Solitude, Silence, and Outdoor Ordeals 20 Aug 2014

Over many years, I have spent a lot of time in the outdoors. Various adventures involved rock climbing, mountaineering, backpacking, hiking, walking, and just sitting. All the experiences have been enjoyable but often for very different reasons. Frankly, some of the climbing, mountaineering and backpacking have been experiences in misery, requiring me to stretch my stamina to and beyond my perceived limits. They were not tranquil, peaceful, restful, rejuvenating, or recreational. They were hot, sweaty, salt-encrusted ordeals enhanced by blisters, scrapes, sunburn, mosquito bites, and aching muscles. Often I found myself vowing that once completed, I’d “never do this again!” On the other hand, the exhaustion often put me in places I would never have been otherwise – on the tops of mountains, at remote glacial lakes, or by tranquil pools along beautiful clear streams. Then I’d stop, sit down, and simply soak up the intangible peace and tranquility of my surroundings. An old adage goes, “take time to stop and smell the roses.”

Recently a Flagstaff, Arizona man set a new record by running from Grand Canyon’s North Rim to South Rim in 2 hours, 51 minutes, 28 seconds. The previous record was 3 hours, 6 minutes, 10 seconds. The National Park Service says it is usually a 3-day, strenuous hike. I’ve done it in days when I was very fit and it’s a 21-mile killer, descending more than a mile in elevation and then climbing back up the other side. I wonder what this man experienced of the intangible beauty that surrounded him.

Working on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon as a National Park Service Ranger-Naturalist was one of the highlights of my life. During my first summer training on the South Rim, the Chief Naturalist, Dave Beal, took us to a remote, seldom visited overlook at sunset. He told us to simply sit down and learn to “feel” the Canyon. We didn’t say anything for a long time. The breeze moved through the pines and a great silence encompassed us.

Opening at our feet the Canyon stretched 14 miles across, a mile deep, and 218 miles long. Sunset colors and shadows changed and drifted in the canyon altering the view moment by moment. Violet-green swallows streaked past us making impossible knifeedged turns like little jet fighters. Ravens soared on thermal currents rising from the depths. From time to time one would fold its wings and drop, tumbling like a black rock, unfolding a moment later to soar and repeat the performance, apparently just for fun.

The absence of sound engulfed me like a tangible thing. I could feel it, and I would never be the same again. An anonymous author best captured it when he wrote, “The silence roared. I staggered back and heard my varnished ego crack.”

Many times park visitors would ask me the best way to see the canyon. My reply was to get away from the crowds and the noisy Ranger-Naturalists, find a secluded spot on the rim, perhaps at sunrise or sunset, and just quietly let the Canyon soak into your bones. Perhaps then, I advised, the most vivid picture they take away would not be in a camera, but etched in their mind and heart.

Some people are actually frightened by silence. And that’s too bad. Perhaps it confronts them with their relative inconsequence in the overall scheme of things. So with dangling wires plugged into their skulls, they electronically transfuse sound into themselves, seeking security – or something. Silence has been sacrificed on the altar of cell phones, other digital noise makers, traffic, horns, and noisy people.

Navajos say the Bellagana (white men) think they must fill all the silent places with words, but I can tell you that from silences are born great thoughts, perceptions, and life-changing experiences. That silent Canyon opened my heart, my mind, and my future career. I was changed forever.

East Texas is filled with visual beauty, tranquil vistas, soothing bird songs, and star-filled skies. Take time this summer to experience some of these things. Slow down, stop, and get out of the car. Find a place to be alone. Relax and let your mind drift. Just feel the place. Learn its secret message. There’s no rush. You may become a better and more tranquil person as a result.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.