Savoring Silence in Canyon CountryFebruary 9, 2023
By: Kelly Bastone
The best thing about canyon country isn’t visible in any photograph, though the scenery is definitely dazzling. Tiered rock, giant cliffs, eroded towers, and pinnacles—all in crazy shades of orange, red, green, and grey—make it impossible to take a bad photo. You simply point your smartphone in any direction and snap a stunning image. But that isn’t why I’ve logged 25 years’ worth of annual pilgrimages to the canyons of Utah and Colorado.
I come for the silence.
Sitting on a canyon rim or in a sandstone alcove, I experience quiet so complete that the sound of my hair brushing against my collar seems loud. Chewing a granola bar creates a noise like an earthquake. Once I swallow—and I can clearly discern that sound too—the silence returns. Sometimes it brings me peace. But not always.
Silence is a rare commodity around the world but especially in the U.S., where noise accompanies our every daily action. Today I filled my car’s gas tank at a station that played music from overhead speakers and broadcast ads on the pump’s screen. As I type this, a garbage truck is rumbling along the street beyond my office window. Your phone probably just issued some sort of beep or chime demanding your attention.
Civilization’s white noise has become so ubiquitous that, to be honest, its disappearance can feel uncomfortable. Our ears have learned to lean on these sounds like handrails, and when they go away, the unfamiliar emptiness makes us uneasy.
So it usually takes me a few hours, sometimes a few days, to adjust to the canyons’ silence. But it eventually unlocks a profound relaxation in me that I rarely achieve anywhere else. The desert’s quiet is like a decompression chamber that restores my contentment, energy, focus, and optimism. If silence were offered as a prescribable medication, everyone would take those happy pills.
Of course, not every canyon environment is quiet. River trips are amazing, but the water’s hiss can be hard to escape (that sound can also feel soothing, but it’s different than true silence). Windy days aren’t quiet either. But when I’m mountain biking or camping in calm weather, I try to find a ledge with a great view—and I settle in to enjoy the soundlessness.
Within just a few moments, I get restless. I feel an itch beneath my eye, or I decide that I really should have brought along a cold beer. I pick away the grit that’s gotten lodged beneath my fingernails. I listen to the soft clicks of fingernail on fingernail, and when that stops, I notice how big and pure, and powerful the silence is. I let it suck out all the debris that I carry around in my head. I imagine junk and clutter exiting through my ears and taking flight into the vastness. I grow calm.
When I’m feeling particularly brave, I’ll also close my eyes. Seeing nothing while hearing nothing is quite a trip. My eyes sometimes blink open in alarm. But the surrounding rock feels reassuring and endlessly watchable.
Why not simply bring along a portable speaker and pump the space full of music? That can be nice too, especially when I’m prepping for a big day on my mountain bike or celebrating a friend’s birthday.
But I find there’s value in going to extremes—in both directions. My workday life includes full-tilt efforts to meet deadlines and mad dashes through cacophonous airports. I’m hardly alone: Most people’s routines are full of buzzing demands on their attention. The canyons offer us the opportunity to sample the other end of the spectrum, where that noise disappears. It’s the yin to our daily yang.
If you’ve ever listened to the desert’s silence, you’ve already felt its strengthening effect. And if you haven’t? Maybe it’s time to book a trip and find out.