Travel Articles




Packing Silence

by Kathy McConnell

I packed silence everywhere as I headed into winter in my Subaru Outback station wagon. I intended to camp in deserted campgrounds with the last flocks of migrating geese typing V’s on gray vellum skies. Silence might have scared an ordinary widow, but I was skilled.
In my childhood house, children were expected to be quiet. I recall sitting on the edge of adult conversations taking stories with the stealth and swiftness of a child’s dexterity. In my practice, I heard much and kept the habit over my lifetime.
One of my favorite stories—about silences—I took from a friend who loved Latin music and laughing. I embellished her story and retold it often. When I was packing the Subaru, I recalled its humor, gathered courage from its lesson, and retell it here for being pertinent in my preparations for traveling:

Rules for Silence

Margie traveled in the 70s to Mexico in a bright orange convertible Volkswagen bug, just her and a girlfriend. They came to an agreement on Rules for Silence. One day they would both talk. The next day one would talk and the other listen. Then vice versa. The fourth day neither would talk. Pure silence.

On a day of mutual quietude, their car stalled to a stop on a stretch of desert in the Baja Peninsula. Lizards, snakes, rocks, and the road joined their soundless conversation. They all sat politely listening, skewered to a rule. But eventually the road broke the silence carrying the humming of tires, an engine rumble, mariachi music, and then hollering. A truckload of guys, too many to all fit in the cab, careened to a stop alongside the little car. The young men jumped over the dented tailgate and poured from the faded turquoise cab.

“Qué pasa? Qué quieras muchachas? What’s up? What do you need, girls?”

The two good-looking Americans sat in their Volkswagen bucket seats. Both were multilingual: English, Spanish, and Body. Body held possibilities, but both girls had earlier agreed that as a language it couldn’t be used to speak on days of no talking.

The guys circled the car, confused at first by the girls’ lack of concern. The hardscrabble landscape had taught them the hazards of oversights and failures. Speaking in mechanical lingo, they worked on deterring another desert disaster. The gas tank was empty, a common enough occurrence in this long stretch between stations. The young men thinking in machine deduced this likelihood. By happenstance—or maybe not—they carried a barrel of gasoline in the bed of their old truck. The guys filled the tank of the Volkswagen and then left calling out “Adios” to the rocks, the lizards, the snakes, and the women.

One can see why I packed silence—knowing this story of good luck and happenstance.

For my trip around the United States, I stashed silence in the usual places. The silence of my eyes sweeping across syllables fit nicely into the bag of books. It thankfully added no weight, since I could barely swing the bag up into the cartop carrier. I saved Travels with Charlie and Beachcombing at Miramar to put alongside my sleeping bag, whose length unfolded when I put the back seat down in the wagon at night. A sleeping bag for my terrier Lizzie lay on the other side of the wagon’s back floor. Lizzie wasn’t as taken with the idea of a sleeping bag as I was. When I would slip her into the turquoise bag, she would often pop back out, wary of being bagged like a fox in a hunt. More often, she would wait until I was asleep and steal my top blanket, swirling it about her leaving me cold. She too had her way of packing silence.

I drew diagrams to show where each item would fit in the car. Consider the silence of bones. There is a walking meditation in which one is supposed to be conscious of one’s femurs, tibias, and fibulas sliding sheathed in their muscles. In the swing of my walk, I could feel my bones’ rigidity. Silent swinging. I stored bone and muscle silence in purple galoshes, leather snow boots, and silver-studded fancy shoes. The footwear found space behind the driver’s seat tucked into the crevices around a cloth box.

The box contained coats for winter and spring. In a pocket of a feather down jacket was a small stone found on the beach at Birch Bay six years previously during the weekend I dropped my daughter Molly off at college. Touching it I would grin recalling her. Silent anticipation of seeing Molly in Boston was stored in the coat pile.

Under the coats were CDs. Gary, my deceased husband, could have sung from memory every song in the box, including our wedding song, Peter Mayer’s “Now Touch the Air Softly.” Gary had been the emcee, the singer, and the steering wheel drummer in all the cars we owned. They had been noisy with his presence. I packed the CDs, thinking that on this journey if I played the songs enough, I’d finally find the groove where my crying would stop. The silence of my recalling memories of a good man singing found space in the plastic CD cases.

In hindsight, I am glad I packed silence. The United States is a place worthy of silence in its backstretches, its parks, and its trails. I even used silence standing by my locked car in an empty campground in Arkansas, while waiting for a lady from a wrecking company to rescue me. I particularly appreciated the silence when my car squeezed through a gap between five sideways wrecked cars on a rain-slick highway in Memphis at rush hour. No scraping sounds. I appreciated Lizzie when instead of barking, she sometimes smudged nose-texts on the Subaru’s windows, sending silent messages to passing dogs.

Traveling was good. I never ran out of gas. Never needed a truckload of guys, too many to fit in a cab.


Kathy is an award-winning writer and photographer, who lives in a cabin in the woods of Washington state. She blogs at Box of Tales.com and posts on Instagram under kathy.mcconnell.505.

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