August 16, 2012, Nighttime Below Zoroaster Temple, Grand Canyon
We can hear the footfalls of a millipede next to our tent. Six miles to the southwest we also hear the clattering of ceramic plates and the clinking of wine glasses. People are laughing. The atmosphere carries almost no moisture here, but still brings these voices across the great canyon, the Grand Canyon.
My son and I sit absolutely still, listening, tuning our ears to the voices, straining to hear individual words. But six miles is too far for single words to remain single. They mix and overlap by the time they reach us—a half minute after they are spoken. There is no wind here, but the voices fade, as though carried off to another quarter of this desert.
We’ve found flat ground in this margin between canyon rim and canyon floor. The Colorado River moves far below us. But we haven’t seen the river or another hiker since we left the main trail two days ago.
I’ve never known so much quiet. Awe-inspiring quiet. I wonder for a moment if I put my ear to the ground, if I will hear the rumbling of the earth’s molten core, or at least feel the pulsing river so far below us. I’ve heard my heartbeat in my own ears before—in a snowy canyon, on a midwinter night. But this is a more profound quiet, and I can hear my heartbeat, not in my ears, but through my chest, resonating against the rocks around us.
A giant cricket emerges, with antennae twice the length of her body. She waves them up and down, testing the night air. My son and I remain still. She looks into the light of our headlamps. She can see us, no doubt. But she can also hear us. Breathing. Maybe she hears the rush of blood in our feet. She wanders to the edge of the light and disappears into the night. We can hear her footfalls too, and the rasping of her swollen abdomen and ovipositors dragging on the sand.
In our tent, our conversation turns to desert creatures—to millipedes and crickets and ringtails and chupacabras. We laugh at this last one. But I dreamt of one only last night. I was terrified in the dark and confusing moments between dreaming and waking. We rename our trail The Trail of Chupacabra.
There are no other sounds here to distract me, and I find myself listening to my son more intently than ever before. I listen to more than his voice. I listen to the intonation, to the subtle rise and fall of each word. His pitch feels strained. His voice cracks.
I’m not sure I would have heard this anywhere else. The background noise of any other place might have masked this signal, this breaking, this change.
He’s thirteen years old. He tells me about school, which starts in two weeks. Eighth grade. The last year of middle school. I listen more closely. He says he’s glad to have only one more year in middle school, that he’s ready for high school.
The sky is moonless, and through the mosquito-net ceiling of our tent I can see the glow of the Milky Way. I see more stars than I have ever seen before. Anywhere. A bright planet hangs in the western sky. Probably Venus. Another planet rises in the southeast. I close my eyes and listen to my son. The cadence of his words spreads and slows. He’s falling asleep and trying to talk. Soon he is quiet. I hear only his breathing.
I open my eyes again, turning my attention from sound to sight. A satellite traces a faint path across the ink-black sky. Then it disappears in the earth’s shadow.
Words start going through my head. I’m looking for one in particular—to describe how I want to listen to my son. I’m wide awake now, looking for a word. An adverb.
Attentively. I could listen attentively. But that’s not quite right. My attention might drift.
Diligently. But I might become weary of diligence.
Earnestly. Too heavy. No room for laughter.
Thoughtfully. Too narrow. Listening requires more than thought.
Zealously. Feels short-lived. Zealots. Fanatics. They always give up or perish.
Untiringly. Idealistic. We all tire. I might even give up.
Carefully. Carefully feels almost right. Full of care. I’m getting closer.
Loudly. Sound touches everything in its path, and sound’s path is a sphere. If something is done loudly, nothing escapes its influence. Scientists have boiled water with sound.
Loudly. I’ll listen loudly.
A hundred miles to the north and west, in another desert canyon, I have listened this way. Loudly. That other canyon was host to wrens and katydids and squirrels—all calling, chirping, chattering. But hiding in the back row of that disparate orchestra sat a timid percussionist, a tiny frog, softly tapping on a pair of congas, on my ear drums. He flattened his palms on the tightly stretched skins, and kept a slow, steady beat. Quiet, yet unmistakable. So I listened. Loudly.
I thought I would move closer. But he was shy, and he stopped when he knew my attention was entirely on him. I went back to my shaded rock and lay quietly. Listening. Loudly.
He began again. I didn’t move. The other sounds were still there: the descending call of the wren, the raspy chirp-chirp-chirp of the katydid, the chatter of the squirrel. But it was the frog I wanted to hear most. So I listened loudly and didn’t move.
He found me and wasn’t afraid this time. He pulled the congas closer into his body and began banging harder—pounding away, until I could hear only him, until he knew I could hear nothing else.
Now, in this dark canyon, the stars cast enough light that I can see the giant tower of the Zoroaster Temple above us. I can see the black horizon of the south rim, six miles away. No more sounds come to us from that direction. No sounds come from any direction.
I need to sleep now. I need to rest. It’s ten o’clock. We’ll be up and on the trail in five hours—headlamps burning—long before the sun catches us away from water.
My son will be awake then.
He’ll have things to say, to share. He may share something I don’t immediately understand. I might not grasp what he tries to tell me.
I need to sleep now. I’ll need all my energy to hear him, to listen—to make sure I understand him. I’m going to listen to him. Loudly.