Soft noise

At first it actually sounded like river music, soft, steady and easy on the ears. Staring out over the Animas River’s swollen flow, it was an obvious connection. It also was what I wanted to hear on that day, a favorite sound in a favorite spot.

But unlike river music, this sound started growing in intensity. It was the same slow and easy “plink-plop, plink-plop” but becoming ever louder. Curiosity growing, my eyes left the river behind for a moment and scanned the horizon.

There in the distance, with its blade lifted, a smallish bulldozer in faded yellow ambled up the county road. Instantly, my river music evaporated beneath tank treads clinking on asphalt. My mind was blown under the slow motion of hardened steel and the puff of exhaust. Fascination became disappointment.

Save for a heated, but ultimately disappointing, toddler’s love affair with Tonka, heavy machinery has never done it for me. I once dug, dumped and compacted, but only on a sand-box scale. Backhoes seemed best with plenty of moving pieces, two buckets and big rear tires.

But big rear tires and moving parts don’t count for much in the fifth grade and beyond. By high school, my attention was focused on nonmetallic moving parts. And after donning my first blue collar, I was never considered competent enough to operate the big dogs and happily became a shovel specialist.

Lately, heavy equipment has too often been an unhappy messenger. Earth movers tend toward high speed, blitzing across natural landscapes in a fury of beeps. In their wake, they leave sculpted bluegrass contrails.

Still, on that day at the Animas, there was something so seductive about the sound. In contrast to the familiar roar and beep, it was soft and deliberate. It had pace and meaning, rhythm and purpose. And I watched intently as the cat inched up the road, following a powerful lure back into the sand box.

As it approached, I saw one of the valley’s remaining ranchers, riding with pride and surveying his surroundings with wide eyes. He, too, was moving in slow motion, partly to gratify the machine, but I sensed more to feast his senses and feed his mind on the magic of his section of this river valley and a life’s work.

And as he moved down that road, it became clear that, to him, the dozer was no bigger than a common fencing hammer. It had the same end as a spade and was a tool used to shape the earth with care. What set him and the tool apart were elements of style and grace. With him at the wheel, the noise dropped to a level of softness, the machine gained a romantic nature. River music, indeed.

As he puttered out of sight, I climbed back out of the sand box.

I gently pulled on and deliberately snapped my helmet, slipped back into my pedals with two mellow clicks and eased my bike into gear. Moving my machine down the road, I eased back, slowed down and looked around the Animas Valley. No need to rush today, I thought. No need to dull the experience.

Gradually, the turn of my pedals and the grind of rubber gained a softness, a harmony. And my short afternoon spin beneath blue skies began to play like river music.

-Will Sands




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