Winter woods: Sounds in Silence

A dull, distant whirring, an intrusion of industrial origin that should have been distracting at the least. Instead, it was curiously reassuring.

I was walking a stretch of the Eno River upstream from Durham, downstream from my home in Hillsborough. More rural than urban, but not entirely detached. I’d been faintly aware of the thrum of tires rolling down I-85 a half mile distant, fading in and out, of the occasional chirp of a truck backing up closer by. Then, the low, constant buzz of a plant of some kind powering along, the heartbeat of the world I was trying to shake. I should have been annoyed. And yet … .

When I was pre school and exploring the open fields surrounding our pioneering development on the outskirts of Denver, there was one thing that always stopped me dead in my tracks: the strain of a single-engine aircraft passing overhead. I’d pick up its soft hum on the distant horizon, make visual contact, then stick with it until it vanished over the far horizon. Part of the connection for my 5-year-old self was with the “Songbird,” the Cessna T-50 that crime-fighting rancher Sky King used to patrol the vast King Ranch for cattle rustlers and other ne’er-do-wells. Justice, the engine’s whine assured, was about to be served. Part of the attraction, too, was from the notion that someone inside that tiny aircraft was headed from one presumably exotic part unknown to another presumably exotic part unknown. It was the sound of escape.

The comfort with the mechanized inserting itself into nature has stuck, though for exactly the opposite reason. Rather than escape, it now represents connection. That factory I hear ain’t going nowhere, those musical truck tires likely left one nondescript warehouse for an equally nondescript destination — the backside of a Wal Mart, perhaps.

These sounds of civilization, more apparent in the stark soundscape of winter, represent a tether. Trails, urban trails in particular, offer the illusion of escape. For an hour or two or three they allow us to escape the day-to-day: the deadlines, the deck that needs resurfacing, the bills. While we need the escape, crave the escape, how far removed do most of us really want to be? For most, not all that far. Twist an ankle three miles down the trail and that dull whirr assures us that help isn’t far off. Our adventure comes with an aural safety net.

Rarely on our weekend getaways, on our brief connections with nature, are we truly disconnected. And that’s not such a bad thing. It serves to remind us that escape can be had quickly, if not completely. A sanity-saver that may be no more than 10 minutes away. The music of those freeway tires, that factory, that Songbird overhead are part of the territory.

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