To find the quietest place in America, you first have to shut up and listen.
"Do you hear that?"
The question, whispered, is itself hard to hear. And, at least for the moment, I don't hear anything yet, which is part of the problem.
The man serving as my guide not only hears "that," he hears everything. His name is Gordon Hempton, and before he's even finished asking his question, he's already dug out from the pocket of his tan hunter's vest what looks to be a TV remote with a microphone stuck on the end.
"When I'm in a quiet place, there is a feeling of reverence that comes from the privilege of being a part of nature," he says, again in a whisper. "Now when a jet comes in overhead dumping noise, my sense of place becomes smaller and smaller."
A jet! Of course. But by the time I recognize the deep rumble of the aircraft overhead, Hempton has already measured its effect on our surroundings.
It's a rare sunny day in Olympic National Park's temperate rain forest. In a landscape normally dominated by 160 inches of annual rainfall, today golden rays filter down through broken clouds on the Hoh River Trail, a 17-mile path that winds its way to the base of Mount Olympus. And that plane flying above in the clear blue sky? It more than doubled the noise of the natural soundscape, says an irritated Hempton.
To the man they call "The Soundtracker," not all noise is created equal. As we walk further down the trail leading to our final destination—a spot that Hempton has single-handedly turned into a symbol for the world's disappearing quiet—and begin crossing a shallow but swift creek, he stops and listens to the splish and splash of the cascading water.
"Isn't that just something you could tap-dance to?" he asks.
Hempton, 58, is an amiable, rubber boot–clad, weathered-but-handsome Washingtonian currently living in the town of Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula, and capturing sound is his livelihood. He travels the globe recording its many varied melodies, from rattling freight trains that groan through industrial centers to frog-croak mating calls in isolated stretches of Amazonian jungle. His recordings are sold on iTunes, used in computer games, and heard at zoos and museums throughout the nation, including Seattle's Zoomazium, the Smithsonian, and the American Museum of Natural History. He's even won an Emmy Award for a PBS documentary in which he captured the sound of sunrise on six different continents.
Yet in the past decade, sound has gone from being merely Hempton's way of paying the bills to his passion. It's also turned him into an unlikely crusader. That's because he's perhaps the best-known member of a scattered tribe that considers the disappearance of "natural quiet"—the aural ambience of a wilderness area where man-made, mechanized noise ceases to exist—one of the great challenges facing mankind in a new century. These places, says Hempton, are increasingly rare—according to him, of the 21 that once existed in Washington, only three remain, including the spot we're trekking to.
In the wilderness "sound travels for miles," he says, and the din of off-road vehicles, distant traffic, and tour buses penetrate parks and alter their acoustic environment. But the greatest threat to "natural quiet" doesn't come from the ground, but from what flies above it.
The primary focus of Hempton's efforts is aircraft. In addition to the passenger planes that come and go every day from Sea-Tac, more than 300,000 fixed-wing and helicopter air tours occur annually over national parks. Studies show that noise pollution can alter, sometimes disastrously, wildlife communication. And there is increasing evidence linking high exposure to aircraft and traffic noise to adverse health effects.
It's a trend that Hempton doesn't imagine will stop anytime soon, which is why he's taken it upon himself to do something no one else ever has—create the world's first designated quiet place. A "square inch of silence," as he's dubbed it, that lives on a red stone atop a mossy log and is, as it happens, today's final destination.
While Hempton's efforts to preserve natural soundscapes are relatively recent, the larger cause began long before.
In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency officially deemed noise a pollutant, though at first it was primarily considered a problem only in populated settings. That changed in June 1986, when a fatal midair collision over Grand Canyon National Park prompted Congress to pass the National Parks Overflights Act the following year. The legislation tasked the Federal Aviation Administration with ensuring the safety of tour flights, and required the National Park Service to work with the FAA on aircraft noise.
Subsequent studies showed that the airspace over parks like Yosemite in California and Haleakala in Hawaii was as packed as I-5 at quitting time—aircraft passed overhead up to 10 times per hour. To lessen the noise impact, restrictions were placed on how closely aircraft could fly above the park surface. But the more important figure—the number of tour flights—never changed.
In 2000, Congress once again attempted to regulate just who could fly above national parks, and how often. The National Parks Air Tour Management Act (ATMA) was even more ambitious than its ancestor. Instead of a vague "Go do something" command, the nation's legislators told the FAA and NPS to make nice and develop air-tour management plans for every one of the country's 130 parks.
