I have just set up camp on a rock ledge when all hell breaks loose. A violent windstorm suddenly sweeps out of the Panhandle, shaking my tent like an earthquake, and me with it. I step out to check the ropes anchoring the tent and blowing sand fills my eyes. I stumble, groping in the dark. Dang it. Forgot my flashlight!
I am alone in the primitive expanse of Caprock Canyons State Park, a tranquil place of glowing red escarpments and cloud-scraping cliffs before the storm. Now the wind rattles the juniper and scrub oak, and coyotes howl. I duck back into the tent, wondering how much longer it—or I—can last. Alone, I think of the tasks I’d put aside: the book I’m writing that I’ve been dodging for a decade; troubled relationships with two children I’ve been meaning to patch up; my own spiritual life, never taken quite seriously.
I’m trembling, queasy, and acutely aware of how ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and ill-suited I am for this quixotic quest to escape my noisy Dallas suburb in pursuit of silence and solitude in one of Texas’ most remote and inhospitable terrains.
My pursuit began six months ago when I walked into the eerily quiet emporium of a Flower Mound audiologist. I was trying to figure out why my wife had begun complaining that I wasn’t “really listening” to her anymore. She demonstrated her displeasure through a piercing silence that left me unnerved. After 30 years of marriage, I thought I had learned to listen to her soft, feathery voice like a symphony conductor trains his ears to hear the whisper of his flutes. I figured a layer of wax might have formed inside my ear canals, muffling my hearing.
After a 30-minute hearing test, my audiogram showed the softest sounds I can hear at different frequencies, demonstrating that wax wasn’t the problem. Holding a chart resembling a piano keyboard, Dr. Allison Liberio, the hearing center’s velvety voiced audiologist, pointed her finger to a ragged line that sunk below the “normal” hearing level like a leaky boat.
“The chart shows that you have high-frequency hearing loss,” Liberio said.
“Is that, like, really bad?” I asked in a dreadful tone.
“No, no,” Liberio assured me. “What you have is a mild hearing impairment with high-frequency sounds. You might not hear the high notes on a piano, but a piano is pretty loud.”
My hearing loss, the doctor explained, was indicative of damage due to excessive exposure to the extremely loud acoustical environment in Texas. She learned just how bad it could get while attending her first Dallas Cowboys football game a few months prior. The team’s game announcer urged the crowd to MAKE SOME NOISE! The fans obliged on 10 different occasions, hitting the 110-decibel level, the noise equivalent of a chain saw. “I didn’t yell because I didn’t want to contribute to the hearing loss suffered by the fans,” she confessed.
I figured my lifelong addiction to noisy sports arenas, concerts, theme parks, bowling alleys, and other entertainment venues was the main source of my hearing loss. That exposure is partly to blame, Liberio said. But a bigger culprit is probably the “exponential impact” of everyday exposure to the cacophony of highway traffic, airplanes, audio devices, stereos, televisions, and clamorous shopping malls and supermarkets, which pipe loud music and advertisements through speakers.
To avoid further degradation of my hearing, I asked the audiologist what she thought of the idea of me spending time in a soundproof anechoic chamber, for example, or a Zen meditation sanctuary. “Well, that sounds better than holding the palms of your hands over your ears,” she quipped.
It looks like a miniature airplane hangar, padded with weird, three-dimensional wedges sprouting on the walls. Standing alone inside the room, it’s utterly silent. My decibel meter, which measures sound, reports that there isn’t any. My first moments inside this silent chamber at the University of Texas at Dallas are rapturous. I’m almost giddy about joining the ranks of American astronauts who have experienced the eerie silence of space. This high-tech acoustical vacuum, known as an anechoic chamber, is considered one of the quietest places in Texas.
Moments later, however, my whole body becomes noisy. My stomach gurgles. My vertebrae crackle. My inner ears hiss and buzz. Swallowing saliva sounds like someone placed a microphone in my throat. I close my eyes and try to remain calm, but my mind conjures up a disquieting image: me stuck inside a torture chamber.
