By Margaret Hedderman
There is wet panting outside my tent. Paws run through the sand, pounding against the earth like a fluttering heart. I hold my breath; my core tightening and tendons coiling, ready to escape the sleeping bag. And do what? I haven’t thought that far ahead. The animal snaps its mouth shut and sniffs. It sounds like it’s right beside me.
I quietly dig around for my headlamp, then shine the light underneath the fly, searching for paws.
The sound of sand shifting underfoot as it pads away. Gone. It must have been a dog. Perhaps a loose pet from a neighboring campsite. Another stampede of soft feet and the same smacking breath. It’s back and this time it brought friends.
I consider climbing out of my tent to see what they are, but then again, I’ve never actually looked. Not even when I was certain there was a bear cracking across branches nearby. More often than not, it was probably a chipmunk. Nothing – other than rats – has ever tried to get in, so I assure myself the animals outside are harmless. I will my heart rate to slowdown and eventually fall back to sleep.
The following morning, I pace through the loose sand looking for tracks. Nothing.
“Did you see the coyotes?” Liz asks.
I shake my head.
“They were looking right in at us.”
Liz and her boyfriend, Mike, had pitched their tent without the fly and watched a pack make their nightly rounds through the White House Campground. It’s a desolate site in the mottled Utah desert near the Arizona border. Miles of empty canyon country surround us and the presence of coyotes is hardly surprising. I wonder if we’ll encounter them again on our trek.
Mike packs up his truck as we finish our coffee, shivering in the morning shadows of sandstone cliffs. He has business elsewhere in the arid lonesome but kindly shuttled us to the trailhead last night. He leaves in a rumble of dust, and I’m struck by the thrilling, lonely feeling that comes when I’m abandoned at a trailhead. There are now 38 miles between us and Liz’s car at Lee’s Ferry.
Liz and I set out, crunching across dry, brittle dirt. When we reach the Paria River, we turn south and follow it downstream. There is little trail to speak of and our boots clack over round river rocks. The Paria River cuts through a long and narrow slot canyon – Paria Canyon – twisting and turning like a vein through sunburnt skin. We plan to follow it for three days until the point where it rages into the Colorado River just below the Glen Canyon Dam.
A cold winter sun peeks over the canyon walls, offering little warmth as we pick our way south. The canyon narrows, pushing us back and forth across the river on wobbly rocks. Soon the sandstone walls close in, casting us in cold shadow. There is little dry land to walk upon and yet we cling to what we have, desperate to keep our feet warm and dry.
This is quickly becoming what they call Type II fun – the kind that’s best enjoyed in retrospect. Some of my most memorable adventures have involved whiteouts in the thundersnow, trails obliterated by landslides and brushes with hypothermia. Why do I willingly seek discomfort? Is it ironic that the luxuries I rely upon in manmade landscapes are the very thing I seek to escape?
The canyon tightens around the river, and soon the cold water rushes directly against the vertical cliffs. No use in avoiding it any longer: we’re going in. We stop and pull on dry neoprene socks, the kind typically used by whitewater kayakers. I hope these will keep my feet at least a few degrees warmer. Liz and I share a look. Who’s going first? Liz takes a deep breath and plunges into the knee-deep water with a loud splash and an expletive. My turn. It’s like jumping into an icepack.
We slosh through the river, navigating the shallows and keeping an eye out for waist-deep pockets. Every so often, my foot sinks into a hidden precipice, soaking my entire leg. The burbling of the river rolling over rocky shoals fills the canyon like an echo chamber. Sounds are close and immediate, trapped and insulated by the towering sandstone walls. Yet with the world 300 feet above us, it’s quiet in the way only natural places can be.
It’s a loud silence in Paria Canyon. The sound of nowhere: the quiet void of empty places on the map. Silence is so often an afterthought to noise. Only by accident did the Italian cardiologist Dr. Luciano Bernardi document the relaxing nature of silence. During a study meant to reveal the calming effects of classical music on patients, he discovered silence to be even more relaxing. He called it “music with a zero frequency.”
Absence is a difficult thing to measure. It’s the intangible. The elusive element in nature that affects us imperceptibly. Noise, on the other hand, is an easier thing to grasp. It’s been studied for decades. In the 1970s, the environmental psychologist Dr. Arline Bronzaft found drastic differences in the reading comprehension of New York City students whose classrooms rattled with each passing train compared to those on the opposite side of the building. Since then, traffic noise has been listed as the second-greatest threat to public health – next to air pollution. People who live near airports have more headaches, take more sleeping pills and are more likely to seek psychiatric treatment. Noise pollution has been linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and elevated levels of stress hormones.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I remember feeling like I was never alone, even when I had the apartment to myself. There was an ever-present wall of noise comprising whirling sirens, thousands of dinging phones, and the chatter of neighbors and drunk college students in the street. It was a constant reminder that I was surrounded by 4 million people.
I’ve heard that some people – city people – are uncomfortable with the sound of silence. I wonder if it’s not the silence that bothers them, but rather the physiological change that is disturbing. What if you’ve never experienced the sound of wind rushing toward you over the mountains? Or the flap of raven wings over the desert? Or the rumble of thunder on the horizon? It’s overwhelming – disquieting – even when you’re accustomed to it.