Karen Trevino can't come out and say that the government's mandate hasn't been met. As the Division Chief of the Natural Sounds and Night Skies program, the National Parks Service division charged with gathering the data, she's forced instead to say that "[The ATMA] is unprecedented in that it calls for two agencies with very different cultures and very different missions to come together to develop these air-tour plans."
Translation: We haven't gotten anything done yet. Because those two agencies both have veto power, they've each spent the past dozen years giving a thumbs-down to every plan offered by the other. Thus after more than a decade, not a single air-tour management plan has made it past the voting stage.
Meanwhile, as the feds' efforts at regulation were locked in a permanent stalemate, the evidence of noise's negative effects was mounting.
When Hempton established One Square Inch of Silence with the intention of hastening overflight regulation, scientists from around the world had already begun to report the damaging effects of persistent mechanized noise on both wildlife and human populations. Animals depend on the ability to transmit sounds for communication, procreation, and, ultimately, survival. Many, such as monkeys, canines, elephants, some amphibians, and especially birds, alter their tunes in areas of inescapable human-caused noise.
In a 2003 study of the great tit, a common songbird, Hans Slabbekoorn of Leiden University in the Netherlands found that in areas of increased traffic noise, birds that changed the pitch and complexity of their songs were more likely to find mates. Similarly, a 30-year study conducted by researchers David Luther of the University of Maryland and Luis Baptista of the California Academy of Sciences showed that to cut through the noise of the city and be heard, urban-dwelling white-crowned sparrows now sing at higher pitches than their rural counterparts.
But not all species are so adaptable. And there's rising concern that mechanized noise conceals sounds necessary for survival—especially since the importance of hearing is an anthropological fact: While some animals have evolved without the ability to see, no species in the fossil record has ever developed ear lids to suppress sound.
These studies are not exclusive to wildlife, argues Julian Treasure, a frequent TED speaker and Chairman of the Sound Agency, a noise-focused business consultancy. "Sound affects us all," he says, "although in the modern era, most people have gotten pretty unconscious about this. We're used to suppressing sound."
According to the World Health Organization, noise pollution can lead to sleep disturbance (even when we're not woken, our heart rate still quickens at the onset of loud noises), anxiety, bowel dysfunction, and elevated fight/flight stress hormones. Increasing evidence connects it to the risk of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and myocardial infarction. And noise can even impair cognitive performance. Conducting research in schools around major European airports, Stephen Stansfeld, a professor of psychology at Queen Mary, University of London, found that with increasing levels of aircraft noise, children showed poorer reading comprehension on standardized tests.
All of which leads Treasure to claim that the growing amount of noise is man's greatest hidden issue. "It's the biggest elephant in the world's room," he says.
On the morning of our hike to One Square Inch, Hempton and I pile into his gray Jeep Grand Cherokee. I expect the day to begin with a nourishing breakfast and plenty of water; after all, the trek is supposed to take us five hours. But the only provisions we stop for at the local general store are coffee and some homemade deep-fried apple fritters. With his angular jawline, clean-shaven face, buzz cut, and eloquent diction, Hempton would more likely pass as ex-military than as a '60s hippie holdover—one of many reasons the man and his mission don't seem to overlap.
Far from being the sort of vegan teetotaler his quest might suggest, Hempton eats meat, prefers a double shot of Chivas on the rocks, and sounds like he's spouting ad copy when talking about his beloved chewing tobacco: "Every once in a while, all too often, I gotta take my pinch of Copenhagen and put it under my lip and just feel how good it is to be alive," he says at the wheel of his SUV.
But protecting silence wasn't always Hempton's self-imposed responsibility. Before he could be concerned with environmental quietude, he first had to support himself. And as we pull onto Highway 101, passing empty stretches of forested seashore on our way to the Hoh Valley, he tells me about his early career.
Hempton grew up a "military brat" and moved to Seattle in 1978, two years after graduating with a degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin. Working part-time as a bike messenger, he fell in love with a co-worker, and the two started a family. The couple, now divorced but still friendly, was struggling financially. So Hempton came up with a plan.
Already an amateur soundtracker, he knew as well as anyone that the music of the wild was disappearing. And using the supply-and-demand logic learned by every student in Business 101, Hempton figured that the rarer it got, the more valuable it would be. He was right.
Hempton's days delivering packages ended in 1989 when he won a $10,000 grant to record the natural environments of Washington. This assignment was just the beginning. Shortly afterward he was circling the globe, capturing the sounds of sunrise on six continents—resulting in the documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus, which won him an Emmy award in 1992.
