This was my final composition essay for a writing class at the University of Calgary. Born in an environment familiar to many, this ‘what grinds my gears’ piece would not easily fit in Reader’s Digest.
Hundreds of meters above the valley, the turquoise-tinged lake looked like a drop of water. I stood on a pile of rocks and looked down at the live portrait. My hiking companion was a few steps ahead of me. When he realized that I no longer followed closely behind him, he stopped and turned to look at me. I didn’t hear him as he called my name. All I heard was nothing. It was a superb sound. There might have been a hint of wind in the air that created a distant murmur, a sound that if I strained to listen to it, I would almost certainly damage my hearing. I was lost in the peaceful nothingness until I was wrenched out of it by a sound so raw and so obscene in the scenic, silent wilderness that it could have easily caused the top of one of the nearby mountains to shake, shatter and crumble to the valley below. Civilization had stalked me into the backwoods.
The vulgar sound was the ear-piercing ring of a cell phone. ‘No’, my brain cried, ‘not in this anti-electronic device territory!’ But there it was: the soul-crushing ring tone of the latest cotton candy-derived ditty by some terminally-saccharine boy band that was probably named Hello Doggie or The Boy Brigade. Shaken from my solitude, I narrowed my eyes and looked at the offending party as if she was the target in a knife-throwing circus act. I wanted to run over, grab either the criminal device or the person that it was attached to and hurl it off the side of the mountain into the abyss below. I understood the need for cell phones in remote locations, but to slap Mother Nature across the face with them solely because someone wanted the latest update from their vacuous girlfriend about how the Justin Bieberish guy next door blinked in her general direction was going too far. How far did I have to go to escape the cacophony of the city: airplane cruising altitude?
It was because of this kind of ear invasion that escaping to the mountains was one of my top priorities. The solitude of the back country not only brought relief to my sizzled city senses, but it also rekindled memories of the quiet, hushed tones of country life. As hard as I have tried, I haven’t recaptured that sense of absolute quiet that I grew up with in the country. The mountains were my escape from the madness of city noise and an attempt to go back in time to recall the simple notion of solitude.
I grew up in a small town in Nova Scotia where there was nothing much except trees and the ocean. During the day, when the scream of an ambulance, a police car or a fire truck siren erupted from the main highway, everyone looked because it was such a rare sound to hear and it broke the silence. At night, only crickets and frogs broke the silence. But the most memorable sound was from the street lights on the main highway, scattered randomly at intersections, and from the glow of the windows of the sparsely placed houses. In the quiet of the country, this kind of light had a sound: the sound of nothingness.
When the gravel road that our house was on finally got street lights installed on the telephone poles, it was a huge event, even though the lights were like alien invaders. Even with the new lights that illuminated the neighbourhood, I still saw every star in the night sky. I eventually warmed to the new lights. They had become part of the nothingness because there were so few of them. When I stood outside on a warm, rural summer night and heard nothing but the silent murmur of the lights in the dark, it was comforting. I didn’t know that doing the same thing in a city years later was going to elicit an entirely different feeling.
When I moved away from home, it was a jarring experience; not because of the culture shock of the big city on a small town boy, but because of the noise. If I wouldn’t have looked like I had just lost my mind or had just escaped from a mad scientist’s laboratory, I would have clasped my hands over my ears as I walked around the city. It wasn’t just the endless list of all the things that made noise in a city; it was the sense that the noise was endless, as if it was being transmitted over loudspeakers on every corner 24 hours a day, reminiscent of a propaganda broadcast in the Second World War.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that night time respite from the roar of daytime noise was not going to happen. Whether it was the yowling of an annoying dog the size of a purse; the entitled drunken frat boys and their air guitar tributes to AC/DC; the residential drag racing of their similarly incapacitated younger brothers; the chanting of the wiccan neighbours around their burning cauldron of poisoned dragon’s liver; or the never-ending night terrors of Albertans who blame Pierre Trudeau of stealing their oil, city night noise was just as bad as city day noise.
The silent murmur of soft, warm lights in the dark that I grew up with might have sounded like nothing to a lot of people, but to me it sounded like a silent symphony; especially after experiencing the noise of a city. I have tried to replicate that nothingness by escaping to the mountains, but I am followed by the city like a ‘Night of the Living Dead’ mariachi band. Quiet is the greatest and most elusive sound ever heard.
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