Paria Canyon folds in on itself. At times the passage is no more than 15 feet wide. The walls bulge and curl above us in spiraling waves of purple and rust-colored stone. Sunlight illuminates elusive crooks and crannies above us as we wade through the shadows.
The sun has stayed hidden beyond the rim of the canyon for most of the day, but now it’s sinking beneath the faraway edges of the desert. We stop at the first natural spring, a stripe of green ferns and wet black rock. A trickle of water seeps from a crease in the pastel wall, creating a micro-oasis for small determined plants. After filtering a few liters, we make camp on a sandy bank, tucked behind a row of willows. My feet are waterlogged and numb, and I can feel clumps of sand shifting inside my shoes. I peel off my socks and find that sand has worked its way under the dead skin on my heels.
I set about carefully cutting off my dead skin and washing the sand out as Liz watches, her lip curled in mild disgust. We made good time today – some 12 miles – and are settling into our campsite just as the evening shadows fade into darkness. The chill of the night sinks in quickly, though it’s barely past five. Liz pulls out a deck of cards to help pass the time before we can reasonably go to sleep. Hours slip by. It’s black inside the canyon, but somewhere beyond the moon rises. Gin rummy loses its intrigue, or rather I’ve lost too many hands for there to be any intrigue left. We play a new game.
Liz: Is it edible?
Liz: Is it a living thing?
Me: Well, technically. Sort of.
Liz: How can it be sort of alive?
Our laughter clatters down the canyon and is swallowed by a u-shaped bend in the river. After a couple of games, we call it a night. I close my eyes and slowly drift away, the river murmuring in my ear.
There are whispers outside the tent. Splashes in the river. Footsteps? I lie on my back trying to discern the words – if they are words – and untangle my imagination from reality. I’ve read that our minds will sometimes create the illusion of sound to fill silence – “hearing” a song after the radio has been turned off. Was I listening to the sound of my mind at work?
Sleeping outdoors isn’t always peaceful. There have been plenty of long nights waiting for morning. But it’s rarely because I’m worrying about work or rehashing an irritating conversation from earlier. Rumination is hard in a place like this. To-do lists, goals and five-year plans just aren’t that important out here.
A sudden splash. Was that something jumping into the river? Whatever is out there is just beyond the realm of perception. Willow branches scratch against one another. Something brushes against the tent. Or maybe it’s my eyelashes fluttering against the inside of my sleeping bag. Enough of this. I roll over and ignore the sounds, whether they’re inside or outside my head.
Morning. The sun is up somewhere, but we won’t see it for a while. I stand on the bank with my pack loaded and ready to go. As I’m about to step into the water, I notice a block of sand the size of a textbook crack and break away. It falls into the river with a familiar splash. So it was the river speaking to me last night. That’s a comforting thought.
Paria Canyon deepens, winding around and around until we lose track of where we’ve come from and where we are going. I shout “Echo!” and hear my voice ricochet down the canyon. It sounds alien in this place, and I immediately regret it. We walk silently, raising our voices only so much as to be heard above the river.
For the rest of the day and the following, we trudge through the Paria River. A wind picks up and rattles the old cottonwoods on the bank. When the canyon opens into a wide desert valley, it feels like I’ve pulled off a set of headphones. The audioscape unrolls across sand and sage, over a band of black rock and up the Vermilion Cliffs. As we near Lee’s Ferry, the distant rumble of the highway weaves itself into the rustle of sage brushing against our legs. There is a thumping noise, perhaps an unseen helicopter winging toward Lake Powell. When we reach the road, our shoes scuttle unnaturally across gravel and tar.
Lee’s Ferry is by no means a bustling metropolis. Beside the narrow two-lane road, there is an empty campground, a paved boat launch, and the scattered ruins of an old ranch, but even this desolate place cannot escape the racket we humans make. There are few places that can anymore. Silence has become a commodity. I read that Finland’s tourism board has even begun to promote the quiescence of its countryside. Will silent places be the gold rush of the 21st Century?
It never ceases to amaze me how vehemently we work against our own self-interest. The World Health Organization shouldn’t have to tell us environmental noise is harmful. We can feel it physically. And yet noise is pervasive, in our workplaces and homes. Even when asleep, the brain is still listening, processing audio inputs. Your ability to tune out the background noise of traffic, neighbors’ music and conversations, or the hum of electronics doesn’t mean your body isn’t affected.
Stressful noise triggers our natural fight-or-flight response; like the sudden jolt of my heart when I awoke to coyotes outside the tent. It’s our way of coping with emergency situations, but when that response is activated repeatedly, it can lead to chronic stress. Ironically, chronic stress dampens our fight-or-flight response. We’re dulling our own senses.When people ask me if I’m ever afraid sleeping outside or running alone in the mountains, the answer is sure – sometimes. But the feeling is passing, and what it leaves behind is a deep sense of ease. As if that’s the way I’m meant to feel.