We left for the mountain about 20 minutes late. Last-minute dashes for extra bottles of water put us behind schedule. We were headed for Jebel Shams, Mountain of the Sun, in Oman’s interior, next to the desert. We piled into two SUVs at 6:20 a.m. and started the heart-stopping climb up a winding dirt road, to the trailhead in a tiny village of about six homes.
The idea was to walk along the Balcony Trail, which skirts the rim of Oman’s version of the Grand Canyon. The American Grand Canyon, of course, is a mile-deep, mile-wide chasm created by eons of erosion by the Colorado River. Oman’s grand canyon, on the other hand, is a massive collapsed cavern system. It looks a mile deep, and it looks a mile across, but I can’t be sure. It is impressive and beautiful.
Elaine and I walked this trail with our friends from Sultan Qaboos University, Bernard and Ramona, more than four years ago when we lived here. Since it’s a collapsed cave system, there is an end to the canyon, and we hiked all the way in. By the time we got back to the trailhead, all four of us had some sort of minor injury — twisted ankle, tender wrist, scrapes and bruises. It’s a difficult trek over rocks and boulders on an unimproved trail that is exhausting and arduous.
I started on the trail with my students fully intending to go as far as they went. But about 1,500 yards in, my knees reminded me that they are nearly five years older than last time and that my frame is about 20 pounds heavier. I sat myself on a rock overlooking the vista and wished my students and their guide a happy hike.
They moved on down the trail, and I could watch them for quite a distance. The sun was hazy, just over the edge of the mountains across from me. “Look at Dr. Allen,” I heard one say quite clearly, “he’s just a dot up there on that rock.” I waved at them, and they waved back. A few hundred yards later, they were around the corner of a ledge and out of my sight.
I sat there on that rock — and suddenly experienced something most of us don’t.
The sounds of nature, completely unbroken by any manmade noise. Not a jet plane passing overhead, not a car engine or tires on a road in the distance, not an electric motor, not the squeak of a wheeled cart, not the tick of a clock, no music, no water pump, no phone, no alarm no clang of a gate. Nothing.
The songbirds on the mountain took center stage. Above me I heard a few rocks falling, and I looked to see a mountain goat making his unconcerned way along a ridge the width of a yardstick. Below me another goat popped up over the edge of a cliff from some tiny foothold it had and stared at me. I said good morning to it, and my voice was tiny in that vast silence of nature. It bleated back, and its voice somehow sounded more appropriate than mine just then. The goat looked away across the canyon, then back at me, took a few steps and laid down to enjoy the morning sun.
I sat and absorbed the silence.
Eventually, the sun became too hot to just sit. My students were hiking their way deeper along the trail into the canyon, and I wasn’t going to join them. I turned the other way, back toward the trailhead, and within a few hundred feet began to hear the sounds of humans.
In the parking lot I found the car we had come in. The engine idled with the air conditioner running and the driver napping, his front seat reclined. I got in the passenger side, laid my seat back, and closed my eyes.
But I didn’t sleep. I thought about that silence, and I thought about fortunate I am to have heard it. Not many people do.