Leaving the experiences of Yellowstone and its’ later twin Pike Place behind, Dusty and I turned our RV towards the Pacific coast of Washington State. We were needing the solitude of the forest, the serenity of the ocean and the caffeinated high of Washington style coffee.
We were not disappointed. As we drove into the Olympic National Park, giant dark trees with moss climbing up their trunks towered over us with their canopy of deep green leaves. Low hanging branches dripping with stringy, hairy moss cradled the deserted road where we traveled and blocked the sun to give the forest a magical, dim glow. I couldn’t decide if we had entered someone’s Secret Garden, the Dark Forest at Hogwarts in Harry Potter or a rainforest where any minute a monkey would shriek out our arrival. But we were met with silence. The racketing sounds of various instruments clunking in the RV as we drove along were the only noises and they echoed off the ravine walls and dense forestry, giving way to the small waterfalls that appeared every now and again. But these sounds too were swallowed in the thick mist of silence of the forest.
We parked at Staircase campground, a secluded spot along a small river deep inside the southeast corner of Olympic Park. We could faintly hear the other campers in their camp sites scattered around, but the steep embankments that surrounded each site gave a rare privacy not normally seen in public campgrounds. The thick air seemed to swallow the sounds of tents rustling, cook wear washing and the twinkling jingle of light conversation around us.
There was a time in my life when silence unnerved me. I felt a responsibility to fill any gap in a conversation or to divert attention away from an awkward silence. A fear would seize me in those moments of silence, where I anxiously thought that the silence was brought on by my uninteresting self and my fault. I fled from yoga, meditation, moments of reflection or even the silent pray time at church.
But something changed while we were stationed in Europe. While traveling in Spain, Portugal and Italy, I would notice the young and the old sitting around tables at a café or in the benches in front of fountains gazing at something in the distance. Sometimes their eyes would lazily wander of the crowds in front of them and occasionally these eyes would close and I’d hear a satisfied, slow sigh. These quiet ones along the peripheral of the densely populated tourist cities of Europe struck me as one of the more unusual things I had seen. In the United States, the only people I remember seeing being stationary in the cities were either homeless, elderly or made of marble. “Why aren’t they doing anything,” I wondered to myself. “Aren’t they going to be late for something? They’re just sitting there, wasting time.” I mentally dismissed these quiet curiosities as lazy and, feeling superior and self-important, I carried on my trek.
How wrong, judgmental, sanctimonious and ignorant of me. These gazers, sighers and quiet examples of strength sitting in the edges of my selfie photos in front of World Heritage tourist sites were investing in a practice so foreign to me and so crucial to happiness. They were practicing being silent and relishing in the happiness that silence can bring.
Back in Washington, the thick canopy of the trees and cradling rock ravines towering on either side of the road in Olympic National Park forced upon its’ inhabitants a quiet stillness that no human could break. I could sit on the edge of the river below me, nearly as still as a lake, and yell out to the wind but the sounds would simply ricochet around the rock walls and fade away. The park was intent on keeping its’ sanctuary as free from human sound as possible and as we set up camp for the day and hiked in the woods, I surrendered to its’ silent will. I shut my mouth and tried to simply be. I had taken enough meditation and yoga classes just to accompany friends in the past to know you always try to start with focusing on the breath.
There have been so many conversations over the years between Dusty and myself or with friends that claim a desire to find contentment in a slower life. “Yeah, at the next duty station we’ll be able to slow down and take it easy,” we’d assure our friends, who would respond with an agreeing “You should try to meditate, I read about how healthy it is for you. But who has the time, really? There are so many things to do in a day!”. And given the opportunity to learn how to be still and be happy with moving slowly, I’d push down the gas pedal and promise to go slower in the next chapter of life. Military assignments at different posts required fast decisions and rapid movements. Traveling called for cramming in as many sites and photos in the available hours as possible. Being silent and moving quiet equated with not keeping up, not being good enough. There was never a real desire to slow down because that meant letting go of another opportunity to move on to what always seemed to be greener pastures.
Sitting on the bridge by the river in our campground in Olympic Park, I let my eyes become unfocused on the slowly moving water and breathed in crisp air. Unsurprisingly, my timid but unrelenting friend Doubt whispered in my ear as he moved in close to my shoulder. “You’re missing seeing the trail behind you. This isn’t going to do anything for you, you’re not good at this and you can’t learn how to get better,” he malevolently said. I tried to shrug him off and concentrate on breathing, but I could feel his tight grip in my mind. Ready for a fight, I imagined my breathing as a dragon, with flames of passion and when I exhaled my next breath I visualized the flames coming from my mouth to chase away the scampering, simpering Doubt. But then the flames blew into an oven in my mind and in the oven cooked what had to be brownies and then I forgot what I was doing on the bridge in the first place and when was the last time I had a brownie.
Muttering to myself to stay focused, I quietly continued to breath a few more breaths and but again got lost pondering the curious relationship between a dog and an elephant I had seen online after searching for the meditation recipes that dominating Pinterest and Instagram. Frustrated I had lost focus again, I reminded myself sternly that I was supposed to be finding contentment and following in the footsteps of all the yogis I’d seen smiling serenely on Pinterest. I could hear Doubt laughing on my shoulder. “What a jerk,” I thought to myself. And then I realized something.
I didn’t need to be good at this now. I didn’t need to make this happen today, this trip, this year. I’ll know when I’m ready to understand how to be silent. Maybe it’s more important to appreciate each step in this journey of learning how to find contentment in simply being than it is to have mastered this on the first day.
I heard the gravel crunch as Dusty walked towards me. “The next campsite is further north, near the beach. Ready to go?”, he asked. I refocused my eyes on the stringy moss wrapping around the trunk of the tree next to me. “No, I’m not,” I answered slowly, with a smile. “Let’s stay here a little longer”.