It was a cold day in January. A layer of iced-over snow coated the ground, stuck to windshields and trees. Every step was a slide, then a crunch. Even the air was frozen, apocalyptic in its stillness.
I stepped into my cross-country skis, wary of what these polar conditions would mean for my amateur Nordic skills. A group of over 10 Canaan Valley skiers took the lead. I hung back. There would be no need for an audience to my flailing.
Very soon we were climbing, away from the bustle of White Grass Touring Center, away from the tractor’s putter as it pulled cars from their icy tombs, and into the woods.
The silence was deafening.
Like a giant wad of cotton, the snow-capped canopy muffled the wind and lingering traces of laughter down below. By then, our group had thinned, the faster ones up front and the novices, myself among them, slowly zigzagging our way up the freshly groomed trail.
I stopped by a piece of PVC pipe that jutted from the mountain, gushing crystal clear water. A broken ski pole with a plastic bottle duct taped to the end hung beside it, and I filled it to the brim, downing the water in three large gulps.
Looking around, I realized, unsurprisingly, that I was last. Being unfamiliar with the area, I quickened my pace uphill. Determination settled in. Head up, knees bent. I focused on my edges, my stride, my gaze. I tuned into the sound of my skis slicing through snow and my own heartbeat drumming, my shallow breaths moving in then out.
The chatter of the group grew louder and as I crested a hill, some stragglers came into sight. They looked to be taking a break, so I bypassed them, not wanting to break the momentum I’d built. With a nod and a “fine day,” I pressed on, my skis following the tracks of those before me.
Shuffle, shuffle, slide. Shuffle, shuffle, slide.
I found a rhythm, my groove. I felt like a pro—no, better than a pro. Once, mid-slide, I waved my ski poles up in the air, did a little jig, shook my hips, caring not in the least if anyone had seen. I cruised past one skier, then another.
And then I rounded a bend in the trail.
“T.N.T, I’m dynamite, T.N.T, and I’ll win the fight!”
Startled, I looked around for the source of Bon Scott’s booming vocals. Another micro-pod of skiers had formed in the middle of the trail, supposedly waiting for the remainder of the group. Everyone talked and joked, seemingly unaware of AC/DC’s intimate performance.
Then, a guy in a bright yellow parka skied away, exposing the source—a portable speaker, strapped to the outside of his pack. With every hit, the zippers clattered.
Instantly, my mood deflated. It’s not that I’m opposed to AC/DC or rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not a goody two-shoes. I know the lyrics to T.N.T. by heart, and, under the right circumstances, have been known to belt them out in public. But not here, not now. Not amid an ethereal forest in arguably the wildest place east of the Mississippi.
This is not the first time I’ve encountered music in the woods. There’s always someone at a climbing crag or campsite blaring tunes on a busy weekend. Take a walk on any trail and you’d be hard-pressed to pass a runner, or a thru-hiker even, without a pair of earbuds in.
Normally, I’m unfazed by it. I grew up in an era of portable music systems, of Walkmans and iPods. Buying my very own portable CD player was of the utmost importance to my 10-year-old self.
But about a year ago, I paddled down the New River Gorge with a group of friends, one of whom happens to be a professional kayaker. While the rest of us paddled along, telling stories and catching up, our pro was up ahead throwing cartwheels over waves and looping in the flow.
When we took a break on the rocks below Greyhound Bus Stopper, someone teasingly made a jab at his last surf, but he never responded. In fact, he never showed signs that he had heard the jest at all, because he didn’t.
“You okay?” I asked when he flopped down beside us.
“What?” He pulled the earbuds from his helmet.
I didn’t bother repeating myself. I was livid.
To me, wearing earbuds is a not-so-subtle way of saying, “I’d rather be in my own world than share it with you.”
Which is fine. Sometimes. When I’m running on a treadmill, or doing a kettle bell workout, completely bored out of my mind and feeling fat, slow, and sweaty, I’d rather be in whatever world AC/DC or, more often than not, G. Love & Special Sauce, can afford me. There are countless studies proving the psychological and physical benefits of working out to music which, in effect, is what our pro kayaking pal was doing while he cartwheeled downstream.
But the whole reason I got into adventure sports goes way beyond the adrenaline, the novelty, the feelings of triumph and fear. It’s the people, first and foremost, that attracted me to the outdoors. Friends or not, when I pass others on the trail, I’m going to say hi and will take it personally if the greeting goes unreturned.
In an age of high-tech wizardry and individuality, our society is now more than ever sapped dry of connectivity to nature, to people, to ourselves. Tuning into music in the woods tunes you out of not only your surroundings but also the feelings that make us human: pain, fatigue, sorrow, even pride and joy.
We are multitaskers, efficiency machines, desperate for a distraction. And while yes, I get that the sound of birds twitting in the trees is only nice for so long, we are all beginning to suffer from a deficit of quiet in our lives. What will happen when the silence is gone forever?
John Muir once wrote to his wife that it is “only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
So respect the wild. Respect the silence. Respect yourself and leave the tunes at home.