The topic for the radio show was about the few places left on the planet where you can get completely away from light and noise pollution. The guests and callers discussed their experiences with both, including one fellow who, after spending 4 weeks alone in the BWCA, finally heard the slow, low pulsing sound which the Native Americans he knows call the heartbeat of the earth. It was almost intriguing enough to make me want to try it.
Almost. Perhaps if I were twenty years younger.
But I was reminded of the times I came closest to pure dark and pure silence. Just not at the same time, at least not so I noticed.
Dark was found in Wyoming on a camping trip back in '95. Paul, Steve and I were traveling with a car and a tent. Steve knew a cheap campground where his father had taken him many times, with the barest of amenties, part of the National Forest campground system. In this case amenities were a campfire spot, a fairly flat space for the tent, a picnic table, and an outhouse a ways away. We were up out of Alpine, along the Grays River, clouded with snow melt at the end of June. Sunset brought elk down out of the wooded areas into the meadow, and we sat for a long time just watching. Our neighbors were few, and kept to themselves. There was no electricity anywhere since we left town, and that was miles back. With mountains rising on all sides, there was no light whatsoever once the sun went down and the campfire was put out.
About 1:30 in the morning I woke, needing to use the outhouse. I couldn't find my flashlight in the dark, even though it was right where I put it. Perhaps I was just impatient, under the circumstances. I had shoes to put on, after all, before leaving, and tent zippers to manage. But I had my new Timex watch with Indiglow, and that was quite sufficient to light the path and locate what I needed. I remember stopping a couple times in awe of the stars in the sky, clear and moonless at the time. Being a country girl, I thought I knew what a dark night sky was, but this was well beyond what I'd ever known.
Silence was a different thing. It was early on a winter Tuesday morning. I noted that after the fact as a reason for the stillness: people at work or school, not up and about yet along the tourist routes. And that's what this was, driving through the Wupatki National Monument in the high desert of Arizona, a side trip on the route from Flagstaff to the Canyon. I didn't want the main ruin, though I'd swing by later for the restrooms. The place I picked to visit was the Wukoki ruin, an offshoot of the offshoot road. I stopped the car, got out with my camera expecting a visual experience, and instead - or in addition - found the profound silence.
There were no cars passing by for about 20 minutes, nobody stopping by chattering and kicking up dust on the trail. There wasn't even a ranger posted there like there is now. There wasn't a breeze yet, and not a bug buzzed by. No birds called. Not even a jet overhead for about 20 minutes. Just the silence, so profound it was stunning. I hated to shatter it with even my footsteps, though I did. I'd pause every few steps to take it all in. I wondered if the inhabitants knew the silence of that place, being a community with all the noise people generate even when they're quiet. Or was the silence their legacy?
The ruins perched tall on a huge rock, defensible from all but the centuries. Behind me the San Francisco Peaks rose in their snowy glory. In front the desert floor dropped gradually away towards the Colorado River and the Painted Desert, well beyond my view. Sage and salt bush dotted the wind-carved red sandstone landscape. In that small chunk of time, before a jet finally passed overhead and a carfull of noisy tourists drove up, this timeless place was all mine, and sacred.