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How The Desert Taught Me We Are Blind And Deaf

November 3, 2015

I strained to catch the sound of the returning trucks. Turning my head to the side, I took a step toward the West, where the vehicles would be returning from.

There! The faintest hint of an engine. And yet, it wasn’t quite right. Carefully, I rotated trying to locate the sound. It wasn’t exactly coming from the West, and yet, it was just as loud when I turned toward the north. Finally, the sound became loud enough that I figured out it was coming from above me. . .32,000 feet above me. Looking up I noticed the faint contrail of a passing plane; a mere speck in the sky. The sounds of its engines barely audible above the gentle wind through the desert flora. 

I shook my head in amazement, and turned my attention back to what else I might have missed hearing in the Southern Utah desert. 

Last weekend I ended up in Goblin Valley. It’s about 230 miles south of Salt Lake City. The nearest city is Hanksville (pop. 210), 20 miles away as the crow flies, but over 32 by car. It’s remote. Don’t bother to try to getting a cell phone signal. 

We bring the boys down here every year. This year there were about 40 boys and a dozen leaders. It was noisy. . .for awhile. The boys play capture the flag among the hoodoos. The “goblin” shaped rock formations. A couple of the leaders played, but most of us hung out at the “base” and talked. And some of us looked up. 

We forget what the night sky looks like. I’ve been campping a lot and I live in a rural city at the base of a mountain. But, rarely do I see the sky without any other light source. It’s magnificant. Our galaxy is called the Milky Way. On a cloudless, moonless night in the middle of nowhere you realize why. The sky has a white band across it. You don’t see stars, you see the remains of God wiping up spilled milk. 

Even the familiar constellation, the big dipper, Orion, etc., are backlit with thousands of dimmer stars that we don’t normally see except in photographs. 

It was a rare treat and one I look forward to. Is it important to be able to see the Milky Way for myself? It’s easy to wax philosophical and talk about viewing the skies as our ancestors did, of looking up at the stars and imagining a time 100 years, 1,000 years or a million years ago. Utah’s landscape hasn’t changed much in that amount of time. Goblin Valley looks the same as it did thousands of years ago. It’s easy standing in the middle of that valley to imagine that the rocks around us could be from any era since the birth fo the world. 

But, do I have an advantage over someone who lived their entire life in the city with its light pollution? 

Probably not. The desert is beautiful, but so is the Eiffel Tower. So, is the Roman Coliseum. So is the Louvre. It’s not about one being better. It is about enjoying what you hve and where you are.

I didn’t go on the Saturday hike. I ended up getting to the trailhead late and the road was washed out. My 15 passenger van was not going to make it. So, I found myself on a ridge waiting for the rest of the group to return, and listening.

What do you hear? Maybe a coworker on the phone. The ding of the elevator. The distant highway. The hum of electronic equipment running. Try to seperate out all of those noises and what do you hear? 

At some point you end up with an absence of sound. Nature abhors a vaccume. As I realized I didn’t hear anything familier, I started to hear the unfamilier. The wind through the sagebrush. A distant cricket singing for a mate. But, like the landscape of sand dotted with occasional cactus and sagebrush, the desert air was filled with lots of nothing filled with occasional spots of sound. 

Another airplane flew over. It’s distant engines loud in the stillness. I was surprised to hear breathing and realize it was my own. From a quarter mile away I heard my sons playing tag. Their words clear in the still air. 

The trucks would be back in a few minutes. I was sure I would hear them well in advance. In the mean time, I enjoyed listening to the vast nothingness that was the Utah desert. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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  1. John Burns permalink

    Only in the southern Utah desert have I truly been able to hear the sound of silence. Then I realized I was actually hearing the blood flowing in my ears. It is amazing what we hear when everything else is removed.

  2. Not a lot of places left where we have that chance. It’s a little frightening when you first notice the lack of ambient noises.

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