December 2008

Turning down the noise

By David Feela

I live on three acres just off the highway. All day the traffic. All day semis, pickup trucks, SUVs, sedans, sports cars, and motorcycles. The noise of living beside a highway, any highway, really. The noise is so much a part of the background that I usually don’t notice it. I'm convinced I live on three acres of rural America where the birds and the bees orchestrate most of the music.

Maybe it's always been this way, oblivion as the key to survival.

When I first met my in-laws, I traveled to Chicago to officially get acquainted. We sat together in the front yard on a carpet of thick green grass, under an ample canopy of shade. Even during the 1970s the houses around us were stacked like a deck of cards, but my in-laws had the perfect real-estate buffer: They owned a little over four acres in the midst of this suburban sprawl. Of course, they'd moved onto the property just after World War II, when Arlington Heights was still pastoral. Believe it or not, my father-in-law's household waste, even to the day he died, was still processed through a backyard septic system. City sewer was something he didn't believe in.

My father-in-law was mixing drinks, gin fizzes, if I remember correctly. We sat across from each other in lawn chairs, making small talk. I forget what we were talking about and it doesn't really matter, but what I will never forget is the instant when the first in a continuous series of commercial jets flew over our heads, reducing our conversation to incoherent lip flap.

The jets didn't phase my in-laws. I watched their mouths move, as if the television had been left on after pushing the mute button. I couldn't hear a word they said until each plane had passed overhead and their voices gradually came back into an audible focus. They were living beneath one of the flight paths for O'Hare Airport and it didn't matter, because they'd tuned the air traffic out.

I was beginning to think I was no different than my in-laws, indifferent to the noise of the world around me. And then I got away from home for a few days. I spent the time along the Crystal River, immersed in the sound of ice-cold river water gushing over rocks. Rush-hour water. Starlight crashing down from the sky’s black tarmac. That kind of traffic.

And despite the occasional vehicle traveling past on the pavement that thinks it’s an asphalt river, snaking all the way over McClure Pass and down to Glenwood Springs, I finally heard it.

The silence, that is. That rare moment in my life when there was nothing to ignore.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.