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Essay

Quiet Places for the Jet Beset

by Ed Spargo

Quiet lovers, how many times have you trekked out to a remote spot, away from traffic, ATV’s, lawnmowers, and boom boxes, only to hear, every few minutes, the rumble of a jet passing high overhead? You think, “I’m 200 miles from a jetport, what’s going on?” Welcome to the age of de- and unregulated air travel! My flight tracking software shows that almost every place in the Lower 48 states is under a flight path to somewhere. However, I have identified a few quiet regions on the coasts and borders of the USA. And there’s some quiet in Special Use Areas (SUA’s). These contain military or secret sites, are no-fly zones by federal designation, but partially accessible for camping, hiking, etc.

I am engaged in visiting these quiet places, to verify on the ground what the flight tracker has shown on the screen.

Seeking Quiet in Big Bend

I arrived at Chisos Mountain Lodge in Big Bend National Park late on an early December evening, and awoke the next morning to an ice storm. In spite of the nasty weather, I manage to spend just about all of the daylight hours outdoors, hiking the trails near the Lodge. Luckily, it cleared and warmed through the day. The next day was beautiful, and I left about 3PM.

During these almost two whole hiking days, I heard only two planes! And those two I heard faintly and not for very long.

My flight tracker shows that only flights to/from Mexico occasionally cross the Park. There are SUA’s east and west of the Park, but none indicated directly over it. However, I suspect that with Mexican territory on three sides, Big Bend would be considered sensitive airspace, interdicted for commercial jets by FAA directive.

I stayed in an outlying cabin in the Lodge Village. From my front porch, with its magnificent view over the Chisos, I could clearly hear the kitchen exhaust fan on top of the Lodge, the vending and ice machines, and all of the comings&goings of guests’ and especially Lodge vehicles. One had to hike over the ridge to get the true wilderness quiet. Not to quibble: I was there to hike, but it’s an irony that the Village, in the middle of hundreds of square miles of natural beauty, is laid out with virtually no attention to esthetics, visual or auditory. It looks and sounds like any Texas highway motel and restaurant complex. I suppose one could say it has a certain ’50s authenticity. Right down to the fast-food aroma hanging over the whole thing!

Actually, to get the pure experience one might backpack to a remote camp site in the hills a mile or more from the Village. If you’re a noncamper like me, stay in a cabin or motel unit, keep away from the Village except to eat, sleep, and shop, and you’ll have an unforgettable quiet time. The Chisos are not just beautiful, they are magical: the always-changing clouds and fogs over the peaks, the unique cactus/yucca landscapes, the sudden storms, the burning sun. And no jets.

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Seeking Quiet in Colorado

Don’t bother to look! I’ve lived here for four years and have made listening excursions to every corner of the state. Jets can be heard everywhere. Sorry, Colorado boosters! Yes, the scenery’s beautiful, it’s got miles of wilderness, the beer’s good, Denver’s a hub and hive of culture and excitement, but you can’t find true quiet. It’s not due to DIA. Even the extreme south, where DIA jets are at cruising altitude, has transcontinental jets constantly passing over. Now, the FAA has designated flight lines, which many pilots follow, but many don’t. If all did there would be vast “holes” in the traffic pattern which would be quiet. Instead, they seem to fly wherever they please.

The FAA seems to be a law unto itself: unapproachable, dictatorial. For example, suggestions that there be no jets over Rocky Mountain National Park have been met with a magnificent and glacial silence. When I go out to a Colorado beauty spot, away from traffic, lawnmowers, etc, and in a few minutes a jet from Dallas to L.A. rumbles over at 35,000 feet, and I know a few minutes later there’ll be another, I feel more sad than angry. Sad because I doubt we’ll ever get the quiet back.

R.I.P. Colorado’s silent wilderness experience.

P.S. I would love to be proven wrong! Coloradans, step outside and listen: If you don’t hear a plane after an hour, listen again later in the day, and the next morning. As you go about your business, if you only hear a couple of planes a day, you may be in a hole. Let me know where you are, so I can rush to your area, build a cabin, and spend the rest of my life contemplating the sounds of nature!

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Seeking Quiet in Mendocino

According to the flight tracker, the California coast above San Francisco has very light air traffic, so I thought some ground time would be useful. In three mid-April days I covered most of Mendocino County, but the howling onshore wind posed a special problem for hearing any jets that might have been overhead. Between the roaring surf, the moaning redwoods and douglas firs, and the rushing streams (there had been heavy rain), nature’s symphony won out over just about all of man’s noxious noise. The challenge was to find out how quiet it would be when the wind quit and the streams slowed to a trickle.

