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I love hearing echoes. As a kid, it didn't seem like my family went to many places where I could hear them, but when we did, I'd bellow all sorts of sounds, then listen to them repeatedly. Sometimes when we were walking home from school, my brother Gerard and I would go by the concrete drainage ditch. If the water was low, I'd push my head through the big grates covering the opening of long culverts that disappeared into the dark underground. "HELLO," I'd call, then listen; "Hello, hello, hello," came my reply. Maybe that's why I got into radio broadcasting – I liked hearing my own voice.
In 1976, my ninth-grade class set out on Ottumwa school's maiden voyage to Washington D.C. When we visited the capitol building, our tour guide had us stand in a particular spot in the rotunda. He went to another area on the other side of the room and spoke softly, but because of the way the sound bounced into the dome and back, we could hear him perfectly where we stood. It seems politicians have been eavesdropping on each other ever since discovering this phenomenon.
Since that trip to Washington, I've traveled all over the country. Along the way, I found many exciting places to throw my voice and hear it return like a boomerang. It fascinates me, like a stone tossed in the water, makes rings until the ripples continue to dissipate slowly. From caves to canyons and valleys – I've enjoyed echoes in some pretty cool places.
My wife and I paddled our canoe into the Boundary Waters to see the pictographs on North Hegman Lake, near Ely, Minnesota. The ancient Native American drawings are said to be over 400-years-old. They're painted high on a stone wall, on the edge of the water. Anytime my paddle bumped against the canoe gunnel, the sound bounced between the wall and the water, creating a sharp echo.
I hear echoes in man-made places too: in a large cathedral, state capitol buildings, hallways with terrazzo floors – even in a bathroom. I've often sang or whistled a tune in a public restroom to enjoy the unique acoustics.
I stood on stage under the bandshell in parks in Mason City, Iowa, and Winona, Minnesota. I spoke toward the back wall; the sound ricocheted and projected my voice outward where the audience would be sitting. Some of the best places to hear an echo are places where I've inadvertently stumbled.
My wife and I were driving from Lake City, CO, to Santa Fe, NM, with plans to stop in Chama for dinner. Chama is a small touristy town with several places to eat, not far from the Colorado-New Mexico state line. We'd heard great reviews on the green chili at one restaurant and wanted to try it.
Chama also has an operating vintage railroad. On scenic rides, train cars are pulled by old steam-powered locomotives. We stopped to watch an engine maneuver in the train yard. Black coal smoke flowed from the chimney of the idled engine. Bright white steam belched near the wheels as the locomotive began to move. The engineer reached up, pulling a chain while he looked out the window, and the train's whistle echoed down the tracks. It was a thrill to watch.
When we got to the restaurant, we found a seat in the dining room. A waitress set menus on our table and quickly moved along. She didn't respond when I greeted her; perhaps she didn't hear me. We sat at the table for well over an hour, and after numerous failed attempts to get waited on, I went to the hostess. She was annoyed by my request for service, "Your waitress will be right with you." Twenty minutes later, we finally decided to leave.
On the way out, the hostess seemed offended that we were leaving, "Did you pay for your drinks," she snapped.
"We didn't have any," I replied, "we were never waited on."
It was noticeably darker outside. Melissa glanced at the time, "Well, that was an hour and twenty minutes of wasted daylight!"
We drove down the highway, enjoying the beautiful New Mexico scenery in what little daylight was left. It was rapidly getting dark, but we could still make out the horizontal ribbons of color in the silhouettes of mountains around us. It was a shame to be making this drive after dark.
A couple of miles later, rounding a corner, Melissa read a small sign, "Hey, look, there's a campground ahead. Let's check it out." We pulled into the Echo Amphitheater Campground in the Carson National Forest. It was dark, and we really couldn't see anything. With a flashlight, we found the registration post. Since we were only planning to get some sleep and head out at dawn, I didn't even disconnect the Scamp from the van.
In the morning, my dog June and I were the first up. We stepped out into the chilly morning desert air. It was after sunrise, but the sun hadn't yet made its way over the mountains to the east. I looked up, turning in a circle, taking in the magical beauty that surrounded me. I was stunned as I turned to the west.
Nature had carved out a massive cove in the side of the mountain, a perfect amphitheater. I looked in awe at this work of natural sculpting set against a perfect blue desert sky. At the top center was a dry stream that would produce waterfalls when it rained. From the mouth of the stream, streaks from minerals naturally stained the face of the rock; it looked like mother nature had spilled a giant can of paint while creating this wonder. June and I started walking that way on the path that went through the woods.
June stopped suddenly, hearing the cry of coyotes echoing through the air. She turned her head back and forth to determine the direction of the predators. It was hard to tell if the sound was coming from the left or the right. All the same, I hesitated to go any further. It would be reckless to lead my dog into a potentially dangerous situation, so we turned back toward the campsite.
Just then, we heard voices coming from the hill, soft laughter, and then the cry of the coyotes returned. June and I made our way to the top of the trail, where we found a young couple sitting with their feet hanging over the rock wall, looking into the amphitheater. The young man had some sort of wooden instrument next to him. It was about three feet long, hollow in the middle, and had all kinds of decorative carvings on the side. I asked him if he would play the instrument for us. "Awesome," he said. "Sometimes people think I'm disturbing nature when I play."
He pointed the instrument toward the dome and blew into it until it made a low bass tone. The sound echoed around the amphitheater. Then he took a deep breath and started making wolf sounds into the end. He'd move the tube from side to side until the echoes created an illusion of an entire wolf pack. He noticed the sounds put June on edge, "Maybe I shouldn't do that," he said.
It was time to go, "June, come on, girl; we need to go." My dog was confused. She looked at me, then left and right, then back at me, trying to figure out how I was calling her from several different places. When I saw this, I had to mess with her for just a bit. I said farewell to the young couple, then June and I started down the trail. "Let's go get Mom to see this," I told her.
Melissa, June, and I hiked back up the trail. At the top, the clicking of the shutter echoed as she began taking photos with her camera.
Another couple walked up with an Australian cattle dog mix on a leash. Both dogs growled a bit, which echoed, causing each of them to look to see if more dogs were coming. The dogs got along and began to play when we let them off their leashes. June found a stick and brought it to me to throw. When I did, both dogs went after the stick. "Oh June, it looks like you have some competition!" The dogs played, and we talked with the other couple for a while. Melissa pointed to the sky.
Ravens were flying overhead, enjoying the morning as well. They would fly into the amphitheater and call out, "Rawk, rawk, rawk." It sounded like there was an entire conspiracy of ravens with the echo, all though there were only three. Ravens are such characters; Melissa assured us they were doing it on purpose just to hear their own voices. Maybe the ravens wanted to become radio broadcasters, too.
The whole experience at the Echo Amphitheater was fantastic, the sights, the sounds, the feel – it was one I'll remember forever.
Had it not been for the ladies at the restaurant wasting an hour and twenty minutes of our daylight, we might have driven past it unnoticed. Who knows, maybe on the way home, we'll stop at that restaurant in Chama to thank them and give it another try. We've heard the green chili is really good.