After about seven minutes of coping with deafening silence, I begin to feel deeply unsettled. I open my eyes and hear my eyelids break free from the mucus sealing them shut. After about 15 minutes, I suspect I’m beginning to hallucinate. I imagine myself inside a padded casket in a semi-comatose state, hearing my own heartbeat, my lungs filling up with air.
A sense of horror lays hold of me. Am I on the verge of death? Am I ever going to get out of this sealed chamber? So, when Dean Terry, a UT-Dallas professor who helps administer the chamber, opens the door and walks in to shatter the silence, I’m deeply relieved.
“How are you doing?” he asks.
“A little fatigued, a little frazzled,” I say, stumbling to convey my bizarre experience.
“I’m not surprised,” Terry says. “Most people can’t handle the silence of the chamber for more than a few minutes. It scares them to death.”
Lesson learned: An artificial world, sealed off from noise, would be a nightmare. We humans, it seems, aren’t meant to live alone in soundless chambers, isolated from the rest of civilization. But what about communal silence? Can we disentangle ourselves from our noisy world by just sitting together in silence, paying attention to nothing else but our breaths? Zen masters say we can. With some trepidation, I decide to give it a try.
I thought I was well prepared for my first encounter with Zen meditation. I had immersed myself in the book Sitting with Koans and other collections of Zen masters’ insights into the mysterious world of enlightenment. I also watched several documentaries on YouTube. The videos assured me that if I practiced Zen meditation daily, I would experience a profound quietude that would muzzle what C.S. Lewis called the “exultant, ruthless, and virile” dictatorship of noise commandeering our lives.
That sounded easy until I heard a Zen teacher in one of the documentaries describe the physical demands of zazen, the term for sitting in the lotus position silent and still as a tree. Maintaining an erect back, while sitting cross-legged on a firm pillow, was an essential step toward achieving stillness, the teacher said. Breathing correctly was another. “Take a deep breath,” the Zen teacher said. “Breathing in and breathing out, pause between the two actions. As you breathe, silently count ‘one’ to yourself. Then breathe in and, as you breathe out, count ‘two’ silently.”
The counting mantra was supposed to continue until my count reached 10, then start over.
“Stilling the mind” was the third step. To do that, the teacher said I should pretend I’m a mountain. “Treat your thoughts like clouds,” she said, instructing to allow them to casually float by. Fretting over my inability to perform these steps of zazen kept me up all night.
I arrived at the zendo, or meditation sanctuary, at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, anxious, agitated, and stressed. Fortunately, it was a freezing cold day, and I was one of only two people who showed up for the early morning meditation. After a quick introduction and tutorial, the teacher, Sam Leake, who is the owner of a Dallas-based refrigeration business, ushered me into the zendo. There, he struck a bell—signaling the first half hour of the zazen was starting—and watched out of the corner of his eye as I clumsily piled up a bunch of padded cushions on the floor. Longtime practitioners politely call my adopted posture the Burmese position—a lazy man’s version of the lotus.
With my eyes half shut, I tried to focus on the boundless, timeless, and silent now. But I’m quickly distracted by all the noise pouring into the zendo from outside: jets roaring, horns honking, sirens blaring, car doors slamming, children playing, people laughing. I try to pretend I’m a mountain, and all the noises are just clouds passing overhead. I tell myself, again and again, It’s just noise; ignore it. Pay attention to the silence, the rich layer of primordial silence beneath all the noise. But I can’t. The noise commands all of my attention. It dictates my thoughts. Shapes my mood. Alters my perceptions of the moment. And right now, all the noise is making me nutty.
The bell sounds again, ending zazen on a sour note.
I’m beginning to wonder whether my lonely pursuit of silence will yield a payoff. Long periods of silence might postpone further degradation of my noise-induced hearing loss, as Liberio suggested, but based on my experience in the soundless chamber and on the hardwood floor of a zendo, it might also drive me bonkers. Baffling, enigmatic questions about a word I never thought much about before—silence—are now keeping me awake all night. Why do we need silence, anyway? How does it benefit us? What can we learn from it? And why are we so afraid of it?