The County is heavily forested, with steep canyons cut into the coastal range which begins mostly less than a mile from the ocean. Route 1 hugs the shore, and a handful of east-west roads climb the canyons to the crest and down to 101 in the central valley. So the pleasant paradox was that there were few places away from town and road noise which were not dominated by weather related sounds. Nevertheless, by haunting various parks and preserves, I was able to get a fair idea of the level of air traffic. In fact, in my three days of intermittent listening, I heard only three jets, very muffled and distant (possibly due to the high wind) and a couple of small planes. Presumably, in better weather there would be more sport flying. I’d have to call this trip a partial success, which seems to validate the picture provided by the flight tracker. Another stay in calmer weather would be called for.

Needless to say the rugged beauty is truly awesome, so different from the scenery farther south. For example, the Alexander Valley is dotted with wineries, each one a tiny clearing in a dense forest. If you can picture pioneering viticulture, this is it. The winemakers here are part hillbilly! You’ll find none of the manicured rolling hills and sophisticated chateaux of Sonoma. I did not stop to sample, being a beer guy. I’ll bring the missus next time: She’s got the palate for the vino.

The town of Mendocino is definitely a seaside gem, inviting strolling, with swarms of B&B’s, spas, and retreats in the environs. Fort Bragg and Willits are more ordinary, as I suspect Ukiah is. Boonville is sorta cute, with a brewery. But it’s not about the towns: All towns are noisy to one degree or another. Point is, if I’m willing to stay outside of town, away from the hustle and bustle, will I still hear high jets with their constant faint thunder? Tentatively, on the Mendocino Coast, the answer is no, not constantly. It seems a place which sounds as pretty as it looks!

PS: On the flight home, the guy gets on the mike and says, “For those who are into sightseeing, Tahoe’s on the left and Yosemite’s on the right.” This is disturbing. Not the announcement itself, but the corollary fact that if we, in the plane, can see these splendid wonders, then the folks digging them on the ground are having their silence shattered for the 3-5 minutes it takes for us to pass over: A perfect example of the airlines’ thoughtless disregard of wilderness values! For a trivial loss of time and money, passed on to the passengers anyway, United could fly around these special sites, out of audible range. But that’s another article.

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Seeking Quiet in Santa Barbara

It rained almost all of the ten days in January, 2010 I was there, walking around and listening, so I got soaked while accomplishing the mission. I covered all of SB County, with a side trip to Ojai, in Ventura County. In fact, while pretty, Ojai and its vineyards were noisy: jets constantly overhead. Too near L.A.!

The area immediately surrounding the city of Santa Barbara was, of course, overflown by jets to/from SBA airport. The coastal range here is only a couple of miles from the beach, so one can climb up to empty wilderness from downtown S.B. in a matter of minutes, but you don’t escape the jets. You have to go up the coast closer to Vandenberg Air Force Base. There is an SUA over the Base and the adjacent areas. The quiet spreads out to towns such as Lompoc, Los Alamos, Santa Maria, and Buellton/Solvang. Generally, one can find quiet in the County west of a line from SB to Santa Maria along routes 154/101. East of this line, in the Los Padres National Forest, a magnificent wilderness empire, are jets cruising from San Diego and L.A. to the Bay Area, SeaTac and points north.

The S.B. wine region was quiet, as was the coastal ranch country above Gaviota. There is no coast road, and beach access is scarce. Two places offering classic California ocean bluffs and cliffs, totally free of jet noise, are Jalama Beach and Point Sal. As far as staying in the quiet places goes, apart from motels, etc. in the towns, there didn’t seem to be many accommodations. The wineries welcome you to stop and sip, but I saw no B&B’s or guest ranches.

All this is more or less corroborated by my flight tracking software, which shows only local air traffic around the towns mentioned above. I didn’t hear any, but I suspect the small planes were grounded by the bad weather, while the high jets are above it all.

To sum it up, if it weren’t for the pockets of quiet spun off by the air force base, this part of the California coast would be just as jet beset as the rest of the L.A.-to-Bay-Area flyway.

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Seeking Quiet in New Mexico

Because of the activities at White Sands Missile range, Fort Bliss, and Holloman Air Force Base, a big chunk of central southern New Mexico is essentially free of commercial flights, the exceptions being Sunday flights and flights to/from Alamogordo, Carrizozo, and Ruidoso. The no-fly zone lies east of I-25, west of Roswell, north of the Texas border, and south of Torrance County. So I did the seven-hour drive down from my home in Denver to check out the scene.

My first listening stop was Carrizozo, which is well within the zone. It’s a highway junction and whistle stop on the railroad, nearly a ghost town, but being reinvented as an artists’ colony. And no jets! (It was Friday). The locals, all eccentrics and characters, told me that sonic booms happen occasionally. Not particularly pleasant, but a reasonable tradeoff when you’re in a military-use area. And trains. Trains are such a relic of a romantic past that I can regard a few trains a day as part of the Old West flavor.

