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Soundtrack of Silence

By Andrew McCarthy

As a small boy playing alone in my yard, I sometimes imagined television cameras hiding behind trees and under bushes, filming my every move. My secret reality show (long before the existence of reality TV) pacified me and helped me feel less alone. As I grew and began to venture out into the world, I found a similar form of relief from the very specific solitude brought on by travel far from home: listening to music. But lately I’ve begun to question the curation of my encounters on the road. What exactly might I be missing by shutting out the world I’ve come to experience by retreating behind some greatest hits?

A few years ago, while in a remote village in northern Sudan, I surrendered to the solace brought on by my earbuds. Today, my overriding memory of that village (the name of which is long gone, thus proving my point) is of the Patti Scialfa song I played over and over during those few days. Nearly lost in the iShuffle of significance are the three soldiers with AK-47s and toothy smiles with whom I sat and smoked hookah in a cinder-block shed, and the old woman who made me ful medames in her kitchen and nodded with knowing pride as I sat on a three-legged stool and forced the stuff down. These incidents might well be charged with more meaning had I not arbitrarily orchestrated my experience with the comforting sound of a familiar tune that now dominates my recollection of that very particular time and place.

Luckily, just a few days later, in the northern desert not far from the ancient city of Old Dongola—now only a few crumbling and lonely pillars jutting up from windswept, shifting dunes—sleeping on a mat in the sand under a gauzy sky, I had no access to the music I yearned for to lull me to sleep. I cursed not budgeting my battery supply, and was left in deafening silence, staring up into the Milky Way. After an uncomfortable and unknowable elapsing of pliable time, with no way to control my environment or modulate my experience, I felt a sense of expansion and connection not only to my surroundings but to the entire planet and the constellations above. I was filled with a sense of continuity and  belonging that still feeds me years later.

And what might have happened had I been listening to a consoling playlist to ease my homesick ache while in the high plains of northern Spain? Halfway into a 500-mile walk along the Caminode Santiago, lonely and despairing of myself, in a field of chafing wheat, I burst into tears and dropped my cool facade. In the moment of my unexpected and unaccompanied collapse came a liberation from a lifetime of discomfort that I daresay might never have been possible had I been strutting down the trail, singing along to Bruno Mars.

There are, of course, times when I allow myself a vacation from my vacation. When I’m flying, Tom Waits often accompanies me at 35,000 feet with his melancholy rasp, my mind drifting in a reverie it only seems to achieve while gazing at the curve of the earth. But more and more, while in alien territory, I try to resist dictating how I might best experience the Patagonian steep or Saharan dunes by deciding what music I’ll filter my experience through.

I’m no longer that little boy needing pacification during a lonely afternoon, and time has shown me that my uncomfortable state is often the first indication that something big and worthwhile is on my doorstep. It is our sheer aloneness, our dependence on the kindness of strangers, our having to put ourselves out on a limb—both emotional and physical—without any mollification that makes travel truly, deeply potent. Sidestepping that, short-circuiting it by hitting play, is the last thing I’m interested in doing. So the next time I’m in Rome and tempted to turn up the Rolling Stones and tune out the sound of Italian street noise, I’m hitting the off button to let the wide world rock my socks to its unpredictable, singular, transcendent beat—even if there is a camera hiding behind the Pantheon.


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Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Union Square In conversation with Gayle Forman 33 E. 17th St., New York, NY 10003 Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Vernon Hills Shopping Center 680 Post Rd., Eastchester, NY 10583 Thursday, March 30 at 7pm Books & Greetings 271 Livingston St., Northvale, NJ 07647 Saturday, April 1 Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX Sunday, April 2 Alamo Drafthouse | Austin, TX Monday, April 3 at 7pm Books, Inc Opera Plaza Not Your Mother’s Book Club 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94107 Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm Book Passage 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925 Wednesday, April 5 at 8pm Live Talks LA In conversation with Pico Iyer Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404 Thursday, April 6 at 7pm Elliott Bay Books 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122 Friday, April 7 at 7pm Powell’s Books 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 Sunday, April 9 at 5pm Politics & Prose 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 Monday, April 10 at 7pm Boswell Books 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211 Tuesday, April 11 at 7pm The Book Stall at Chestnut Court In conversation with Betsy Bird 811 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093 Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm Talk of the Stacks Series Hennepin County Library Minneapolis Central Library 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401 Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm Parnassus Books Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center 3900 Hillsboro Pike #14, Nashville, TN 37215 Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30pm Rainy Day Books At Woodneath Library 8900 N. Flintock Rd., Kansas City, MO 64157 Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm St. Louis County Library With The Novel Neighbor 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131 Thursday, April 20 at 7pm Georgia Center for the Book With Little Shop of Stories Dekalb County Public Library 215 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA 30030 Friday, April 21 at 7pm Books & Books 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134 Tuesday, April 25 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Market Fair, 3535 US-1 #400, Princeton, NJ 08540 Wednesday, April 26 at 7pm Brookline Booksmith 279 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446 Monday, May 1 at 7pm Darien Library In conversation with Dani Shapiro 1441 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820