Chuck Nelson felt every step of the trail on the soles of his bare feet—the prickle of gravel and rocks and the ooze of mud. It was the summer of 2015, and his friend Moss had convinced him to remove his shoes on their hike to Irely Lake in Olympic National Park. A big-browed, ginger-bearded man in his late 50s, Nelson used to be more athletic; he ran a marathon 20 years ago in Israel while serving with the U.S. Army in the Middle East. But in the 1990s, just before he left active duty, he blew out his knee in a skiing accident. Moss, also a military vet but nearly 20 years younger, liked to offer Nelson advice, and he had organized this hike, a sort of soul-searching journey for veterans into the stillness of the old-growth Quinault rain forest—not far from the spot claimed to be the quietest place in the continental U.S. They walked single file on the narrow trail—Moss, Nelson, and a former Vietnam War combat medic, along with a practitioner of nature-based therapy whom Moss had recruited from Redmond. All three vets were shoeless. Nelson stepped carefully over banana slugs, inhaling the herbal, cedar-infused forest air, a daypack slung over his shoulders.
As he ascended a hill, a sound like thunder cracked through the sky. It screamed above the trees and echoed off the valley floor. Nelson’s mind went blank for a moment, his body swiftly recoiled, and he crouched in the undergrowth. He could see nothing but forest, but he knew the sound of a low-flying military jet in his bones, and in his years in combat it often preceded the explosion of a thousand-pound bomb.
Nelson, trembling, looked at Moss. Then the entire group burst into laughter. “What, are you screwing with me?” Nelson quipped. “Bring me out here to set me off?” This was a forest, not a battlefront, and the plane was on a training mission, not leading an attack.
Nelson hadn’t thought noise like this would follow him into this secluded, green refuge—a place he hoped would never be haunted by the sounds of combat.
The noise complaints started a few years ago, after Naval Air Station Whidbey Island swapped out the Prowler (a silver Vietnam-era plane shaped like a flying fish) with the Growler, a Boeing plane with a pointed nose like a wasp’s and two powerful afterburning engines, which light up like massive blowtorches to thrust the jet quickly upward. Both planes contain electronic jammers that use radio waves and other signals to scramble, jam, or confuse enemy electronics. Prowlers helped muffle detonation signals sent to IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the Iraq War, preventing them from killing soldiers on the ground. Since the 1970s, the navy has flown these planes above the Olympic Peninsula, where pilots could practice over the ocean, in skies that are not overcrowded with air traffic.
“The Growler is not louder” than the Prowler, reads a public information statement from the navy, “but has a slightly higher potential to cause noise-induced vibration,” low frequencies that can physically shake you. Some who live beneath the navy’s flight paths say the Prowler was tolerable. But the noise from the Growler? Maddening.
The sound of one flight overpowered the snarling of a chain saw as a Lopez Island man cleared brush in his yard, until he could hear nothing else but the plane, even with noise-canceling headphones on. A Forks man said low-altitude Growler flights obliterate his conversations, including shouting matches. A Whidbey woman insisted the sound had worked her horses “into a lather,” until one injured its leg and became permanently lame. Nearly two years ago, San Juan County, whose jurisdiction is the San Juan Islands, launched a website to collect noise complaints: It received more than 4,000 reports over the next 20 months. Some mention sleeplessness and ear pain. Others compare the noise to an earthquake. One comment claims the jets literally shook the earth: “Was on beach at Colville collecting debris. Vibration from flyover was causing parts of cliff to erode on top of me.”
Noise is loudest and most frequent in communities near the air station—especially on Whidbey. But peninsula locals also talk of extreme noise at places like Ruby Beach on the Olympic coastline, Lake Crescent, Sol Duc Hot Springs, Quinault, residential Port Townsend, and along Sequim Bay. The controversy has created a standoff between neighbors dismayed by noise and those for whom jets are a kind of celebratory screech, a reminder of the region’s generations-old relationship with the military and its economic importance. On Whidbey, the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce has printed T-shirts and bumper stickers that read, “Jets = Jobs.”
When I inquired about jet noise in the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum in Port Townsend, the silver-haired, bearded man staffing the admission desk shook his head and chuckled. “We praise it every time we hear it,” he said. “That’s freedom.”
Chuck Nelson and Odin “Moss” Anderson both moved to the Olympic Peninsula more than a decade ago, before the advent of Growlers.
Moss bought a double-wide prefab house—built in the late 1970s and now painted the blue-green hue of lake water—on nearly five acres of land near the Quinault River. Nelson took up residence in a wood cabin on Lake Cushman, about 25 miles east (but at least 100 miles by road).