One sleepless night it dawns on me that I can’t fully escape the roar of my urban landscape simply by spending time in a soundless chamber or a zendo. Why not plant myself in two of the most rugged and quiet wilderness areas of Texas, places where the raspy purr of a mountain lion or the buzzing of a rattlesnake wouldn’t be drowned out by a diesel truck or a jet plane. Perhaps the High Plains of the Panhandle would provide answers to my unsettling questions about silence that the city could not.
On an early morning flight to Amarillo, I’m seated in the back of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 that’s generating, according to my decibel meter, the same level of noise as inside a New York subway. I’m eager to jettison the plane for one of Texas’ geologic wonders: Palo Duro Canyon, the second longest canyon in the U.S., overshadowed only by the Grand Canyon. The 28,000-acre state park, 30 miles south of Amarillo, is a kaleidoscope of multi-colored mesas, arroyos, and sheer cliffs shaped by erosion over the millennia.
Around noon, I arrive at the entrance to the state park, facing icy wind and falling temperatures. Heavy rains and snow flurries are forecasted to start around 4 p.m. I enlist a park ranger, Lindsay Pannell, to point the way to the most remote and primitive part of the park—a place without water, electricity, or any loud, manufactured sounds of civilization.
She suggests I follow a road to the bottom of the canyon, where I would see a sign announcing “Primitive Campground Parking.” From there, I could hike in a couple miles along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. But Pannell warns me that the low-lying area is prone to flash flooding. “You never know what will happen when it rains hard around here,” she says. “You could get swept away.”
I pitch my tent at the bottom of an escarpment, light my miniature gas stove, and watch the flame turn into a towering inferno that proceeds to set fire to the grass around my tent. It takes the entire contents of my water bottle to extinguish the fire. After that, the rain comes—first in dribbles, then in torrents—turning my tent and sleeping bag into a soggy, ice-cold cavern. I think of the Alaskan wilderness hiker who in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild never made it out. It’s 30 degrees with the wind chill. If the temperature drops much more, I wonder, Could I freeze to death out here?
In my lonely patch of the wilderness, fear sets in—a deep, bone-rattling kind of dread. I text my wife, letting her know about my predicament, knowing she won’t get the message. There’s no cellphone service in the lower canyon. I came here to escape my noisy Dallas suburb and experience how the silence and solitude of the wilderness might reveal my “true and hidden strength,” as Jack Kerouac mentioned in one of his journal entries. But as I shiver and shake and swish away streams of water pouring through the floor of my tent, I realize how fragile and finite I am. A crazy thought crosses my mind: If I were in the zendo instead of my tent, I would pretend I’m a mountain and the rain pellets and howling coyotes were simply clouds that I could shush away with my mind. That wishful illusion makes me laugh out loud at the mess I’ve gotten myself into.
I wiggle around in my soggy sleeping bag for hours, trying to keep warm. Around 3 a.m., the ground underneath me begins to speak—chittering, squeaking, scuffling, purring, yelping—sounds of a subterranean symphony that calms my spasms and soothes my spirits. The symphony performers, I later learn, are Palo Duro mice, badgers, prairie dogs, wood rats, and other nocturnal critters seeking shelter from the storm. With my ear to the ground, I fall asleep, listening to the concert in the canyon.
I wake up just as the sun begins to rise, warming the canyon floor. I dismantle my tent, hang it across a giant, red-berried juniper to dry, and hike along the Red River, listening to cricket frogs calling each other. They sound like a bunch of clicking rocks. Perched in the scrub oaks lining the river, several songbirds compete to ensure their chirping isn’t drowned out by the clicking.
Pannell says more and more Texans who visit Palo Duro Canyon are so accustomed to the jangle and clamor of city life that they’re spooked by the natural sounds of the wilderness. Nature deficit disorder, as the park rangers refer to it, has become a major social issue.“As people become more urbanized, they lose touch with nature and sometimes develop a fear of it,” Pannell says. “Nature deficit disorder is a phenomenon we’re discussing more and more in our training.”
