in deep forest, trees began to look alike and topographical features blended into a series of homogeneous and unremarkable ups and downs. The sun was high now and the sunlight easily parted the loose tree cover. The heat was up and my endurance down. I stopped more often for water and to verify I was still clinging to the slender trail.
Paint slashes good - impenetrable briar patches bad.
Nearing lunch time, I entered a large area of second-growth forest. Judging from the size, the younger generation of trees had matured long ago. Although the trees were widely spaced, they provided a thick canopy that kept the forest floor in perpetual twilight. There was no wind and the air was cool and as green as the trees. The entire area sported a lush green carpet of moss that flourished in the damp protected space.
I thumped to a stop by a fallen tree. It was covered in moss and it's giant roots were a spider web exposed. If I looked closely, I could imagine a gnome taking up residence in the cool cave formed by the roots. Chuckling to myself, I lifted the pack off my shoulders and stood completely upright for the first time since I started. I bent this way and that to get the blood flowing through my aching limbs. I poured some water into my hat. It refreshed me as soon as it was back in place.
The Sound Game
I sat down, free of my burden, and pulled some trail mix from my pack. I crunched handfuls of peanuts, chocolate chips, and dried bananas greedily in between small swigs of water. The primary sound was my gnawing, some slowing - but still-heavy breathing - and the nylon rush of the pack as I dug things out.
Lunch done, I took a final deep draw of canteen water and noticed something. There were no animals. No squirrels nor rabbits. No small birds rustling in the leaves. No wind. No racket of civilization. There was only the sound of my lungs dragging in the cool air.
I could hear them quite plainly. A tiny rumble of air going in and a minute breeze of air coming out.
I experimented with holding my breath and when I did, I noticed something extraordinary. I could hear my heartbeat and the sound of blood rushing through my veins. My heart was a far off drum beat, the cadence of life. The blood had a sound so like a rushing stream I thought that's what I was hearing at first. There were no other sounds. It was womblike and cool. The moss left me feeling almost buoyant.
Occasionally, I would add or take away a noise. I swallowed and was almost overcome by the din. I moved my hand against my nylon pack and it sounded like the very sky was opening up. Coughing was the loud rumble of a close-by thunderstorm. Each sound came and went as I pleased. I could make it as noisy or as quiet as suited me. It was the first time I felt omnipotent, a supreme being who could control the world at will. I could make it so quiet that I heard the essence of life within my body. Or, I could make noise and add just enough (but not too much) noise to remind me of the sounds of civilization that I only vaguely remembered in this special place.
I occasionally peeked at my watch - which I could hear ticking loudly when I brought it close to my face - and played my game for more than an hour. Much longer than was wise. I knew that when I stood after the prolonged rest, my tightened legs would scream in a screech so loud I would only feel it.
Time to Go
It was 12:15 and time to go.
I played sound games for a few minutes and glanced down at my watch once more. It was 2:45!
I swear I'd not slept. I clearly remembered playing the sound game and turning my senses off and on. I shook my watch, but it was still ticking and the sun verified that it was well past noon.
Reaching for my pack, I leapt up and put it on. I needed to make some time so I could get to my planned stopping point before dark. I started walking and buckled the pack frame and adjusted my canteen as I walked. Rushing on, I approached the edge of the area and I could see more sunlight and trees waving in complete silence in the distance.
I stopped once more and let my squeaking, bumping equipment go silent as I held my breath. I could still see the trees ahead waving in the breeze, but there was no sound except my heart and the sparkling steam of blood coursing through me. It was the last true moment of silence I ever experienced.
And it made me wonder, just what had happened to that missing time?
Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Tuesday, February 13, 2007