DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- You know it is quiet when you become aware of the buzzing in your ears that is unmasked by the total absence of sound. Maybe you're going insane, but you swear you could hear that shooting star fall. Seconds later, you start to wonder if there is a faltering fluorescent bulb in the parking lot below. But all you can see is the fading night sky, a brightening horizon, and Zabriskie Point.
Shape shifting from a faint silhouette when I arrived at 4:30 a.m., it has become a giant arrowhead towering over undulating rock formations now emerging into crazed ribbons of gold, bronze, and dried-blood red. The point stands silent, a brooding presence seemingly ready to render a terrible judgment.
I had this all to myself until just before 6. The rare passing car on the road a quarter-mile away sounded like a freight train. Then, like tourist clockwork, about 20 people converged on my vantage point about 10 minutes before sunrise. The first pink light hit the top of Zabriskie. The brooding stone became a beacon bringing joy to all who saw it. The spell of silence was broken.
What made the experience all the more spectacular was that I knew what a rapidly dwindling privilege silence is.
This particular visit to Death Valley came a week after I happened to catch National Public Radio's "Science Friday" program. Host Ira Flatow's guest was Bart Kosko, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Southern California and the author of "Noise" (Viking/Penguin, 2006).
Flatow asked Kosko, "What do we know about the health effects of noise?"
Kosko replied: "Most are bad. There are a few good, but most are bad. . . . Noise increases stress levels and stress in turn increases a variety of maladies from increase of the probability of high blood pressure and heart attack and stroke and those kinds of things. But most importantly . . . is noise-induced hearing loss. That's the big problem from noise. It's always been a problem, but with the increase in more powerful, less expensive digital gadgets, noise-induced hearing loss has increased, especially with young people."
In 2001, a study by Cornell University researchers found that even low-level office noise contributes to decreased job motivation, increased stress, and more sedentary behavior. In 2002, British researchers found even more evidence to support the conclusion that "chronic exposure to noise may adversely affect health outcomes, including, for example, cardiovascular disease, sleep-related disorders and impaired mental health." That study noted increased absences for workers whose jobs are full of "information overload" because of a "taxing combination" of ambient noise in cognitively demanding jobs.
More Americans find neighborhood noise more "bothersome" than crime and a roughly equal number of Americans say noise is as much a reason to move as crime, according to the Census Bureau's American Housing Survey. Even the oceans are noisier now than 40 years ago -- by as much as a factor of 10 -- according to a study published this year by scientists at the University of California at San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography . The primary reason is the explosion of global shipping, with bigger and more powerful vessels. "The impact of the increased noise on marine animals is unknown," said Scripps researcher John Hildebrand.
So it is somewhat ironic that the precious silence remains in Death Valley, considering the boundary for the park is only an hour and a half from Las Vegas, the world capital of overload, sonic and otherwise. Even though the glow of Sin City development has begun to intrude on the horizons of Death Valley, the noise has not.
Death Valley is so hostile and so spread out that the pursuit of peace is not complicated for the day-tripper or for the overnight visitor escaping the Strip.
While Zabriskie Point is a signature stop for those who are touring by car, you can just as easily disappear into the glowing Golden Canyon or the famous Mesquite sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells by taking a short walk from your vehicle.
Terry Baldino, 51, the park's chief of interpretation and education, said he clearly remembers the first time he experienced the silence. It was in the early 1980s when he and his wife stood at the edge of Ubehebe Crater, a 770-foot hole in the northern part of the park, created by a volcanic explosion.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, the wind is blowing at Ubehebe like crazy," said Baldino . "But there was nothing. We were the only ones sitting there. Finally, my wife curled up next to me and said, 'This is kind of scary.'
"It is fascinating how so many other folks come here with a sense of dread about the valley, then get to the top of a hill and say 'Oh my gosh , I'm really alone.' . . . I hear folks say they were out hiking, enjoying the silence and getting upset when an airplane flies over."
On a trip last year, my uncle Leonard Roberts, 68, a Vegas retiree , was so amazed at the echoes and instant loneliness produced by a late-afternoon walk in Golden Canyon that we continued for a mile to a point where the only sounds were those of a photographer snapping away in an effort to capture the colors and the shrill call of what appeared to be falcons nesting in a cavity high up the red rock wall.
The next day, we ventured out in late afternoon onto the dunes. We ran into only one other hiker in our three hours before sunset. My uncle was struck by how fast you can lose yourself in the depressions of the dunes. He was stunned at how you could look up at some points, see nothing but dune and cloudless sky , and have no clue as to your whereabouts. He had never experienced such splendid isolation.
I asked him if he wanted to continue to the top of the dunes. They were about 14 stories high, and maybe a mile from the car. But with no reference point and with all the ups and downs over the ridges, it felt more like a four-mile round-trip. Before he answered the question, I was distracted by the sight of some dune ridges that seemed to ripple into infinity. When I turned back, my uncle was marching to the peak, giving me the thumbs - up.
Visiting my uncle again this year, I returned to the dunes. On one afternoon, I sat on the peak for the final two hours of light. On one morning, I hiked to the peak to watch the sunrise. There was no wind on either hike. With no aural distractions, the shadows that grew toward dusk or receded after dawn felt alive. The immensity of an entire planet came into clear focus as a solitary bush or a couple of minuscule hikers were lighted against the ridges.
On another visit, the silence came to a humbling end. Just before I reached one of the highest crests of the dunes, a whistling wind came out of the west. Sand began "smoking" off the crest. Ten, 15, 20 miles an hour the wind blew. Within 15 minutes, it was gusting at 30 to 40 miles an hour.
The ripples of sand, majestically placed by prior winds, began disappearing. The entire scene was enveloped by a creamy, foamy, off-white stream of flowing sand. Off in the distance, the dune peaks were obscured. These were the same peaks that afforded me abstract, cloudlike views of lower dune mounds.
Now I was in my personal cloud of sand. One of the guidebooks to Death Valley National Park said the park was an "open textbook" to how the faults in the Earth's crust could create a landscape in "only" 3 million of the planet's 4.5 billion years. Before my eyes, the hourglass was being turned over, the sand falling into a new place.
Contact Derrick Z. Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.