Coffee heat rising


Here’s something that I found while cleaning out DropBox…written in 1997. I don’t think it was ever published, anywhere.


Classic Arizona Road in Rain

It takes a lot of doing to get into the Western outback. The water you have to haul weighs many pounds more than the other gear you need to survive, more than food and nylon shelter and clothing and tools. Before you start to hike, you have to drive hundreds of miles beyond humanity’s fungoid reach, and even then you’re not quit of its traces. You’ll always spot old mine tailings, rusted tin cans, buried rail lines, bits and pieces of plastic debris. But you keep going, and going, and going: seeking a place out of earshot of Man, the Noisiest Animal.

I doubt if that place exists. In southern Utah, at the end of a long dirt road that wanders through nowhere, is a patch of spectacular red sand dunes, weirdly terra cotta against a cerulean sky, itself so blue it seems unnatural. The sand piles up in soft, shifting hillocks reminiscent of the Rub al-Khali, Saudi Arabia’s vast empty quarter, only rather than bone-white and endless, the dunes are orange-red before a backdrop of violet mountains. It is a place that should be observed in holy silence.

Instead, the state of Utah has built a campground and thrown the place open to dune buggy and ORV enthusiasts. The chain-saw buzz of unmuffled gasoline engines rips the still air, and the brilliant dunes bear the scars of daily floggings. Signs listing the house rules are posted here and there: quiet hours between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. From six in the morning to ten at night, the human animal roars. There is no peace in this remote spot, a place unlike any other on earth.

Last night, after a 108-degree day, the evening was cool enough to invite me to stretch out on my backyard hammock and watch the sunset fade into the gathering dusk. A mockingbird trilled. A cicada sang, and I thought, I could fall asleep to this.

Not quite. As I settled into the swinging hammock and attuned my ear to the bird and insect chorus, a commercial jet thundered over on its way to Sky Harbor Airport. A cop helicopter grumbled above the war zone to the north. Cars surfed past on nearby main drags, and a distant roar like an angry ocean washed in from Interstate 17. An unmuffled car rumbled down a neighborhood street. My dog, Anna, ooked uneasily as she listened to someone else barking. I could make out three canine voices down the block, all yapping at once. On the radio, Marian McPartland jammed on with her jazz pianists; lazy with wine and distracted by the beauty of the evening sky, I had left the stereo playing and closed the door behind me when I came outside. Garbled music sifted through the Arcadia doors as unintelligible, distant racket. An air-conditioner kicked on, its growl as cranky as the copter’s. Wee-uu Wee-uu Wee-uu: a car alarm went off. Another jet whined past.

When I was a child, back in the dark ages of the 1950s, an airplane was such a rarity that whenever one appeared overhead, we all turned out of the house to gawk and thrill to the resonating thrum of the propeller engines. Jet planes filled us with awe, and airports had special viewing decks where people could go for a picnic, to watch planes land and take off. Who would think a time would come when the sky was never quiet? When the roar of jet engines was so commonplace we learned to ignore it, as we scarcely hear the white noise of a fan or a stream bubbling on rocks?

It was a quieter time: that is literal truth. You rarely heard a siren, airplanes were almost nonexistent, and no one was ever subjected to the noise vandalism of the rolling boom box. One of the charms of a city like San Francisco or New York was its noise: after dark, the traffic sounded like surf breaking in the distance. The groan of the stinking buses and the honk of gridlocked horns and the murmur of cars on their mission of commerce: these were the sounds of the city—

The sounds of the city
The sounds that you hear
In San Francisco
On KSFO…560!

Bet the radio station has taken that jingle off the air.

I’d kill to sit beside an ocean right now, one bereft of boom boxes and jet engines and yapping dogs and burglar alarms and motor vehicles and air-conditioners. Yet a beach has its own racket: the bark of sea lions, the squeal of gulls, and of course the roar of seawater pounding on rocks and sand. What is it about the surf and ork ork ork and kee-ew kee-ew that seems better than a jet engine and arf arf arf and Wee-uu Wee-uu Wee-uu?

One day when Anna was a pup, I took her with me to peruse real estate in Fountain Hills, a once-isolated suburb of Scottsdale, Arizona. Although rampant development is fast overtaking Fountain Hills, it retains some sense of remote quiet. With its view of the rugged McDowell Mountains and a bordering, largely empty Indian reservation, it feels in some ways like a small town and in some like a retirement community.

True to her German shepherd breeding, Anna was a high-strung puppy, at 50 pounds wired and difficult to manage. When I would walk her in my city neighborhood, she would drag and lunge and yank me around, despite weeks of obedience training.

At one point during the Fountain Hills excursion, I figured it was time to let her out of the car—the place is an hour’s drive from my home, and we had been cruising around visiting open houses for quite some time. I found an empty lot going to weeds, a convenient place for Anna to do her thing, if she chose. We climbed out of the car into a noticeable silence. This place was quiet. Jets flew over, but there, far from the airport, they were still fairly high. No boom boxes thumped, no sirens wailed, no engines mumbled.

Just as noticeable was Anna’s calm. She seemed relaxed, even mellow. We walked around for a while, and she showed no inclination to yank me along or lunge back and forth.

After a while, some players from a nearby golf course approached in electric carts. They headed for a road crossing a few yards from us, and I thought, Here it comes! Wait till she notices those things! All gadgets wheeled and moving drove this puppy berserk: cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, skateboards, bicycles, roller skates, baby strollers. I braced for a frenzy.

The carts entered the roadway, so silent we could hear the riders’ conversation. Anna watched. I got a death grip on the leash and planted my feet on the ground. Any second now, the sound, the fury. . . . Nothing. Ears up, hackles down, she regarded the carts with mild interest: not a single yap, much less the usual rabid outburst. We went on about our business in peace.

Amazed, I wondered what could have caused this attack of tranquillity. Maybe, I reflected, she was responding to the very quiet and stillness of the place—or more to the point, in real life she responded to the unsettling racket that permeates her home territory, known to humans as the back yard. Maybe the matrix of aggressive noise imposed on her normal surroundings made her aggressive. For much of the racket that impinges on our lives is aggressive: helicopters and jets are engines of war; barking dogs and car alarms, the sounds of fear; unmuffled Harleys and wall-rattling boom boxes, the thug’s menacing swagger.

No wonder our children suffer a plague of “hyperactivity”: like Anna, they exhibit symptoms of a kind of psychic asthma, a sickness of pollution. In effect, their out-of-control excitement is like wheezing, frantic gasping at a noxious irritant. A hyperactive child, like a wild puppy, tells us what happens to our minds and hearts when we are subjected to a nonstop barrage of hostile noise.

Screeching tires interrupted this reverie, and, enough being enough, the idyll in the backyard hammock came to an end. Besieged, I retreated indoors. Marian McPartland was still holding forth: a beautiful melody poured from the stereo. Here was the only defense in noise combat: I turned up the volume.

June 1997