Image: Big Bend
Ed Darack  /  Science Faction / Corbis
Big Bend is a kind of acoustic greatest hits record. Because the park, located in southwest Texas, has such a diverse landscape — mountains, deserts, river, with more species of birds, bats and cactus than any other park in the country — only a few minute's change in location can dramatically change what you hear.
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updated 10/6/2009 9:28:50 AM ET 2009-10-06T13:28:50

Spend a day walking the downtown streets of almost any city, and odds are, you’ve just gone over the government’s safety recommendations for exposure to noise. We are everywhere blasted by sound: traffic, construction, passing radios, the blare of TVs, and the constant ring of cell phones not quite drowning out the sound of airplanes passing overhead.

The problem is, noise has been proven to raise stress levels, can potentially cause heart and immune system problems, and raise blood pressure. Some studies even show noise can alter brain chemistry in less than fun ways.

According to Dr. Cheryl Fraser, registered psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, “Our psychology and physiology are not designed to keep up with the hyper pace and sound of our 24/7, multi-tasking, multiple input modern world.”

The simple truth is, that ringing noise in your ears shouldn’t be there.

So what can you do about it? Escape into the quiet. Around the world remain places that are surprisingly accessible where the constant din of civilization simply drops away.

No, we’re not talking about complete silence; that can actually drive you insane. “I heard two sounds,” wrote composer John Cage of his time in an anechoic chamber, a room completely free of outside noise, “one high and one low.” When he asked the engineer in charge what was going on, the man said, “The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.”

Who wants to hear that?

Image: Yap
Bob Krist  /  Corbis
Once you get past the fun of just saying te place's name — Yap — this Pacific island (take a left at Guam) might just be paradise. It's a jungle island with endless coastline, mangrove swamps where giant fruit bats play, and under water, manta rays with 10-foot wingspans glide without a sound.

So what we really need is not a complete absence of sound, but to be in places that sound the way the world did before we came in with our engines, iPods and leaf blowers. To be in places where the world sounds like it did before we started making all this noise.

Gordon Hempton, a Grammy-winning natural sounds recording artist, says, “one thing that’s certain is that quiet used to be as common as clean air and pure water, and it was part of the everyday environment of our ancestors, and today it’s extremely scarce.”

But quiet is still out there, ready to be found.

Go far enough in the middle of nowhere, of course, and things get pretty quiet. No real challenge there, although some places you expect to be quiet really aren’t, such as much of the Arctic, which suffers from tremendous noise of airplanes on the polar route. However the deep boonies do offer plenty of option: the Pacific island of Yap and Africa’s Kalihari Desert, for example, are both almost entirely free of human-created sound, as well as being startlingly beautiful. These places whisper like the last words of a bedtime story.

More challenging is to find real quiet without launching a major expedition to the boonies. Washington State’s Hoh Valley is only a couple hours from Seattle, but in a corner of the state that few people visit, so as soon as you walk over the ridge from a road, it’s like having the world to yourself. Muir Woods is just minutes from San Francisco, yet once you’re under the shelter of the trees, the world once again begins to sound like it did before we discovered the fun of loudspeakers. Anzo-Borrego State Park is an easy drive from Los Angeles, San Diego or Phoenix, but as one of the largest protected areas in the continental United States, peace and quiet lie in every fold of the mountains that look like dinosaur skin.

It can be a lot harder to find genuine quiet near a city. But that doesn’t mean city dwellers are forever stuck, fingers in their ears, trying to block out the roar. Even a short walk into Central Park shows how quickly noise can be absorbed by forest and space. Asolo is an easy trip outside of Venice, but with fewer people in the entire town than the amount wandering through St. Mark’s Plaza on a slow day.

Image: Troll Ladder, Norway
David Robertson  /  Alamy
Roads tend to be noisy places. Engines and wheels are not at all kind to the soundscape. But the Troll Ladder has something very few roads do: a soundtrack.

However, all that said, sometimes, even noisy can be quiet. Victoria Falls — or, as the locals call it, Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders (mist from the falls rises more than a thousand feet), is louder than a jet taking off. As Patricia Schultz, author of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” says, the falls are a “raw, massive, pounding curtain of water — but it is the sound that is profoundly exhilarating. One is immersed in spray and the pure power of nature in the extreme.” The sound of the falls simply leaves no room to hear anything else.

Not too long ago, quiet was as much a part of the landscape as concrete is now. But the quiet places are still essential. Dr. Fraser points out, “Placing ourselves somewhere quiet feels ... right. Natural. As the man-made cacophony subsides, we find ourselves in nature, attending to the gentle vocalizations of the numinous. We clear the channels and can dial in to the broadcasts of our soul.”

Who knows what you might think when you’re somewhere quiet enough to think? Who knows what you might hear?

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