Both had tried life in the city. Nelson spent two years in Redmond after serving in the army for more than two decades. He was in Saudi Arabia when the Gulf War began. Scud missiles rained around the air force base where he was stationed, each carrying the ominous possibility of chemical or biological contamination. In 1993 he went to Somalia to join the peacekeeping mission there just after it spiraled into a full-fledged battle, in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot from the sky and 18 U.S. soldiers died along with hundreds of Somalis—the clash immortalized in the book and film Black Hawk Down. In the years after he retired, Nelson wrestled with nightmares so ghastly he would stay up all night nursing a pot of coffee just to avoid repeating them. His muscles ached, his nerves jangled, and he felt listless. One doctor suggested he might have fibromyalgia. Eventually he found more useful names for his symptoms: Gulf War Syndrome and posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He left the city because he needed to escape the noise.
About 10 years ago, he signed up for a therapeutic retreat on Orcas Island for vets with PTSD, and there he met Moss, wiry and trim with cool, blue eyes and a kind of rapid-fire zeal, which he channeled into his enthusiasm for holistic health remedies.
Moss never served in an active war, but in the mid-1990s, he joined an army ranger battalion in Georgia, where soldiers spent their days in grueling practice sessions “enduring the great mental and psychological stresses and physical fatigue of combat,” according to the U.S. Army Ranger Association. “It was a lot of fun to jump out of airplanes and burn buildings down with a machine gun,” Moss says. “You can get addicted to that sort of thing.” But on one Fourth of July, a fellow ranger and close friend was injured in a skydiving accident and died a week later. Still grieving and shaken, Moss left active service in 1999. In the years after the Twin Towers fell, he thought about working for Triple Canopy, a security company that contracts with the State Department and Department of Defense to deploy private mercenaries in places like Iraq. His mother begged him not to go and instead paid for him to fly to China and Tibet for a meditation retreat. It was the beginning of a “shift in attitude,” he says. After the retreat, “I could no longer deal with the city,” he recalls.
When they met on Orcas, Nelson was on a schedule of medications that left him in a constant mental and emotional fog—the prescription opioid oxycodone, antidepressants, sleeping pills, and a sedative. But Moss hated doctors and eschewed pharmaceuticals. He had, for several years, been inviting small groups of friends from the military—former army rangers, other veterans, and active servicemen on leave—to his house to meditate. Nelson started joining them.
They would walk in silence through the wilderness. They would plunge into Irely Lake, the frigid Quinault River, and Merriman Falls, which tumbles off a rock face on the road above Quinault Lodge. The quiet soothed Nelson, and the cold water revived him from the haze of medication. It was a revelation.
To find quiet means more than merely to escape noise. There is external stillness, when the din subsides and you can hear the gentler world beneath it—the stirring of wind, the susurration of water, the rush of your own inhalation. Then there is inner calm, when all of the jangling thoughts in your mind dissipate, and you can unclench your muscles and open to your senses. The latter kind of silence tends to require at least some of the former. Both are hard to find in a society whose increasing mobility is powered by the drone of internal combustion engines and the clamor of technology.
If you ask Gordon Hempton, one of the world’s leading experts on natural sound, the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park about 25 miles due north of Moss’s home is the quietest spot in the entire continental United States. Hempton has spent more than 30 years collecting sound recordings in quiet places around the world—from the Haleakala Crater on Maui to the Ecuadoran rain forest. He moved to the peninsula in 1994 and lives in a yurt on a rural road west of Port Angeles.
On an unusually sunny autumn afternoon, I convince Hempton to hike three miles up the rain forest trail with me to a place he calls One Square Inch of Silence, a spot in the Hoh that he designated 11 years ago (on his own and without permission from the Park Service) as a kind of shrine to quietude. Now the inch has a website and an international following.
With a notebook stuffed in one pocket of his olive-colored vest and two capacious bags, one earth-toned and one military green, slung over each shoulder, Hempton looks like a cross between a backwoods adventurer and a mail carrier. He has peppery hair and a light salting of a beard across his chin, and he stops periodically on the trail and leans in, his eyes glinting in the sunlight, to whisper some observation about sound. We follow the trail into the gnarly, thick profusion of plant life, stepping gingerly over tree roots and past green hemlocks springing out of decayed logs, dainty red-leafed vine maples, cedars and spruces with roots so muscular they look as if they could walk away. A series of jets pass over the forest as we walk, each a far-off whoosh and rumble. Hempton can differentiate planes the way a birder can distinguish varieties of chickadees. “This sounds like a corporate jet,” he says, tipping his head up to listen to its last blast. The next we hear is a commercial passenger plane, then another.