On to Alamogordo, which serves Holloman and tourist traffic from Carlsbad Caverns through White Sands to Arizona and California. The town has nothing to recommend it by way of esthetics, but as far as I could make out over the din of the fast food strip, there were no jets. When the waitress in the Mexi place asked, “Red or green?”, I replied, “Make mine a Christmas tree: Give me both!” I hope it made me seem at least hip to New Mexico ways.

Next day I drove up into the Sacramento Mountains to check out Ruidoso and the other mountain towns. Texans favor this area as a retreat from the summer heat. It’s been developed with restraint, low key, small scale, kind of a local secret. Also jet-free. There was some activity at the local airport, but nothing intrusive. After a few stops to listen in the back country I hit the road home.

I did not visit White Sands National Monument, but from previous visits I know the beauty is of the eerie and stark variety. There are some petroglyphs and prehistoric ruins as well. The prairie, mountain, and desert vistas are forever, and the silence is true and deep.

The quiet will last as long as the military authorities need the airspace. One need not fear an outbreak of world peace any time soon.

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Seeking Quiet in Olympic National Park

In February, 2010 I made a quick visit to Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence. His idea is that if he can achieve silence, i.e. absence of jets, over one spot, then there will be quiet for twenty miles in every direction, because of the wide swath of noise the jets lay down. He has had some success working with the airlines, but much static from the National Park Service. They object to his leaving a sort of bulletin board (actually a big jar, to keep out the weather) out there, so people can wax poetic when they reach the site. Seems harmless enough to me, but if everyone were permitted to leave a personal item in the park, then……Rules are rules, aren’t they?

Gordon and I hiked in to the site, just a grove in the Hoh Valley, no different from a million other places in the Park, a couple of miles in from a park road. We were out there 4-5 hours altogether, and I didn’t hear a single plane! According to Gordon, there are a couple of flights a day overhead.

In my experience, in light traffic areas, the distribution of jets is scattered, so that you might hear nothing for hours, then a bunch of three or four one after the other. You can be fooled by the flight tracking map: You might look at it for a few minutes, at random, daily over weeks, and see no planes directly over the area of interest. Wishful thinking does the rest, but when you get out there, it may seem quiet for as long as an hour, but then the magic is dissipated by a series of jets. Why the glitch? Because a jet 100 miles off the screen can be over your site in ten minutes!

Gordon’s definition of quiet is 15 minutes average between planes. That’s not good enough for me. There’s a question of philosophy here: A silent park should not have to come about by accident: It’s not on the way to anywhere, so it’s quiet except for the occasional weather-diverted or training, or military flight. The park should be DECLARED jet-free by the government agencies which have the power!

The Olympic Peninsula is huge, largely but not totally taken up by the Park. Gordon’s spot is not necessarily the quietest spot on the peninsula. One could spend weeks covering the whole thing.

Definitely promising!

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Seeking Quiet in the Mojave

In mid-October, 2010, I flew out to Los Angeles to check out the SUA around China Lake Naval Air Weapons Center. It’s a vast area, bounded roughly by Bakersfield, Lancaster, Barstow, and Interstate 15 to the south, Nevada to the east, US 99 to the west, and Bishop to the north. The flight tracker shows commercial jets and private aviation avoiding it, because of the high-speed and far-ranging military activity out of China Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, and Fort Irwin. Also in the restricted area are most of Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Death Valley National Parks.

I headed north out of West L.A. through Palmdale towards Ridgecrest. Once I got deep into the SUA, I stopped, hiked, and listened. Pretty much total silence off road, punctuated by close encounters of the supersonic kind: An invisible banshee seems to make its way across the sky, coming from all directions at once, then abruptly stopping. But the familiar distant rumble of the scheduled jets and the angry buzzing-fly drone of small planes were absent. If one got too close to the western edge, some faint jet thunder could be heard.

The high desert scenery! Vistas forever, spicy perfumed air!

Ridgecrest is a busy place, serving the Naval Center. Friendly folks confirmed my impression of the absence of anything but military aviation over the region. Twenty minutes south lies Randsburg, a “living ghost town,” beloved of bikers, ATVers and rugged individualists. During my one hour sojourn, just one fighter screamed over. Otherwise, wonderful desert calm. Likewise Garlock, an abandoned ruin.

The Sierra part of the SUA will have to wait until another trip. As far as the desert is concerned, I’ll settle for the occasional, random military event as a tradeoff against the steady jet rumble over the rest of California.

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