Jeff Ryan, Author & Speaker

Photo of the plains

My Search for the Vanishing Silence

One of my favorite places on earth is in North Dakota. I’ve only been to the sacred spot twice. The trips were separated by 13 years. The refreshingly open Badlands landscape had hardly changed and was comfortably familiar. But it wasn’t just the view that I came back for.

It was the silence.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had been enveloped by both grandeur and solitude so complete. There were no cars speeding by on highways. No clanging of factory or construction machinery. There weren’t even planes flying overhead.

It was remarkable.

The first time I visited the silent place, in 1998, I simply stood and listened. The only sounds I could hear were those of the slightest breeze moving across the open landscape and my own breathing. I literally held my breath for a time, then willed my breathing pace to slow down to a less invasive beat – one more in keeping with the silence that surrounded me.

In 2011, a friend of mine was moving from Maine to Washington state. I volunteered to share the driving duties as we traveled across the USA in a jam-packed Penske truck.

When we were driving across North Dakota, I suggested a detour to the silent place. On the way there, I didn’t say anything about why the place was remarkable, simply that it was remarkable.

We got out of the truck and I led the short trek into the middle of the great expanse. We stopped.

And listened.

After quite a while, Mick spoke. “Unbelievable”, he said, barely needing to raise his voice. I had instinctively known that he would understand why this place was sacred.

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I think about the silent place often. As our world is increasingly filled with people screaming from every available and imaginable place — gas pumps, taxi cabs, elevators, hotel lobbies, waiting rooms — the need for the silent place (and the few places left that are like it) only increases.

I recently spent four months exploring the USA, where I found two more completely silent places. There wasn’t a manmade sound to be heard in either of them. When I discovered them, I had the same reaction as I had those many years ago in North Dakota. I stood completely silent, wanting to allow the world around me continue its day uninterrupted. To seamlessly meld into the scene. To happily become the antithesis of a talking gas pump. It was a great privilege to stand in these spectacular, restorative and endangered spots.

Preserving the silence was the only appropriate tribute.

Jeffrey H Ryan is an author, adventurer, photographer and historian. He has written several books about his outdoor exploits, his fascination with hiking trails and the people and places found just off the beaten path. His debut book, Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year hike on America's trail was hailed by the former Executive Editor of National Geographic as "a classic of nature and travel writing" and set off a national tour (in a 1985 VW camper, no less). His books are known for weaving a deep appreciation for history into walks across contemporary landscapes that give readers the feeling they are hiking right alongside. When Jeff isn't trekking, chasing down a great story or spinning yarns from his keyboard, he enjoys sharing his adventures with audiences who love the outdoors. He spends much of his time in his beloved native state of Maine.


  • Ann Hancock
    July 11, 2017

    REALLY liked this post. Finding silence is incredibly difficult. I had a moment like this on the Cabot Trail NS about 30 years ago. It was almost otherworldly- and very special.


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