Enjoy The Silence: The Inaudible Wonders Of The Carrizo Plain

Golden brown yet quiet, the Carrizo Plain is a refuge of powerful silence | Photo: Elson Trinidad

I love noise. From the banging of drums to the thunderous roar of a crowd to the forceful rumble of a train, I dig it all. I'm a city boy, there are noises all around me. I even keep a collection of noises I've recorded in my travels, from the clanging bells of cable cars in San Francisco to the percussive beeps of crosswalk signals in Sydney.

I love noise. Or at least, I thought I did.

The Carrizo Plain National Monument in Central California is best known as a springtime wildflower paradise, with fields and hillsides blanketed in an array of colors. But for most of the year, the 250,000-acre valley, located halfway between Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo, sports an arid, golden brown look.

That was good enough for me to satisfy my taste for exploration on one opportune Friday afternoon last summer, when I suddenly felt compelled to dash up the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley, and head west on State Route 58, past the dusty oil towns of Buttonwillow and McKittrick, and climb over the rolling hills of the Temblor Range to this seemingly hidden part of the Golden State that I've never ventured to before.

Turning south on Soda Lake Road, past the controversial solar farms, I headed toward the Plain's nexus, the 3,000-acre Soda Lake dry lake bed, an alkaline wetland covered by a layer of salt which glistens in the sun.

I drove off the pavement into a short stretch of dirt road to take a closer look at the exotic-looking salt-encrusted tributaries just south of the lake bed. With music still pumping in my car stereo, I pulled over, turned the engine off, and stepped outside. Suddenly, I heard something wonderful, something powerful:


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Cliche pin-drop idioms would have been appropriate descriptions for that moment, but it was not a silence borne out of awkwardness or fear, but rather a thing of pure beauty.

Sure, it wasn't an absolute silence -- the occasional wind can be heard and felt, a welcome sensation on this 90-plus-degree day on the Carrizo Plain. And the occasional calls of birds and coyotes could be heard in the distance, as if their presence was heard not only to let one know that they're far from civilization, but to assure one's ears that this grand and majestic silence was not the effect of deafness.

Even at its quietest, the big city is still relatively noisy. The cumulative cacophony of millions of cars on the freeway, trucks on the road, helicopters in the sky, construction vehicles on sites, all form part of the urban mashup of muted white noise, known as the roar of the city. Whether you're in a suburban housing tract or in a downtown L.A. loft, the roar is an omnipresent ambience, heard 24 hours a day.

But here on the Carrizo Plain, buffered by mountains and distance, the great urban lion has been hushed. My nostalgia for noise was suddenly supplanted by my savor for silence.

Having moved on to a scenic overlook near the west side of the lake bed, I suddenly realized that I hadn't seen -- nor heard -- another vehicle in quite a while. I relished the thought of suddenly having this wonderful place all to myself. It was so quiet, I could detect a vehicle from a considerable distance. But for the rest of the evening, I heard no such sound.

The salt-encrusted alkaline lake bed of the Carrizo Plain's Soda Lake | Photo: Elson Trinidad

I stuck around and hiked to the lake bed, where I dared to tread on the salt-encrusted surface, as others have, judging by their tracks. It was surprisingly muddy underneath the salt layer, but navigable if one treaded slowly and carefully. I even carefully laid down on my back on the surface. Aside from the initial sound of cracking salt, The Grand Silence remained. I walked back onshore and took a stroll on the constructed boardwalk, which was constructed from the recycled plastic of milk bottles. I hung out at the end and watched the sun set over the Caliente Mountains. Still silent, still serene, still solitary.

The moon hangs over the Carrizo Plain at dusk | Photo: Elson Trinidad

As darkness fell, I headed south on the dirt roads that led me to Highway 166, and back on the I-5 to return home. I met up with some friends for dinner that night and told them about my inaudible adventure. But one of them, after seeing my pictures of Soda Lake, and thinking it resembled the salt flats of Bonneville, seemed more interested in setting out a film crew there and driving his truck on the lake bed, to my chagrin.

Perhaps appreciating natural silence is an acquired taste. But this past April I took my parents to the nearby Wind Wolves Preserve, and realizing there was still some daylight left, took a side trip to the Carrizo Plain, where they did seem to appreciate the silence, as well as the sight of the San Andreas Fault, a kit fox, the sunset, and whatever scant trace of wildflowers remained.

My personal discovery of natural silence was a life-changing experience, a reminder that I don't just belong to the artificial, man-made world, but to the natural world as well. Natural silence not only has a calming effect, but it seems to strengthen your soul afterward. It also led me to seek out other places that offered the same kind of experience. So far, the Plain has only been matched by the Owens Valley.

So don't "Bring The Noise." My personal quest for quiet continues.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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