Be prepared

The Music of the Spheres

A question that rarely comes up anymore is: should I carry a radio? Or an MP3? Or an I-pod? But some time ago, a relatively new hiker asked the question. And this was "my" answer:

I wouldn't object to you carrying a radio on the trail - but I'd object to "me" carrying one. As you can tell - this is a "different" viewpoint. Neither Ginny nor I have ever carried one. Nor are we likely ever to do so. So - why don't I do it - or recommend it?

Well - for starters, many people use them to hike with. One of the problems with that is that you don't hear the wildlife - and for some of us, that's one of the major things we're out there for. More than that - the wildlife DOES hear you. No matter how low you keep the volume - if you can hear it, so can a bear at 300 yards. And then some people wonder why they never see wildlife.

Not hearing the wildlife can have another negative side - on the AT, you "might" run across a rattlesnake every once in a while. How well are you gonna hear that snake if you're listening to the radio - or CD player - or whatever? Now admittedly, there aren't a whole lot of rattlesnakes left on the AT anymore - most of them have been killed off. But then - Ginny saw at least four rattlers last time she thruhiked the AT. Funny thing is that the "loud" ones were the first to be killed - so the ones that are left are the "quiet" ones.

On other trails it's different - on the CDT, there are few snakes - but on the PCT, we saw bunches of them. I wouldn't want to hike southern California with my ears plugged into anything but the trail. And on the CDT, if we'd been listening to a radio, we'd never have seen the herd of several hundred elk on Snow Mesa - or the herd near San Juan Pass - cause they'd have heard us coming - and been long gone before we got there.

Oh - you think they wouldn't hear your little radio? Uh huh - sure - why do you think they have those big ears? We've watched a herd of 400 elk wheel, split and run when Ginny whispered to me - and they were well over a mile away.

Anyway - the main reason we don't use a radio - is because when we go hiking - we just don't WANT to know what's happening in the "world". We don't need to know who's doing what to whom - or what the politicians are beating each other up about - or how many people the Palestinians or Afghans or Iraqis or Liberians are killing. If it's important, we'll find out soon enough.

Oh - you say you'll miss your music? Really? Hmmm -

Let me tell you about "my" music. Sometimes we camp near a stream - have you ever listened to the music of a stream? Have you ever heard the constant bass of the cavitation through the rocks, with the voices in the background singing tunes that you can never quite catch the words to? Sometimes your symphony will be punctuated by the cry of an owl. If you're lucky - very lucky, you might hear the scream of a hunting bobcat. How about the eerie cry of the loons in Maine? Or the constant singing of the warblers all the way up the AT? Even the sometimes constant irritation of the Whipoorwills is music to me.

And if you stay in shelters, you can be entertained by the scurrying of the mice through the shelter rafters - or maybe watch them as they singlemindedly go after your food bag. Or maybe you'll hear the music of the soft swishing steps of the skunks as they're chasing the mice.

I know - some people think "hiking" is boring. Well - why don't they go home then? I've never found hiking to be boring - did you know there's a rhythm to walking? And it produces its own music --- the swish of your clothing, the creak of the pack, the slap of a boot on the ground - the scraping of the vegetation as you go by. And then it starts raining - and there's the tap, tap of the rain on your hood and pack. And when it rains harder there's the hiss of the rain through the woods, and the sploosh, schloop of your boots hitting the water and then sucking their way out of the mud. Did you know that there are different sounds made by different kinds of rain? Have you heard the soft susurrant sliding of wet snow off the conifers - or the hiss of softly falling sleet?

On the PCT one day we followed a herd of cows for miles - and laughed as we listened to their panicked lowing. Another day, we found 3 completely different kinds of rattlesnakes within 10 minutes. Another day, we listened to the whistling of the marmots as we navigated through heavy fog and snow.

On the CDT, we were serenaded to sleep by the coyotes every night. One night we listened to the elk bugling on one side of the tent and the answering cries of the coyotes on the other side. Have you ever heard the cough of an angry deer - or the bark of a grizzly whose territory has been violated? And it took us a while to identify the cry of the flocks of sand cranes in southern Montana. I miss that music.

In Canada, deep in the night, the wolves were singing to me at a campsite on Mt Robson, after a couple mule deer had tiptoed through our camp. And the next morning we were again berated by a marmot as we invaded his territory.

And I haven't even touched on the myriad sounds of the wind, have I?

That's "my" music. I don't need The Dead - or Britney - or Kenny Chesney - or Yoyo Ma when I'm on the trail. No, I have a constant symphony of Mama Nature's sounds. Sounds that most people never hear. Sounds that some would blot out or ignore. Sounds that, for me, make life worth living. This is the music that "I" love. And why I don't, and won't, carry artificial noise with me on the trail.

Afterward, that hiker came back to me and said:

"Well, I didn't say anything about what you were talking about. I just wanted to know if I could use it for those nights when my insomnia kicks in."

And my answer was:

Sure you did - you asked a question. Specifically, you asked - "Oh, you mean I can take a radio on the Trail and nobody will beat up on me about it?" I know - you didn't say those exact words, but that's what you asked.

And the answer has 8 parts -

  1. Yep - you CAN take as many radios as you want to carry.
  2. Nope - somebody (not me), somewhere, sometime, somehow will object to your radio even if they can't see or hear it. And you CAN cheerfully and with great enthusiasm, tell them where to stick their attitude and objections - sideways. Ears are appropriate - or maybe noses.
  3. If you're thruhiking - and doing the miles - you likely won't have an insomnia problem.
  4. Without the insomnia problem, the radio then becomes dead weight - unless you start to use it in other ways. (as an anchor maybe?)
  5. Even if you do manage to hang onto the insomnia problem - there are better things to do with your time and life than listen to someone else living "their" life. The night is alive with sights and sounds that you'll never see or hear anywhere else - it's part of your hike. Why would you want to miss that?
  6. The intrusion of a radio - even if only under the circumstances you define - ties you mentally and emotionally to a world that has nothing to do with the Trail. My attitude is - I'm out there for the Trail - not to stay tied to a world that I don't - and don't want to - and, in fact, can't - live in at that moment in time. The Trail is a "present moment" world - radios, cell phones, etc. break that "present moment" mental state, thereby diminishing the experience. Although some people never even notice what they've missed.
  7. For the above reasons, carrying a radio is no less an intrusion on a thruhike than carrying a cell phone or GPS. And it will diminish the thruhike. That's not a question, by the way. Ginny and I have watched it happen for the last 10 years to a lot of very nice people who thought they just "had" to be "connected" to the world. They were right - but they paid a price for that connection. They lost something - a part of the experience that they went out there to get. But it was "their" decision - and that's as it should be.
  8. You don't "have to" believe any of that. Many people don't. Nor is it any of my business if you believe it - or if you carry a radio - or a cell phone - or anything else. And if I meet you on the Trail and you're using it (for whatever reason) - I won't mention it - or probably even think much about it as long as you're not rude, crude and obnoxious about it. I don't expect you would be. A lot of people use them - it's their hike. Just as it's "your" hike. Enjoy it - anyway you want.
  9. Yeah - I know - I "lied" - this is #9. Last part is that I'm gonna have some people try to beat up on me about this. And the "beating up" could be fun (well - for me anyway). You see - the attitude in point #2 applies here.

Created: 06 Jan 2005
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
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