By the time the Air Tour Management Act of 2000 had passed, Hempton had made soundtracking a career, providing audio clips for The Relaxation Company, the Smithsonian, and Microsoft. He gained a reputation for providing high-quality "binaural" recordings—which mimic the way people actually hear, using a recording device shaped like a human head—and for diligence, no matter the risk: He once strapped himself to the front of a charging steam locomotive to capture the beast's distinctive "chuff" sound for Microsoft's Train Simulator.
Brian Pertl, the former Head of Media Acquisitions for Microsoft's Encarta World Atlas, was impressed not only by the quality of Hempton's work—"He delivered these amazingly beautiful sound files"—but by his rare ability to adapt. "Gordon could step into Microsoft offices after being four months in the Amazon, and it's like it was nothing," says Pertl.
Hempton's transition from seeing disappearing soundscapes as cash cows to committing his life to their preservation was a 15-year process. But it dovetailed nicely with the kind of work that kept him energized. "I can work all day and all night recording nature sounds in a wilderness place and feel inspired," he says. But working those same hours in a noisy city, "I [get] really exhausted." Adds Pertl: "Here's a guy who thinks nothing about going out into a deep rain forest and sitting for hours motionless as he's recording natural sound. A lot of us can't even sit through a 45-minute symphony, let alone eight hours of frog chirp or cricket chirp."
Establishing One Square Inch in 2005 spawned a more political life for Hempton. Discussing noise-mitigation strategy with park personnel, speaking at public hearings, and requesting airlines to reroute their flights around the Hoh Valley became common. In 2009, with journalist John Grossman, Hempton published One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet, for which he traveled the United States recording "the sonic pulse of America" and reporting on the state of quiet in an increasingly noisy world.
Though he's received much support and encouragement, not everyone cheers him on. After The Seattle Times reported on Hempton's efforts, he was disparaged by the head of a pilots' association website. Vandals have trashed One Square Inch on several occasions, not only removing the stone but also hiding Hempton's Jar of Quiet Thoughts—"the world's only collection depository of quiet literature both written and read only here at the Hoh Valley"—and scattering its contents across the forest floor. Other detractors send him scathing hate mail, labeling him an "environmental wacko" and a "nature nut."
Hempton claims the taunts don't bother him. If he's ever stressed, he can always run to his "getaway" property in Joyce, west of Port Angeles, where he ripped out all the plumbing to "keep things simple." Potable water is collected from the sky. All that's needed for a warm bath are some burning logs under the claw-foot tub down by the creek. It's nice, he says. Peaceful. And exactly the kind of environment he thinks his critics could benefit from. "Sounds like they need a quiet place," he says.
Naturally quiet places, however, are becoming more difficult to find. More than 80 percent of the land in America is within two-thirds of a mile of a road. As of 2010, there were more than 10 million annual flights.
There have been legislative efforts beyond ATMA to protect silence, with varying levels of success. In a 2007 meeting with Hempton, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell posed for a picture holding the symbolic red stone that marks One Square Inch. What's more, three years later she introduced the Silence Helps Us Hear Act, directing the Department of the Interior to identify the quietest places in parks and devise a plan to preserve them, noting that aviation noise "degrades natural soundscapes." The bill, however, failed, and Cantwell's representatives are vague—"Senator Cantwell will continue to look at balanced ways to protect the wilderness experience . . . "—when asked if she'll introduce it again.
Frustrated by ATMA's ineffectiveness, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden recently sponsored an amendment granting the Park Service authority to ban air-tour flyovers above his state's Crater Lake National Park. The amendment passed in February, marking the first successful attempt of its kind. Rather than maintaining the dual veto authority that's handcuffed ATMA for a dozen years, Wyden's amendment streamlines the process by allowing the Park Service to determine how many, if any, flight tours will be allowed at Crater Lake, while the FAA's role has been reduced to ensuring flight safety.
For proponents of natural quiet, it's a promising start. But there's a catch: Even in parks where the Park Service is given more authority, there's no guarantee air tours will be banned. And, according to Hempton, even if all commercial tours were to halt immediately, it wouldn't save quiet, because in his view there's still a fundamental flaw in the way natural soundscapes are managed.
In 2008, the Park Service entered into the Federal Register the intent to regulate aircraft below 18,000 feet (and therefore disregard flights at high altitudes), leaving commercial aircraft free to pass over national parks unregulated. Yet despite their tremendous distance from the ground, passenger jets can still be heard. One of the quirks of sound is that it increases exponentially, which means that for every three-decibel increase, the acoustic energy doubles. In Olympic National Park, where the voice of the wilderness is 37 decibels, the aircraft rumble Hempton measured at 55 decibels has an acoustic energy 64 times greater than that of the natural soundscape.
