What does that word mean to you ? According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition, it is defined as marked by little or no motion or activity, free from noise or uproar. It is pretty straight-forward and we all have a mental image of what that means.
Do we know the full meaning of what this word entails ? Is it an evening with no TV, a break from the rigors of parenthood, curled up in a chair with a book, or silently lost in thought or contemplation ? I can almost guarantee in every one of these instances, and others not listed, that the implication of quiet is encroached upon by background noise we have become accustomed to and therefore it goes unnoticed.
There is another word for quiet which goes much deeper – solitude.
Through the years, I have spent a lot of time camping and hiking in the Appalachian Mountains. Hours in the back-country have been passed without seeing another soul besides those with me. There have been times which evoked within me a sense of quiet, whether in dense forest or gazing across vistas from high ridges. Wind rushed through the hardwoods, shaking leaves with a constant rushing sound. Songbirds flitted amid the branches. At night, the hoot of an owl or howl of a wolf or coyote would penetrate the dark. These moments now pale next to the full comprehension of quiet solitude.
In Denali, I grasped a completely new understanding of the concept. Silence reigns in that vast wilderness. It is disconcerting at first, if you notice it. In a short amount of time, it becomes very welcoming.
Of the people who visit the park over the summer, very few experience this as I did. The majority are booked on tours into the park on buses and spend most of their time in the company of a large group of people. In many cases, these people have been traveling together for some time as part of packages promoted by tourist agencies.
As an interpreter, the wait between tours was sometimes an hour or more on slow days. It gave me time to think, ponder and realize what a blessing is found in the saying, “silence is golden”.
Savage Cabin is located a few hundred yards off the park road at mile marker 13. A parking area with short trails is located just before and across the road next to Savage Campground. Private vehicles can travel on the park road to mile marker 15 at the Savage River, but not beyond. There is a parking area at the river with several options for hiking. Other than these areas, there is nothing but wilderness for miles in every direction.
Most days, not one person would be seen by me until the tour groups arrived. Occasionally, I would have hikers walk up, but it was not often and they seemed to come all on the same days. Needless to say, much time was spent at the cabin enjoying nature’s masterpiece, when I was not splitting wood or practicing my presentation.
It was not something noticed gradually, but more like being silently hit in the head by a 2×4. I was on the porch of the cabin one morning practicing my presentation before the arrival of the first tour, as I did most days. Abruptly, I stopped. Though I was not moving much on the porch, my boots sounded loud on the planks in the stillness. My presence suddenly felt intrusive in this landscape. I listened, but there was nothing to be heard, absolutely nothing. No sound emanated from anything. There was a breeze, but this was apparent only due to the gentle movements of spruce boughs, the mild wave of willow leaves and its touch upon my face.
Solitude. It was silence in its purest form, untrammeled and absolute. If a tiny pin had been dropped into the dirt, it would have been heard. I had never before experienced this type of quiet. It was unnerving at first, but now aware of it, I anticipated it eagerly.
There was an occasional grayjay who would unleash a raucous burst or red squirrels chattering away at each other, but there was not a myriad of songbirds twittering among the branches. A mew gull would pass over with its seaborne call. Even these bursts of sound, naturally caused as they were, temporarily shattered the essence of silence. It was one of these outbursts from a red squirrel which caused me to walk out of the cabin to investigate the reason for. It was a valid gripe from the squirrel it seems, which I will relay in a later chapter.
This is not to say every single day was like this. However, most were. The wind had to blow pretty hard before it could be heard whistling through the trees. I believe spruce has a muffling effect in some way. Traffic on the road could be heard from time to time, but vehicles did not travel the road in constant streams in the way we have become accustomed to.
I became acutely aware of this silence elsewhere in the park as well, as if I was now tuned in to it. It was there when I stepped out of my room, regardless of the time of day. Its presence was felt on the trails I hiked, where the only sound came from footfalls on the ground. Somehow, the wind would sway the willows and dwarf birch back and forth on Primrose Ridge, and yet make hardly a sound. Sitting on an open ridge above treeline, the chirp of a marmot fifty yards or more away would startle me with its unexpected whistle.
It is no exaggeration that I became very used to this. No wonder returning to civilization was culture shock, especially with regard to its accompanying clamor. When I walked in to the airport in Anchorage, the decibels of sound jarred my senses and the number of people I found suddenly disquieting. Seattle was about the same and the Atlanta airport was on a level all by itself.
This difference from the wilderness of Alaska was obvious and to be expected, but what I realized after getting home was subtle, the overlooked norm before my departure a few months before. With it being early fall in Georgia, the birds were working in earnest in preparation for winter. They were everywhere chirping and calling in a continuous stream from dawn to dusk. We live in an apartment complex with cars and people coming and going all day. The constant drone of the nearby interstate, before unnoticed, now rattled my nerves like nails on a chalkboard. Honking, diesel engines, tires blowing, and sirens of emergency vehicles at all hours made me want to cover my head and scream.
Slowly, I adjusted, but not ever to the point, I think, where all this noise would seem normal and go unnoticed. I have experienced true quiet and solitude. If the chance arises, embrace it.