Finding Quiet in the White Mountains is Hard to Do, But One Man's Trying to Crack the Code

Jul 16, 2018

Dennis Follensbee took a hike in the White Mountains about a month ago. He wanted to get away, to find some peace and quiet. Or, as he puts it, “nature sounds and not people sounds.”

As he climbed out of the valley, the trickling of water from the brook below slowly faded away. The leaves rustled in the trees. But then, all of a sudden, he hit a ridge and everything changed.

“You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, pushing through the forest,” he said. “And then you hear the brrrrrruhhhh coming through, all the way from Lincoln, and you’re like, man!”

It turned out it was motorcycle week.  The noise was echoing across his path.

Editor's note: We highly recommend listening to this piece.

Follensbee has been walking these mountains for years — not just on trails, but also bushwhacking. He’s been surprised, he said, at how far the hum of motorcycles and cars can carry.

It’s a problem because he enjoys the adventures as a meditative experience, to get away from the stress of the workweek. Follensbee works a full-time job and said he gets one day a week to hike, maybe two if he’s lucky. So, this summer, he’s been devoting himself to mapping out the most isolated places, acoustically, in the mountains.

What he’s learning is it’s not always where you’d expect.

One day recently, I hit the woods with him to get a sense of what he hears. Along the way, we met a couple coming down the trail in other direction. As we described what Follensbee’s doing, looking for quiet, Jerome Marcy jumped in.

“I would suggest West Bond,” he said. That’s about the most quiet mountain I’ve been on.”

Follensbee smiled and nodded along. They were speaking the same language.

“I think people think about it,” he said. “And we come to similar conclusions like - oh yea, this peak is not as loud as other peaks, and some peaks are just notorious for being loud.”

Later, as we continued on, we ran into another group. Among them, Joseph Salvatore Prezioso was in town from Boston, where he lives. Sound is something he thinks about quite a lot, too, he said. All the noise in the city drives him crazy.

He was disappointed on a recent hike on Cannon Mountain to hear the road sounds echoing from below. 

From a trail, you may feel like you're deep in the woods. But the Whites are crisscrossed by highways. Airplanes fly overhead. And the cog railway chugs up and down Mt. Washington.
Credit James Napoli

Finding true quiet is hard to do. The National Park Service did a big sound survey several years ago, mapping noise levels across the U.S. Follensbee has been playing with that data, trying to see if it’ll help him in the Whites, but he said the NPS figures don’t have high enough resolution to distinguish between peaks or trails.

So instead, he’s making observations on the ground. What he’s learning is it can be key not only to get distance from a road, but also to be buffered by some good, solid rock — a peak or a ridge — to create something of an acoustic nest. That’s true even on a summit. If there are higher peaks around you, it’ll be quieter than a spot at the same altitude, but with nothing around.

This calculation can be tricky because the Whites are crisscrossed by highways. Airplanes fly overhead. And the cog railway makes noise as it chugs up and down Mt. Washington.

But even the quest itself has been eye opening for Follensbee. The more he’s been listening, he said, the more he hears.