Counting the Sounds of Silence: How Low Can You Go?

Road Trip IV, Days 44-46: Great Basin National Park to Yosemite

Wait–Great Basin National Where, now?

I’ll give you a hint: you get there by driving what the atlas calls “America’s Loneliest Highway.”

Anyone? Anyone? Beuhler?

The answer is eastern Nevada. About the closest you can get to the middle of nowhere in the Lower 48. Except since the 1990s, there’s a something there: a national park. Where, as loyal citizens of Brown Sign Nation, The Mate and I HAD to go camp.

Needless to say, we did not have much company. First of all, it’s not most people’s first choice for Spring Break. Second of all…did I mention it’s in eastern Nevada?

So we were very happy. It’s not that we’re anti-social. We LOVE people. (Well, I do, anyway; The Mate is a bit more selective.) Just…not when we’re camping, ok? Let’s just say that the odds of ALL our fellow campers having the same noise standards for camping as we have are, well, low.


On our first hike, we met two other people. The next morning: none. In a national park? That never happens. It made me feel all the more fortunate to be able to be out hiking around on a mountain in the middle of a desert in the middle of a work week in the middle of March.

And it gave me plenty of silence in which to think. At one point during the morning hike I started counting the sounds I could hear.

Hiking poles.
Twittering birds.*

Four sounds: that was it. Had we quit using our poles: three. Had we sat down: two. (It was a little too cold for sitting.)

(*I like birds, but not enough to have learned to distinguish their twitters.)

That got me wondering, when else have I ever had the chance to hear such few sounds? Well, the night before, in our tent, all I could hear was the creek we were camped next to. Nights can be quiet. But days?

It’s not that I generally USE silence all that well when I get it. You’d think someone raised in the Quaker tradition of silent Meeting for Worship would be better at it, but here’s what my brain was doing on that hike:

Am I hungry?
Song lyrics song lyrics song lyrics…**
What was I doing a week ago today?
Song lyrics…
Where are we staying tonight?
Song lyrics song lyrics…

(**these days those lyrics are ones I’ve written; still annoying)

But then I started thinking about the silence itself, and I realized that I was feeling more alive than I usually do. Not just happy (though I was), but ALIVE. Why?


The simplicity of sound seemed to parallel the simplicity of the landscape. I don’t mean lack of diversity–I counted three kinds of pine along with fir, spruce and cedar, plus those amazing aspens. But all those trees were native, as was the sagebrush and the scruffy little wild rose bushes and the creek willows with skin like copper. Nothing had been introduced from outside. Everything belonged. The way Nature or God intended.

So I think that’s what silence does for me, even when it takes me awhile to use it well: it allows me to see what is “native” in my life, what is supposed to grow there. What belongs.

And you? What does silence do for you? Where do you find it–indoors, outdoors? In church, or the Church of the Great Outdoors? Do you need it in great chunks, or do small portions suffice?

2 thoughts on “Counting the Sounds of Silence: How Low Can You Go?

  1. Gretchen, sometimes I swear we were meant to be sisters, or something!

    Some years ago (after we had a dog; before we got into making people), Jim and I traveled from Yellowstone toward Missoula. We planned to tour the Lewis and Clark Caverns and visit the carousel (I adore hand-carved carousels).

    On the way out, we came upon this abandoned quarry, off a quiet country road. It looked interesting, so we stopped, although it was getting close to dusk. There were a few camp rings, so we decided to stay there for the night.

    I was up first the next morning, and so I took myself and my notebook out into the scrub, found a likely rock, and settled in…

    And heard nothing but the sounds of nature, and my own breathing. It was divine – truly.

    I wrote about it, and may still have that old notebook around somewhere.

    I can get by with the brief interludes of silence (or near silence), I get in my sleeping house, or on those days when my husband and kids are up first, and go somewhere, and I wake all alone in a quiet house….

    There will be more silence, and less laughter, in my life when my kids are grown and moving on in their lives.

  2. SJ, you are right about the silence of the empty nest. I think I have learned to take myself outdoors and embrace the silence there in part to compensate for that quiet house. I have no doubt you will do the same when the time comes, which, luckily for you, will be a good long while yet. Thank you for your replies; I love our parallels!

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