Ear plugs and motorcycles, contrary to many people’s opinion, go together like apple pie and ice cream. The noise generated by a combination of turbulent air from a motorcycle’s windshield and a helmet at highway speeds can be loud enough to fall into the “harmful” range. Especially so on a long day when one subjects himself to many hours of such noise. Clearly the design of a motorcycle’s front end, the design of the helmet and the speeds one is going to ride play a role, but for the most part, my personal modus operandi is to plug ‘em no matter what.
Of course I’ve used ear plugs for many other reasons as well. They come in handy at The Filmore when you’re crushed up against the stage at an Ozomatli show. They’re extra handy when you’ve paired up in a double-queen hotel room with your riding buddy who just happens to snore loud enough to shake loose the screwed-to-the-wall art. Yeah, we stay in high-end places. I use them at work in all kinds of situations, from close quarter work near the big diesel engines to the rotary hammers, chain saws, and hydraulic power units. But the last place I ever expected to put in the plugs was so I could get some sleep on the one of the quietest nights of my life.
One of my riding buddies Luke and I had been poking around Canada for only a few days of a long trip and we’d been turned around twice. Once by raging fires blowing across the Canadian countryside on this unusually hot summer, and once by raging glacial runoff, again, caused by the abnormal heat. Lucky for us, the last two nights had cooled down a bit and tonight, even some rain was expected.
Having changed plans again at a water crossing that had turned raging torrent we ended up for the night at Wasp Lake. The forest around the lake was dense and the water in the lake had receded a bit leaving a deep muddy slick extending about 50 feet from the official shore to the lake level. We followed what passed for a road around the lake for a bit, dodging both standing and fallen trees until we came across an old hunting camp. It had a fire pit, a couple of spots where we could throw out our tents, and a place to park the bikes. Most of the places that I’ve ridden have easily met these qualifications for a campsite, but here, as I mentioned before, the forest was dense and a place to set up even the smallest of tents appeared rare. The other feature of this campsite was a hanging rack, where the hunters could hang their kill and it couldn’t be easily reached by bears.
Oh yeah… That’s the other feature of this place. Bears. Oh, they’ve got Black Bears like the variety was have here in California… The somewhat timid species that’s really not interested in messing with humans unless they’ve been careless with their food. Then they’ve got Brown Bears, which are also known in these parts as Grizzlies. They’re a bit more cantankerous than the black bear and though I’ve never seen one, it’s understood that they take what they want when they want it, and anyone or anything that thinks otherwise will quickly get a lesson. This is slightly unsettling knowledge, but with proper safety measures, the risks can be cut greatly. We intend to cut those risks because clearly, neither of us wanted to meet a bear on it’s terms. (On a side note, we did see a Grizzly later on in the trip, and while viewing it from the safe platform at Fish Creek in Hyder, AK, it was clear I was not mistaken about the attitude.)
On the campsite front it’s important to know we’ve arranged ourselves intelligently. First of all, the bikes are over there. Way over there. All our food and other smelly stuff is carried in their saddlebags so the bears might be interested in inspecting them. I’ve left the tops of my hard-bags loose so Mr. Bear can have a looksy without doing any damage. Between them and much closer to the motorcycles than our tents is the kitchen, which we set up around the fire pit and the rack on which we’ll hang our food and other aromatic items like toothpaste. Then way over here, away from it all, is our tents where we will not bring food, toiletries or anything else we think might attract a bear. Except maybe a snoring human. We can’t help but bring that over here and hope the bears aren’t too interested in one or two.
After dinner the food is hung up on the rack and as the sun goes down at an hour that is much later than we’re used to, we go to bed. Laying there in my sleeping bag, headlamp illuminating my book I realize that it’s a very quiet night. I don’t hear any wind in the trees. There’s no crickets. No frogs. No mosquitoes and apparently no streams, creeks, or other sounds one might associate with nature. Except maybe Luke. I hear him move about in his tent a little every now and then but that’s pretty much it.
A few chapters later I call it quits and go lights-out.
That’s when the trouble began. Not the “here comes a bear crashing through the forest” trouble, but the other kind. The “my brain won’t shut the hell up on this quietest night of my life” trouble. Without a moon and down in the dense forest there was no light. I bundled up in my mummy bag and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I laid awake for at least an hour listening to every little sound that might be made in the forest. I’d hear a mouse moving about and wonder if it was a bear. “It has to be a bear,” my brain would tell me. “It can’t be,” I’d reason with myself, but I’d listen even closer to the ongoings, or lack thereof, outside my tent.
After a few minutes I’d roll to my side, trying a different way to muffle the ever-so-slight sounds that might be filtering through the nylon walls of my tent. After a few more I’d roll the other way. The intensity of silence felt like it was smothering me in my tent. The sound of nothing was making me listen ever closer. The more there was nothing to hear, the more I paid attention. All this silence was keeping me awake and it was driving me nuts.
Figuring that I’d not been sufficiently sleepy when last dog-earring a page and turning out the headlamp, I retrieved them from the dark recesses of my tent and dug in for another few chapters. Lost in the story, my mind eased as I followed the narrator through his tales of adventure, eventually falling into the familiar mid-paragraph nod and re-read cycle that says it’s time for lights out. Following my routine of always putting the light in the same place in the tent when going to sleep, I was ready for some rest now.
But there it was again. That nothing. Or was it something in the nothing? I swear I heard something, but now there’s nothing. Listening closer again, I heard something. No way it could be a bear. Or could it? Now there’s nothing. The silence was becoming deafening. The more I listened the less I heard. There had to be something to hear! It was so quiet I should’ve been able to sleep like a baby, but I couldn’t help but listen for something even if there was nothing to hear.
Succumbing to the insanity and having found my ear plugs in the pocket of my riding coat, I stuffed them into my ears and fell asleep listening to my own rhythmic breathing in a way that can only be done with earplugs while simultaneously feeling guilty for the sacrilegious action of wearing said earplugs on a silent night. Perhaps even the most silent night I had ever experienced.