I recently made a trip to the Awasi eco-resort in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Not knowing what to expect, I set out with my guide to hike to a peak in the stunning salt flat known as Moon Valley. There, I found something I didn’t even know I needed: silence. The absence of noise pollution is a treasure so valuable you don’t understand its worth until you’ve truly experienced it. This pursuit of noise-free places is a passion for people like acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who leads the pack of silence seekers who promote its vast wellness capabilities.
“You think it’s going to be easy to find a place without noise pollution, but it took quite a bit of work,” he says. “The places I assumed would be quiet—a national park, a designated wilderness area—are not off-limits to aircraft. Transportation noise is the number-one form of noise pollution. Everything has become so polluted that we’ve become insensitive. We’ve learned that if the noise annoys us, it’s going to be an unpleasant day, so we ignore it. But our bodies still listen. And because of our exposure to noise pollution, it causes health loss.” According to Hempton, the physical symptoms of noise pollution include raised cortisol levels, high blood pressure, heart disease and shorter attention spans.
In a bizarre twist, Hempton lost his hearing, not once but twice over the last two decades. The first time was in 2003, due to what doctors believe was a viral infection. It changed his path forever. “One surprising thing, which I didn’t discover until I was hard of hearing, is that quiet is even more difficult to obtain if you are deaf. When I lost my hearing it instantly put me out of work, and cut me off from the voices of my children. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me, emotionally or financially,” he says.
His hearing returned 18 months later, and it set him on a course to preserve natural quiet. He created One Square Inch of Silence, an independent research project located in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park in Washington. As the least noise-polluted place in the lower 48 states, it is a true sanctuary for silence.
Detractors asked why we need to save something that will never be threatened. Hempton’s answer? “Why do we need national parks when practically all of North America’s a national park? They couldn’t see the future.” Indeed, in 2017, the Forest Service allowed Growler jets to fly over Olympic National Park. Hempton knew he had to take deeper action.
“There’s only one thing that I do when I have to really be honest with myself—I have to be quiet, to think clearly, to come up with real answers,” he says. “I went to One Square Inch of Silence and asked the quiet, Where did I screw up? And the quiet laughed at me.
“In that one bit of laughter with the quiet, it became obvious that the mission shouldn’t be One Square Inch of Silence. It should be Quiet Parks International,” he continues. Hempton formed QPI with the goal of certifying and protecting quiet places around the world. “Within one year we had our first wilderness quiet park in Ecuador. And then the following year, we had our first urban quiet park in Taipei. We will be announcing two more wilderness quiet parks in the U.S. and two in Africa. We have urban quiet parks in London and Barcelona. We’ve found approximately 260 locations as funding becomes available.”
So how do you find quiet? Hempton says look at Earth from a satellite view at night, then look for dark spaces, those not affected by artificial light. More than 80 percent of the land of the lower 48 is within a half mile of a road. He also recommends that when feeling overwhelmed from daily stressors, throw the Western attitude of “making things happen out the window” and follow the path of the Indigenous people of the Amazon.
Quiet Places Around the World
Awasi Atacama is located in the ancient Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama, in the world’s driest desert. It features 12 suites with thatched roofs, private solariums and alfresco showers. Each Awasi journey is custom tailored to guests, with a private guide and 4WD vehicle. Hike one of the four trails at Moon Valley, where you can reach a salt peak and surrender to true silence. From the salt flats, gaze out on the pink hue of the Andes and the unforgettable sight of the setting sun.
Lone Mountain Ranch
If you listen, the trees will speak to you, as their leaves are rustled by fine specs of snow. But that is all you will hear in the Gallatin Gateway of Montana. The woods are petrified, the roots deep, amid the silence of nature. Head to the Lone Mountain Ranch, which provides a navigable way to explore the doorstep of Yellowstone. Eighteen miles from the border of the park, LMR naturalists guide guests into the quiet. At the ranch, 30 rooms and cabins offer rustic luxury, with a Montana-chic design.
One Square Inch of Silence
Hike two hours from Mount Tom Creek Meadows into Olympic National Park and you will find the quietest place in the U.S. One Square Inch of Silence, in the Hoh Rain Forest, is marked by a red stone placed on top of a log. It is maintained in a noise-free condition, so it will also impact many miles around it. This independent project protects one of the most pristine and ecologically diverse environments in North America. One of the few examples of rain forest in the United States, Hoh is endangered.