To combat the growing disconnection between city people and nature, she recently began leading silent “mindfulness” and “five senses” hikes through the canyon to hear the sounds of birds, the babbling of a creek, and the creaking and groaning of the boughs of ancient junipers bent by gusty winds. Many hikers report to Pannell that their first encounters with silence and the natural sounds of the wilderness are magical. But some tell her they’re uncomfortable walking through the wilderness in silence. Others say they’re bored.
Still, Pannell, who grew up on a small farm on the rolling plains of West Texas, isn’t giving up her crusade to convince city slickers like me to simply sit in the canyon and listen. “Nature is Zen,” she says. “An aha moment in the silence of nature fundamentally changes some of our visitors from the city forever.”
I leave Palo Duro Canyon and head southeast toward a prairie sea of cliffs, bluffs, and escarpments in the Panhandle, just short of the region known as the Big Empty. My destination lies 100 miles away: Caprock Canyons State Park, a remote, 15,300-acre expanse that’s largely unknown even to avid campers and hikers who live in the Panhandle. It’s a place of rugged badlands, long ago ruled by the Comanche, who regarded as sacred the wild herds of native bison. It’s also a place Pannell promises will yield plenty of aha moments.
At the entrance to Caprock Canyons, I experience my first such moment when a majestic herd of giant bison meanders across a shortgrass prairie below the escarpment. They’re the last known survivors of millions of bison that once roamed the southern plains. I’m struck by their quiet, graceful steps, as if they don’t want to harm what’s left of the endless grasslands that sustained them and the Comanche before the white man nearly wiped out the herd in the 1870s.
“Just watching them, they’ve taught me a lot about how to be, about how to live,” says C.L. Hawkins, the park’s bison ranger. “About serenity, patience, slowing down. About the importance of not being rushed. I don’t even like to think about who I’d be today if I hadn’t gotten to spend so many years with them.”
Last September, Juanita Pahdopony, the great-great-granddaughter of the legendary Comanche leader Quanah Parker, and other Comanche ventured from Oklahoma to celebrate and honor their chief. She told me that after crossing the Red River and arriving at Caprock Canyons, she was overcome. “I see the buffalo roaming free,” she said. “I feel at home.”
Pahdopony told me there’s a big difference between the way Comanche tell stories and connect to the land and the way white people do. “White people walking in nature tend to chatter with each other, look at each other and not the landscape,” she said. “Comanche are silent. They’re looking around at the trees, the animals, the nature around them. That’s our basic way of being, of observing, listening, and remembering. Our people move around silently, observe silently, reflect silently. We don’t have that need to be talking all the time.”
Holy smokes, I thought. Silence isn’t about keeping your mouth shut; it’s a way of being, a way of observing, a way of listening. It defines the way Pahdopony and the Comanche people relate to the world and to each other. I told her about my encounter with the vicious windstorm atop Caprock Canyons a week before. She told me I was fortunate.
“You survived, didn’t you?” she asked.
“Yes, but not without a few psychological scars.”
“In the windstorm, you got to know what you’re made of—to know your fears,” she said. “To go through that, you came out a stronger person.”
Pahdopony didn’t know it, but she was launching lightning bolts in my direction. I thought about how inside the wild and rugged expanse of Caprock Canyons, free of my noisy distractions, I faced a reckoning with who I really am. Am I a man who has the backbone and fortitude to finish a highly contentious book project and to patch up shattered relationships with two of my children? Or am I someone so overcome with fear of failure that I’ll remain forever paralyzed by inaction?
The silence, solitude, and terror of the wilderness made me confront these soulful questions and strip away the noise that stood in the way of the truth. It also helped me understand, with penetrating clarity, why even as we continue to create noisy places around us, we’re frightened to death by the commotion within us. No wonder we’re so afraid to sit alone—in the deep silence below our beloved noise.