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The Absence of Sound: Observations from the Rockies, Six Months Later

June 18, 2018

Christ it's cold. I mean, I know it's December in Colorado, but it's really goddamn frigid when I deboard a shuttle in the half-lit Hertz rental lot outside DEN. There's no attendant in the customer center, and I feel like a hijacker as I beeline towards the first cheap-o compact car in my price range (a bright red Nissan Versa) and hurl my backpack into the passenger seat, shivering violently. About a hundred years pass before I am able find the ignition and crank the heat, cursing under my breath as though the vehemence of my discomfort will raise the ambient temperature. Fuckshitmothershitfuuuuuuuck.

Flying down I-25, the darkness stretches to either side of me, mimicking the emptiness I feel in my guts, and I realize how comforted I am by the utter loneliness of this place. My breaths come slowly, natural in a way they haven't in months, maybe years. If Dallas has been the inhale, Denver is the exhale, and I've been holding my breath for a long fucking time. A cartoonishly large, orange moon raises to greet me, and I actually giggle with the sudden conviction that I've probably had it wrong this whole time.

The morning comes at me hard and fast after too little rest, unfiltered early morning sun attacking my pounding head minutes before my alarm is set to wake me. It's so dry here my sinuses are already raw. I drag myself out of bed and head for a diner that I chose from a list on Yelp based on the greasiness of the photos. A hearty mountain breakfast is essential before the hike I was looking forward to yesterday but now see as an obligation to my past self, who is proving herself to be quite the heartless bitch. The restaurant is packed to the gills with Patagonia in a rainbow of neutrals, my cheap fuschia windbreaker totally harshing the vibe as I furtively suck down eggs and bacon.

The day is young, so I have the trail mostly to myself. I plod on awkwardly, hunching against the cold, until I am out of breath, exercise hot - steamy from the inside - and ready to sit. A rock nestled on a hilly spot thick with trees offers protection from the wind and unwanted salutations from passers-by. It's so quiet all I can hear is a tinny ringing in my head, and I idly wonder if I am developing tinnitus from overexposure to small talk. Eventually my inner ear equalizes and the world suddenly offers me intense, delicate vibrations with astounding clarity. Ice melting. Leaves rasping. I can even hear my own lips cracking in the dryness, reminding me to buy chapstick. Then, eventually, stillness.

Twenty, maybe thirty minutes go by, and my rump is solidly numb, the sweaty exertion heat long ago seeped out into the rock's determined cold. It's vaguely uncomfortable, but some real-life magic is starting to happen, no way I'm missing this. The longer I sit still, the more I become part of the woods, and a melange of impossibly tiny birds has started to reclaim the space, business as usual. A distant knocking creeps closer until I hear it in stereo, suddenly accompanied by staccato rushing sounds, like a hundred miniature cats flapping their ears, as the birds (which a placard at the trailhead identified as the Pygmy Nuthatch) whiz by, sometimes so close I feel air displacement on my cheek.

They are so free, possessed of themselves. Real, but ephemeral. Shimmering soap bubbles that could fly away or simply pop at any moment. Above interference. I realize that, despite how important this moment is, no part of me wants to possess these little birds, this little wood. None of it belongs to me, but I get to be a part of it, just for this passing moment, and that is enough. For the first time in many months, it is enough.

About an hour later, unseen voices clatter up the path, and I move on so as not to fall in step. The meditative trance lingers with me, a wispy ghost big-spooning my brain to create a pleasing duality of clarity and haze. I round a corner in the trail and suddenly, startlingly come upon a trio of deer, slender necks bent elegantly as they graze. I think I actually gasp, like a character in a graphic novel. Gasp! In shock and delight, I fumble for my phone, holding my breath as I unlock the camera to record the experience. Instagram captions buzz through my mind.

The majesty of nature *deer emoji*

Made some friends on my morning hike! #blessed

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, amiright?

Gross. I am repulsed by the listless banality of the image contrasted to the actual physical presence of the alien creatures. Will a photo, appropriately filtered, convey to my followers the sheer holy-fuckness of the moment I am currently experiencing? Can it? In my compulsion to carefully cultivate my own overly specific existence, am I simply removing myself from the act of engaging in my own experience?

I exhale slowly as I slide the device back into my windbreaker. A low res photo of a nondescript quadruped isn't worth much, but a half hour's communion with deer in a world made of stillness and breath - well, it's everything. One of the does gallops by me, not 20 feet away, to join her mates. They look at me, blink slowly, and return their attention to the grass. It's really nice.

Another group of hikers is approaching from the other direction. Even this far away, I can hear them shout-talking at an aggressively antisocial volume that violates the delicate stillness. It's funny, that silence and stillness don't actually exist, that they are a way to describe a lack of something. It's the same way that cold doesn't really exist, it's just the absence of heat. Quiet is natural, noise is constructed. We imprint ourselves on the world around us with our racket and destruction - the graffiti of human existence perpetually screaming here I am to an indifferent universe. We're just the apes that started talking, and now we have to prove, constantly, insistently, that this planet belongs to us. Why? What will happen if we see the moon rise, sit with the birds, and simply watch the deer instead of clinging to moments that can be nothing more than passing? What exactly do we stand to lose?

I'm out of sight when the inevitable echos up the trail - ohmygod a deer look there's three of them - and the animals follow shortly after, cantering through the brush to my right. I grin and take another deep, affirming breath as they disappear, gone to quietly inhabit their corner of the universe. And I do the same.