Last November, I experienced Death Valley for the first time. I say “experienced” because, well…one does not simply visit Death Valley. There’s a scale to the seeming desolation that’s mind-boggling; a splendor that’s not at all obvious at first; a nagging sense that death is always just one stupid decision away.
More than anything, though, it’s the silence of the place – a silence you can actually feel. When I was in elementary school, our class took a field trip to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, where, in their anechoic chamber, you couldn’t hear a thing, even the kid sitting right next to you yelling your name. But that was the absence of sound, not the presence of silence.
Turns out there’s a big difference. One morning on that November trip, the missus and I hiked out on the salt flat at Badwater Basin. The sun was just coming up, and, as the Panamints to the west began to glow first pink, then orange, we both felt it: a heavy, crushing silence descending onto the valley floor.
None of this has anything to do with anything, really, other than it’s what came to mind as I was reading this article on the late Thomas Merton, who chased “both the purity of silence and the need to break it.” We didn’t chase it; nevertheless, we found it. And it’s as terrifying as it is beautiful.