Enjoying the Sounds of Near-Silence

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I walk three-and-a-half miles every morning unless it is pouring down rain, accompanied by Sam, our dimwitted but lovable poodle mix. The alarm goes off at 5:30. I jump up and get out the door in 15 minutes, a half-cup of coffee and a large swig of Diet Coke in my gullet to jumpstart my brain. I know that sounds gross, but it works for me.

My habit is to listen to National Public Radio on my iPhone while I walk to get a headstart on the news. I am a loyal listener to Red River Radio, based in Shreveport but with repeater stations throughout the area, since I do weekly commentaries for them every Friday morning. You can pick up the station in Mount Pleasant at 88.9 FM, though it is stretching the limits of the signal to get up here to Northeast Texas. On the iPhone, of course, I’m listening to the website version.

Except for the other morning. No matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t make it work. I then tried pulling in KUT, the Austin NPR station, but that didn’t work either. After about a half mile of fiddling with my phone, while Sam tugged at the leash, I gave up and yanked the earbuds out, irritated  as many of us get when technology fails — even when it is a device that didn’t even exist a few years ago.

The mourning doves were cooing softly in the trees, harmonizing with the tree frogs. I don’t know for sure about the latter, but something was singing along with the mourning doves, whose call I recognize. I could hear Sam panting rather heavily beside me, something I hadn’t heard before. He loves our walks, is beside himself with excitement every morning as I put on my tennis shoes and grab the leash. But I guess the walk exerts him as much as it does me. We’re both getting a bit up in years, though I’m counting on the walks to keep me limber for as long as possible.

I had forgotten how quiet it is this time of morning in our neighborhood, which has little traffic. Folks are not headed to work just yet. For a time all I hear is the sound of Sam panting and my new shoes slapping the asphalt. I finally wore out the old shoes and am having a hard time adjusting to this pair, which make me about a half-inch taller. I could use the height, but it affects my gait. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like buying tennis shoes. I also don’t like spending money on haircuts or gasoline, considering both unwanted encumbrances on my bank account. It’s why I drive a hybrid with 180,000 miles on it and usually look shaggy — until my wife gently suggests perhaps it is time to visit the barber.

Sunlight is just starting to hit the crowns of the pine trees when I hear this strange whooshing sound. Sam — a naturally nervous pooch who clearly was mistreated before my wife found him two years ago lying in the street, fur matted and smelling impossibly ripe — ducks and sports his usual alarmed look. The whooshing sound gets louder, occurring every 30 seconds or so. I am getting nervous as well. Is there a leak on an underground gas pipeline about to blow under our feet?

Then a hot-air balloon rises above the treetops and sails into the sky. The sound was the pilot firing the burners to make it ascend. I look up through a clearing in the trees and realize the sky is filled with a dozen or so balloons. This is the week of the Great Texas Balloon Race in Longview, and the pilots are lifting off somewhere close to our neighborhood. It’s a fine sight on a balmy summer morning.

My mom, who died three years ago at 81, took a ride in a hot-air balloon at the age of 70. I decided that morning while watching those colorful contraptions float along the breeze that I am not going to wait that long. I turn 60 next summer and plan on taking a ride to mark the event. After all, I escaped unscathed my first adventure parasailing last summer. Riding in a hot-air balloon ought to be downright peaceful by comparison.

I figure if my earbuds had been plugged in, I never would have heard the whooshing, which means I would have never looked up and seen the balloons. That means I likely would have never made the vow to take a ride next summer. All because I couldn’t listen to NPR that morning, and had to settle for the sounds of the outside world.

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