Riding through soundscapes

- March 6th, 2019 by Julie -  

One of the reasons I left home was to be able to hear myself. My brain often felt like it was in overdrive, but it was in the moments when I wasn't using it that I felt most alive, happy, and even wise. Those moments were usually when I was outdoors, climbing, biking, or skiing. 

Eventually I started to see that thoughts and ideas - especially the ones the strangers of the internet were touting - were not going to give me the answers I was looking for. I knew I needed to hear the instructions my intuition was whispering to me, rather than what I was hearing through the social media loudspeakers.

And that was one of several reasons to go to Alaska to practice a simpler way of life for a time, out of range of other people's advice and wishes for my life. However, even after a few months of biking across some of the wilder, quieter landscapes of the world - Alaska, Canada, and the Rocky Mountains - I was still trying to tune the world out and tune in to myself. 

As I finalize this blog post months after having started it, I am now in another state of mind where I see this differently - and I expect that will be the subject of another blog post soon. But in the spirit of documenting my experience and learning as it came about, below are some reflections I developed as I started to notice what I was and wasn't hearing and reflected on whether the trip had been helping me to listen to my gut instinct.

Soundscape spheres and humming bikes

I often had a sense that I experienced the world and myself in a series of nested spheres, like Russian dolls - the innermost one theoretically being my own thoughts, but it is not always easy to stay tuned to the right frequency; volume must not be proportional to proximity.

One of the first spheres I was able to reliably tune into while riding every day was the sound of my bike. I learned to recognize and relish the sounds of my bike, a delicate machine in comparison to the whining zooms of cars, campervans and trucks.

Now, the purr of knobbly tires on pavement is not just an indicator of forward motion, but also the gentlest massage you can imagine but only experience if you have ridden for days on rough and rocky trails.

Now, I savour the hum of my freshly oiled chain spinning around the drive train on a frosty morning.

Now, I wince when an accumulation of muddy kilometers leads to cogs crunching over grit.

Muddy cogs
Muddy Dalton Highway, Alaska 2018

Sounds of silent beauty

I continued to listen, casting my hearing net wide.

In Alaska I learned that some of the most vivid and beautiful experiences make no sound - like a caribou running alongside us in an Arctic mist. One morning as we pedaled down the empty road across the tundra both of us noticed a brown shape moving in the distance, and as we approached, so did he, running towards the road and then parallel to us. He followed along as though he had thought we were a member of his missing herd - or just wanted to see what these wheeled creatures were.

I also experienced the momentary deafness that accompanies the pumping of adrenaline through one's veins when a bear roams the tundra within shouting distance. The only clear sound, indeed the clearest sensation in that moment I first saw a grizzly bear was my heart beating in my chest.

I had never heard the silent sound of beauty so vividly.

Caribou, Alaska, 2018
Bull Moose drinks from Wonder Lake, Alaska

Sounds that strip away comfort

It was not all rainbows and grizzly bears though: I still didn't feel any closer to "my truth" or my gut instinct. What I felt was hunger and aching muscles - and at times, fear.

Even out in remote Alaska, far from (almost) everything, some modern sounds pierced through. When trying to meditate on my pedal strokes or think clearly about anything, if a fast car or giant many-wheeled truck roared around a corner, engine brakes burping, then some kind of auditory osmosis would suck my attention out of my head and splatter it around me like mud.  

Confronted with these ungainly monsters fighting the pull of the downward slope, their groaning sounds held my gaze and tightened my grip on the handlebars. In those moments sound was not a wavelength but a muscular contraction holding eyes and knuckles in place.

Sounds that blanket us

Ironically, for much of the beginning of the trip, everything was going too well and the world was too beautiful for me to hear myself think. I was simply enthralled. Beautiful moments didn't just take my breath away, they silenced my thoughts. Mountain ranges, bears, eagles, musk oxen and stunning skies rushed toward me with such intensity that there was simply no space in which to slow down and take it all in.

Of course, the reality is that we were also too tired, too hungry and too preoccupied with the logistics of camping in places with very large predators roaming about to go beyond oohing and awwing at profound moments of joy, like a cup of tea at the end of the day.

Julie prepares dinner, Alaska 2018
Camping on the tundra, Alaska, 2018

So it was with some dismay that I noticed on one of our first rainy days that I was finally able to focus my attention. From then on I realized that the sound of rain would reliably send me inward - for better or worse.

When rain drops land on a tent with a resonant twang, the initial droplets turn the tent into a drumskin while they fall slowly enough to be singled out, but as they accumulate they pitter patter for a brief moment, and soon become a cacophony of droplets foreboding dampness. If we awoke to the sound of the sky attacking the sanctuary of our shelter I would listen for the rustle and zip of sleeping bag fabric to signal a mutual understanding that we would wait for the silence of a clear sky to coax us out of our cocoons. And while I lay there, I would finally be able to let my attention rest inside my head.

Julie on the Denali Highway, Alaska 2018

Silence that speaks volumes

Despite how it may sound, to beauty I joyfully concede all willpower to resist temporary deafness. When an awesome view silences my mind, draws my soul out into the world and lets it grow as big as the space between the mountains and me, I surrender.

Words are what I am used to processing. But words are not always enough to give me answers. This transcendence into sensing is the positive kind of non-listening that feels at once simpler and more sophisticated than a one-to-one transcription of sounds into thoughts or words.

So while I continue to strain to "listen to my heart" I will keep listening to soundscapes near and far.

Sunset on the Alaska Range, seen from our camp on the Denali Highway, July 2018 (Copyright Julie Griffin 2018)

Sunset on the Alaska Range, seen from our camp on the Denali Highway, July 2018

  • This is beautiful, Julie! Sounds are such an important part of the outdoor life for me too – wind, water, wildlife, wheels on the ground.
    All the best, Dan

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