For Hempton, ATMA is, at best, only a starting point, a gateway to stricter regulation in places of exceptional sonic beauty. His ultimate hope? The creation of a "National Quiet Places System," federal legislation that would designate no-fly zones over select national parks. And, Hempton suggests, it should begin with One Square Inch of Silence.
"Not only is [Olympic National Park] the least noise-polluted park in the United States, but also it's the most sonically diverse," he says. It's why when he visits the Hoh Valley he brings a decibel reader, a pen, and a notepad and records any noise intrusions. Later he sends the responsible airline a letter asking it to circumvent the Hoh Valley. Dozens of letters have been sent to little effect. And when he does receive a response, it usually amounts to a written shrug. The lone glimmer of hope: Alaska Airlines voluntarily agreed to discontinue unscheduled maintenance flights over the park.
Trevino is skeptical of One Square Inch as a management strategy. She points out that the Park Service has to think about more than just the concerns of one advocate. "I think Gordon's [interest] is a little bit more narrow in focus, and we don't really have that luxury," she says.
The FAA's own research has also thrown some cold water on Hempton's ambitious plans. When it hired a contractor to look into the possibility of routing flight paths around Grand Canyon National Park, a simulation showed that "instituting such a concept would have a serious and detrimental effect on the air traffic control system," to say nothing of the "significant cost" to aircraft operators.
Hempton, not surprisingly, doesn't buy it. He argues that the cost of avoiding Olympic National Park would amount to less than one minute of travel time and one dollar per passenger in added expenses—perhaps failing to acknowledge the razor-thin financial margins of the airline industry, where bankruptcy is the norm, not the exception. Still, from Hempton's perspective it's more about the hassle than the expense; he notes that in 2007 the Air Transport Association estimated that every minute of flight delay adds only $65.80.
"The last flight that I've taken, we spent an extra 10 minutes waiting for baggage and more than 20 minutes waiting for our third beverage cart," he says. "Avoiding our national parks is an insignificant cost."
Around 11 a.m., we reach the parking lot of the Hoh River Trailhead. Though the sun peeks through the low-hanging clouds, the air still feels moist. Armed with jackets, bottles of water, snacks, and Hempton's umbrellas in case of rain, we step onto the trail and are immediately enveloped in a multihued world of green—lime, spring, apple, olive, forest, shamrock, harlequin. Trees and logs are coated with moss. The leaves of ferns conceal boulders and hang over narrow creeks. Hempton says soundscapes are as intricately textured; it's just that their subtleties go largely unnoticed.
As the sun rises in South Africa's Kalahari Desert, for example, the first sound you hear is the thrumming of millions of insects shaking the night's dew off their wings and taking flight. Only then do the birds begin chirping. Closer to home, at Olympic National Park's Rialto Beach, he says the ocean waves send up "acoustic energy" to the driftwood logs of Sitka spruce, which causes them to vibrate, humming deep harmonic tones similar to those of bowed instruments.
Nearing our destination, the rain forest is remarkably quiet. To someone who spends most of his time in cities, it seems almost unnaturally quiet. Hempton and I are the only two hiking the trail; we hear no noise from maintenance crews or the whirring of distant road traffic. Every 15 to 30 minutes, a commercial aircraft drones above, but the spaces between are serene.
A few feet off the trail, we pass through a natural arch in a stilted spruce. We then wade through a shallow mud bog, wind around dead logs, and pass under more Sitkas, some of which tower 250 feet into the sky above us, until finally we reach the clearing.
The instant we arrive, a commercial jet passes overhead. It's 1:44 p.m. on Thursday. We've hiked more than two hours to reach this spot, anxiously anticipating the opportunity to experience this unique sonic setting—but not two minutes later, there's another one (1:46), and another (1:49), and still more (1:55, 2:09, 2:13, 2:20, 2:23).
And this is supposed to be the quietest place in the United States.
Hempton shakes his head, the picture of disappointment. Then finally, after 45 minutes of nearly continual interruptions, we're treated to an hour of natural silence.
A light wind whispers softly and then dissipates. Songbirds twitter by, soaring from branch to branch. Raindrops fall from the Sitkas and patter into puddles below. The silence calls to mind a saying: Quiet is not the absence of sound, but the presence of the world in its natural state.
Then another one, this one Hempton's: "Quiet is quieting." He's absolutely right.