The Absence of Sound

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It was so silent, I found myself waiting for a sound to happen.

I had been having trouble in Glacier.  I just wasn’t feeling it.  Usually, there’s this precise point–I come around a bend, over the top of a ridge–and the bottom just drops out (see Letting The Bottom Drop Out).  You feel so small, so insignificant, so part of something grand.  But it just wasn’t happening.  I thought it might be geology, that here in Glacier I was down underneath all this grandeur, not up on top yet, but knew it was too beautiful to be that.  I thought about karma, that perhaps I’d brought some not worthy of the land I walked through: I hadn’t felt like taking my journal, knew I wasn’t going to take any pictures of myself, only of the place.  I thought maybe I was just out of emotions, too much in one short year.

And then one morning, I don’t even know which, I stood on the shore of No Name Lake and felt everything, absolutely everything, stop in total silence.  I have never known such silence, such stillness.  I stood there and it actually hurt, waiting for a sound to happen.

From that moment, I had more sound, more life, than I knew what to do with.  After I set up camp at No Name, I took a short hike to the bottom of the cirque, just because I was here to see, and had time and effort only to spend.  At the end of the cirque there was a plateau above a rockfall, and I figured there was probably a melt-pond on top.  I started to hike up for a look, aware that the distance was probably much greater than it appeared–you cannot imagine how truly small you are in such a place.  About 3/4 of the way there, I had just decided that the distance and the risk were too great when a group of bighorn sheep came down the mountainside and the sheep–9 in all–came right up to the edge to have a look at me.GlacierSept2018 178  We watched each other a bit, and then I turned back to my tent to leave them in peace.  Not five minutes later I heard an enormous crash of falling mountainside, dropping precisely where I had stood in the rubble field.  Lesson learned.

That night, almost as soon as I had retired to my tent, the elk began.  At first I heard only one, very close, bugling just at the edge of the campsite.  A Great Horned Owl called, and flew over close enough to my tent that I could hear each beat of its wings.  Then a second elk called from the other side of the campsite, and the conversation continued all night long.  At one point I heard a steady, rhythmic “wumpf,” “wumpf,” wumpf,” and knew something very large was walking past my tent.  “So this is what it was like to sleep in Noah’s Ark,” I thought.

I was happy to sleep with that.  And then . . . I heard something very, very large and very loud crashing through the forest behind my tent.  Toward my tent.  Whatever it was, it was destroying a lot of shrubbery on its rampage, and bawling in . . . anger? pain? fear?  I couldn’t tell, and had time only to curl myself into something tiny inside my sleeping bag as the destruction arrived and raced past.  I could tell there were two somethings, still not sure what although I knew it wasn’t an elk and so probably moose.  But what was it bellowing about?  The thought suddenly occurred to me, “Please don’t let that be the sound a moose makes when it is being killed by a grizzly bear.”

The sound receded, and, exhausted, I tried to go to sleep.  I could still hear the howling in the distance, and decided that if it had been a bear killing a moose it wouldn’t have lasted this long.  And then I heard it again, large and angry, right outside my tent, destroying shrubbery.  This time, the motive was clear–whatever it was, it was angry.

I decided to face my fate.  A moose or a bear or Bigfoot, it was right there, and not going anywhere.  It was big, and it was pissed, and it wanted me to know that.  I crawled out of my sleeping bag, armed with my tiny flashlight, and found my pissed-off moose, the other still crying way off in the distance now.  I did not need to understand animals any better than that, and so went back to bed.

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There’s a moose in there.

The next morning there were moose everywhere.  The next morning there were golden eagles flying over the lake, and snow-white mountain goats perched on the cliffs above the trail.  I cannot imagine what they find so desirable up there, beyond the view, beyond the freedom.  All of this, and I had not yet had my morning coffee.

I had a moment of unexpected fear:  I thought I had lost my spoon.  My pack carries no more than 30 lbs, including gear, food, and water, and absolutely everything in it is considered and important.  I cannot lose my glasses, to read a map.  I cannot lose my lighter, to start a fire and boil water for food and coffee.  But I had never imagined that losing my spoon, my only eating implement, would be catastrophic until I could not find it.  And the moment I found it, tucked inconspicuously exactly where it was supposed to be, I realized how wonderful it was to carry everything you owned on your back, and for each of those things to truly matter, for that to make you happy, and how monumental the loss of a spoon could be. GlacierSept2018 142

I did finally take one picture of myself.  I am not sure exactly why.  I had arrived at the top of Triple Divide Pass, which earns its name by the convergence of three enormous glacial cirques, and when you stand at its top you are on the knife edge between three worlds–three enormous, grand worlds, so very much greater than yourself.  I did not feel the bottom drop out; what I felt was competent.  I felt at home yet insignificant, and I felt that I mattered by being there.  The place gave me meaning.GlacierSept2018 068I suppose I took the picture of myself as a reference, a way to remember where I stood, what I felt standing there in that place and time.  It reminds me that we each have a visual horizon of our own, in the center of which we live and move and have our being.  And so to efface yourself from this scene–the remove the center–is immeasurably freeing.

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