“Under certain circumstances, I like the excitement of motor thunder,” Hempton says. But he also believes quiet is a dwindling and vital resource. When Hempton first established the inch, there were a dozen places in the United States where you could listen to the drip and rustle of wilderness for at least 15 minutes at a time, uninterrupted by mechanized noise. Now just a handful of places allow even that small window of silence. If the traffic in the skies continues to increase, Hempton thinks such silence may be unavailable in the Hoh in less than a decade.
The quality of sound in the Hoh is particularly soothing to the human brain. A handful of studies suggests that natural sounds such as bird songs and ocean waves can slow the pulse, cut the concentration of stress hormones present in saliva, relax tense muscles, and generate alpha waves in the brain, neural activity associated with creative thinking and meditation. Noise, on the other hand, is linked to “hypertension, heart attacks, anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal changes, and learning impairment,” according to one doctor’s review of the research. Even people who claim to be noise oblivious are not immune. When a group of British scientists played recordings of freight trains all night to a roomful of sleeping adults, the sound raised the sleepers’ heart rates and often shook them from sleep, even when they said they weren’t sensitive to noise.
Listen: Gordon Hempton's recordings from One Square Inch of Silence represent the environment in summer (top) and winter (bottom).
Meanwhile some animals need undisrupted quiet simply to eat, reproduce, and stay alive. Many owls, for instance, can listen for the muffled movements of a mouse (i.e., dinner) deep under a blanket of snow from at least 40 feet away. Northern spotted owls nesting near highways have fewer young owlets than those living deeper in the forest. In Idaho, a group of scientists set an array of speakers in the middle of bird habitat and broadcast highway noise for four days—they called it a “phantom road.” When they turned the speakers off, a quarter of the birds had left the area.
To help me understand the animal perspective, Hempton has brought along a set of bionic ears. The ears consist of a microphone system the size of a cracker box mounted on a tripod, a digital recorder inside a well-cushioned bag, and a pair of bulky headphones. When we get to the inch—a spot about 200 feet off the trail, marked by a single rust-colored stone set on top of a mossy log—he sets up his equipment for me. Hempton insists we don’t talk at the inch, but he gestures for me to pull the headphones over my ears. I can suddenly hear the pinprick tweet of a few birds perched high in the old-growth canopy, and the song of the Hoh River rushes through my brain.
But when a military jet rushes distantly overhead, I can sense my heartbeat quickening. It is like the beginning of an eruption or a brewing hurricane. I remove the headphones quickly, feeling overstimulated. I take several deep breaths and examine the forest around me. The woodpecker drumming in the tree above us is suddenly an entire percussion section. Mosquitoes hum around my ears.
As the early-evening light dims, Hempton and I walk back to the trailhead through the sounds of bull elk bugling, calling to their mates. In the distance, it’s like a clarinet solo gone wild, at once high pitched, visceral, and urgent.
Living in the quiet of the peninsula, with the moral support of Moss, Nelson gradually regained his composure. Moss assumed the role of the “little brother I never had,” says Nelson. Five years ago, he weaned himself off of the pills. It was, he says, like waking up from a bad dream.
But in the past couple of years, the jets began to show up with no warning and rupture the calm. PTSD creates a hyperactive startle reflex, an easily triggered fight-or-flight reaction that a person may carry forever. “I’m a sensitive species,” Moss says. The planes sometimes groan above his house for hours, rattling his windows. They sound “like fingernails on the chalkboard of your soul,” he says.
Two years ago, locals began hearing that the navy was making plans to expand electronic training over the Olympic Peninsula. The news surfaced in September 2014, when a Forks woman spotted a blue flyer affixed to the window of her town’s post office with the heading “Pacific Northwest Electronic Warfare Range Environmental Assessment.” She pointed it out to her mother, Dukki Brown, who wrote a letter to the editor, published by the local newspaper, The Forks Forum. The flyer, she wrote, “gave very little information on what it is, what it will do to the residents of this area, or our animals, plants air or health [sic]…. I have asked quite a few people and no one seems to have any answers.”
The information spread like an epidemic. The navy planned to increase the number of Growler flights by 10 percent, according to its own reports, and the number of its annual air combat events by nearly two and a half times. Representative Derek Kilmer, whose congressional district encompasses nearly all of the peninsula, urged the navy to hold public meetings in cooperation with the Forest Service, which was reviewing the navy’s request to drive trucks onto forest lands carrying mobile emitters—devices that broadcast the signals used in the training. By the end of November, the Forest Service had amassed more than 3,500 comments.
