Hawai‘i’s quiet is a blessing of geography: Its fluted mountains act as baffles, and its coasts are a more effective sound barrier than the old Cone of Silence on Get Smart. Then stir in the sad truth of the loss of native species—the things that should be chirping and tweeting here—and you get a landscape built for silence. Hawai‘i has an abundance of spots that would be tempting to call acoustic dead zones if only they weren’t so beautiful and so musical in their very lack of sound. Maybe better to think of them as acoustic rest stops. “A wave is not even a wave until you have the pause between notes,” Gordon had said. “Residents may think that Hawai‘i is a noisy place, but at least there you have the pause between the notes. On the Mainland it’s just one loud explosion going on.”
Sound is measured in decibels (dbA), which take into consideration the hearer’s distance from the source of a sound; it’s a logarithmic scale, with each ten-dbA increase representing a doubling of volume. When I stop on the loose rocks of Halemau‘u’s switchbacks, my breath is around 10 dbA. When I mutter to myself that slipping would be a bad idea since a thousand-foot fall onto volcanic rocks would ruin my day, my voice is about 30 dbA. When a young couple hiking out stops to tell me about their nights in the crater (“except for the chukars”— partridges—“which sing all night long,” they say, “it’s extraordinarily peaceful”), they talk at the normal conversational level of 60 to70 dbA. In the horrifyingly noisy everyday world, a hair dryer can hit 95 dbA, a leaf blower 110. Some kids’ toys max out at 135 dbA—louder than an air raid siren or a plane at takeoff, loud enough to cause hearing damage after a single minute of exposure.
And so at a ridiculous hour of the morning, I lace up my hiking boots and head for the crater, hoping to hear what absolutely nothing sounds like. Not like the quiet I heard in the Gobi Desert, where the wind raked through fossils of dinosaur eggs. Not like I heard in the Yukon, where the clicking of caribou anklebones echoed over the tundra in a rhythm like that of sleigh bells. Not even like the quiet I’d heard at Kipuka Ki, where the silence felt like physical pressure, and I had to keep popping my ears as though I were on a descending airplane. Something deeper, something like what Gordon had described: a quiet so profound that sound isn’t audible at all; it’s only felt—a touch from the world. Up to now, though, the crater hasn’t been one bit quiet. Since I started down the Halemau‘u trail, I’ve been dogged by sounds: wind and, when the wind dies, the buzz of insects. Since I left the parking lot, I’ve wandered through patches of fern and silversword, lush grass and bee-haunted shrubs. Each hums, clicks, sighs: the music of a landscape noisy with life.
But then, maybe five miles and halfway across the crater bottom, the plants disappear, leaving only a barren landscape of black sand and rock, a horizon of cinder cones the color of sunset. I sit down to listen, to hear whether I’ve come far enough.