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I heard it, but I didn’t believe my ears. I decided to stop for a short break while I tried to figure out where the sounds were coming from. They were faint and intermittent, but a gentle breeze from the west seemed to be carrying the notes of a technical Étude to me. Since I was headed in that direction, I swallowed some water, shouldered my pack, and resolved to find out who the heck was playing trumpet drills on a saxophone in the Desolation Wilderness.
As I crossed the next ridge, I paused to take in the view. Breathtaking, as always. My eyes were assaulted by colors-colors that seemed more vibrant in the thin High Sierra air. Below, twin alpine lakes appeared as two blue jewels nestled among the late spring blossoms. And there between the lakes, sunning himself on a slab of granite, was the musician.
Suddenly, my perception of our roles reversed. Before, I had considered him an intruder making noise in my private place. Now, as I watched and listened, I felt like the trespasser. The music he was making went far beyond mere practice. I recognized that there was something more primal, something magical about the way he was playing. The gentle, natural variances in pace; the ease with which the notes flowed; the open, throaty tone of his instrument-all these told me that this person was feeling the music, not playing it. How could I walk up to him and interrupt his reverie? He clearly was experiencing a connection between this marvelous place and his music. The musician in me simply hummed along as I picked up another trail to the north. I’d find my own place to enjoy.
A letter and proposed story from a reader reminded me of this incident, which has been buried in my memories. Among other reactions to her newfound passion for hiking, the reader wrote about suddenly finding herself singing: “Songs I didn’t know I knew. Songs my mother used to sing. Songs I had not heard since her death almost 10 years earlier.” And while I read her words, the sounds of that lone saxophonist suddenly came rushing back, as did numerous other tunes I’ve heard or even produced on the trail.
Music and wilderness merge in a strange, bewildering way. Music comes from a place deep inside, a place void of conscious thought and ripe with emotion. Music links that inner place to the outside world in ways that are both personal and fundamental. As you walk into the backcountry, your inner self emerges as the pressures of everyday life recede. You react with emotion to the essential world around you, and song is a natural expression of that emotion. Some folks keep the songs inside. Some, like the saxophonist, need to sing them to the world.
So on your next trip into the wilds, listen carefully; the music you hear may be your own.