Moss spotted the news on the Forest Service website, and he and Nelson attended two of the public meetings in November 2014—in Pacific Beach and Port Angeles. In Port Angeles, Nelson stepped up to the microphone first. He shot a quizzical look at the panel of naval officers seated at the front of the room. “Why does this training have to occur here? … You’re risking the last pristine rain forest in the country.” The room applauded.
Moss’s turn came a few minutes later. Sporting a black sweatshirt printed with the words “Special Forces” and a camouflage baseball cap, he described his therapeutic work with veterans in the Quinault Valley. “The current level of jet traffic is disturbing, harassing, and injuring the living free men and women and wildlife…to include the combat veterans that come to this pristine area for healing,” he said. “Black’s Law Dictionary defines private land to include the air above it, so you are in fact trespassing without consent.”
Moss feels uncomfortable in crowds. (He later refused to appear in photographs for this story.) “I’m not the kind of guy who goes to a meeting. I’m a woodworker. I’m a hermit,” he admits. The combined stress of the noise and the meetings unnerved him. A few clumps of his brown hair fell out. When they grew back, they were white.
The National Park Service has no authority over the skies, but its staff often ask the armed services and the Federal Aviation Administration to look for ways to route planes away from wilderness. Last summer, at Representative Kilmer’s urging, Park Service scientists talked with the navy about several instances of loud noise picked up by Olympic National Park’s monitoring equipment. But so far, nothing more has come of that discussion. One grassroots opposition group, Save the Olympic Peninsula, is considering a lawsuit against the navy or the Forest Service, or both. Karen Sullivan, a retired employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, insists the navy has violated the National Environmental Policy Act, in part because it has failed to reckon with how noise might affect wildlife: “If the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to do that, we would have been strung up.”
Some staunch navy supporters say those who don’t like the noise should move away. I consider this sentiment when I drive to visit Moss in September, past a tilted “No Trespassing” sign (covered, appropriately, with actual moss) and across a graying bridge made of rickety wooden boards. He clearly tried his best to remove himself from the fray.
Along the rutted gravel road that leads to his house, moss climbs up every possible tree surface, ascending the bark of Sitka spruces and the slender stems of alders. He meets me in his driveway, near a pile of logs he says he has split from a tree that recently died. Nelson stands on the front lawn beside his white-bellied black dog. We sit at Moss’s kitchen counter. A picture of a Buddhist meditation deity hangs on the far wall. Moss heats tea for me in a ceramic pot.
It is a quiet day—jet free except for an occasional high-altitude whir. Nelson stands square-shouldered and calm in the light streaming through the kitchen window while Moss hammers his words with the intensity of a hip-hop poet, each sentence drumming into the next. “Coming out here what happens is, if you’re paying attention,” he begins, “to the beauty and subtlety of, let’s say, the moss and the mollusks, the snails and the banana slugs and the waterfalls and the soundscapes of the birds…. It’s an aliveness and a profound experience so far beyond…the insanity of war,” his voice begins to break up.
He suppresses a sob, and a tear slides down his cheek. “And the fact that even this is being destroyed…is very stressful.” He tightens his face until I can see the tendons stretch in his neck, and I catch a startled animal look in his eyes, a kind of fury and vulnerability. He looks away, and I sense that even my presence here might be a startling disruption.
Nelson gestures to Moss and then the dog. “These two guys sitting right here have done more for me than anything else on the planet. Coming out here has been…my main salvation,” he says quietly. “So I’ve found my sanctuary. I’ve found my healing place, and now the Growlers are coming in and taking me back to where I was? I mean, c’mon.”
After an hour, Moss and Nelson offer to take me down the road, to the place where they camp during meditation retreats. I follow their dusty blue pickup in my car and pull up beside a small cottage and a grassy meadow. From here a trail leads to the Quinault River. Moss removes his flip-flops and walks barefoot down the sandy trail through salmonberry canes until we arrive at the stony beach and the slate-blue water.
I ask the men not to talk for a few minutes, so I can listen to the trickle of the river, gentler in early autumn than it will be in a few months after the rains. Crows rasp above us. Maple leaves clatter faintly in the wind. Long ago, the river was one of the most voluble things in this hushed landscape.
Some people have never experienced quiet like this. Its spaciousness can be almost frightening. But there are questions you can ask yourself here that are easily forgotten once you drive back onto the highway and head toward the streetlight glare and the clamor. In the absence of noise, you can consider what it feels like simply to be alive. To stand here and listen, with the breath of the wind in your ears, is another kind of freedom. It is worth asking whether quiet like this deserves to be defended.