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Seeking America’s quietest spots: the quest for silence in a loud world

Connoisseurs of quiet say it is increasingly difficult, even in the wilderness, to escape the sounds of vehicles, industries, voices.

[BENTON, New Hampshire] The hiker trudged up a logging road and into a valley, tracing a route that seemed unremarkable. There were no sweeping views of the mountains that towered nearby. There was no summit to scale. Yet he stopped suddenly, jubilant, after about 4 miles of walking. He had found exactly what he was searching for: quiet.

"Let's see," said the hiker, Dennis Follensbee, "how we experience three minutes of silence."

In these loud times — with political foes yelling on television, trucks rumbling through streets, and smartphones chirping all around — who doesn't want a little peace and quiet? But some wilderness lovers have taken their aversion to the cacophony of the modern world a step further, traveling to some of the country's most remote areas in a quest for utter silence.

Armed with Google Maps, bushwhacking tools and 16 years of experience hiking in the area, Follensbee, a programmer from Lebanon, New Hampshire, is on an exhaustive search for the noiseless hollows and dells of New Hampshire's White Mountains.

"I know there must be places I can go to have peace," said Follensbee, 39, who has mapped 23 quiet places so far, though he has shared the exact locations only with family members and close friends. (If quiet places are widely known, he reasons, "they cease to be quiet.")

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Connoisseurs of quiet say it is increasingly difficult, even in the wilderness, to escape the sounds of vehicles, industries, voices. A study published last year in the academic journal Science, found that noise pollution was doubling sound levels in much of the nation's conserved land, like national parks and areas preserved by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Noise that humans create can be annoying but also dangerous to animals who rely on hearing to seek their prey and avoid predators. "We're really starting to understand the consequences of noise and the importance of natural sound," said Rachel Buxton, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University who worked on the study.

In Washington state, Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist — part of a small field of experts who study natural soundscapes — has made it a mission to preserve what he calls "1 square inch" of quiet in Olympic National Park. He and other advocates have raised concerns about noise from loud Navy jets and other air traffic, but says he believes that Olympic National Park is one of only about 12 places in the continental United States where a person could listen for 15 minutes and hear no man-made sound.

"We need to defend quiet places that remain as well as clean up places that should be quiet," Hempton said.

To some degree, those efforts are already underway. The National Park Service has a policy requiring park managers to measure "baseline acoustic conditions" and determine which noises have an adverse effect. There is even a branch of the Park Service known as the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division that is dedicated in part to preserving the untrammeled soundscape.

At Muir Woods National Monument, officials have taken steps to lessen noise, like posting signs urging people to keep their voices soft. Low-flying air tours are banned over Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2015, at Grand Teton National Park, officials installed a noise meter — similar to a roadside speedometer — that showed passing vehicles how much noise they are making. And earlier this year, parks officials repaved a road in Death Valley with different kinds of surfaces so they could compare how much noise each one produced.

Efforts to regulate noise have never been as broad or well organized as some environmental causes, and they sometimes have lost steam or been met with opposition from industry groups. In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency had an Office of Noise Abatement and Control, but it lost its funding during deregulation of the early 1980s.

For years, conservationists seeking to minimize noise from visitors and helicopter flights at the Grand Canyon have met opposition from businesses and Indian tribes that depend on tourism and recreation. And people whose passions make noise — like snowmobilers and motorcyclists — say they, too, have the right to enjoy the wilderness.

"The sound, it's thrilling when you're a motorcycle rider," said Peter Spinney, 75, a New Jersey resident who rode through the White Mountains last month. "That's part of the attraction."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, motorcycles thundered up the Mount Washington Auto Road, and cars lumbered around hairpin turns. At the top of the mountain, the wheels of a motor coach rumbled over the gravel, and the biodiesel engine of the Cog Railway, which carts visitors up and down the mountain, whirred constantly.

Richard Davy's journey up the mountain brought him to the summit, where the sound of a crying child could be heard over all else. He takes a semiannual pilgrimage here, and said he hoped his ashes would one day be scattered here. "With that crying kid, I don't know, I might reconsider," Davy, 69, said.

Given the loud crowds, some hikers have taken to avoiding the tallest mountains, making lists instead of quieter getaways. For Dave Govatski, a naturalist who opposes a hotel proposed near the top of Mount Washington, it is Shoal Pond, several miles from the road. For Dave Smith, who volunteers as a White Mountain National Forest trail steward, it is Lonesome Lake, protected from road noise by ridges.


But even in out of the way places, silence can be fleeting.

When Follensbee, the hiker whose quest to find quiet places was featured on public radio, found one of his preferred spots the other day, he pulled out his phone to record sounds. He is not looking for a complete auditory vacuum, but a place without man-made noise, wind or loud rushing water, where you can hear the sounds you only can hear when it is quiet.

For three minutes, a soft hum of insects, a rustle of leaves, the calls of birds was all there was. Then came the whine of a vehicle, its motor growing louder as it came over a ridge. It ruined everything.

"It is a little disappointing," Follensbee said, shaking his head. "We're so far out."


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