The chatter of people engaging in the great outdoors should be music to my ears, but on this occasion, it's the most irritating sound in the world.
I roll my eyes at college students loudly discussing the role of epiphytes in an understorey ecosystem, and glare at children running amok along a forest trail, my inner librarian imploring them to return to their computer screens and leave nature to responsible, peace-loving adults. Shhhhhhh!
I'm in Washington State's Hoh Rain Forest, a primeval temperate rainforest in the World Heritage-listed Olympic National Park, a five-hour drive west of Seattle. In 2005, a tiny patch of this beautiful Game of Thrones-esque tangle of lichen-shrouded bigleaf maples and Sitka spruce was declared by acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton as the quietest spot in America, virtually untouched by the aural intrusions of humans.
The One Square Inch of Silence, marked by a red rock just off the Hoh River Trail five kilometres from the visitor centre, is one of just a dozen places in the lower 48 states that Hempton found to be devoid of noise pollution, such as car and jet engines, for at least 15-minute intervals during daylight hours.
To Australians accustomed to wilderness that might not seem like a big ask but in the densely populated United States and Europe, places untouched by man-made sounds are increasingly rare. Hempton's goal in pinpointing silent places is to push for protective legislation, along the lines of Dark Sky designation which recognises locations free from light pollution.
Sadly, in the 14 years since Hempton first placed the marker on a secluded mossy log in "the Hoh", as it's affectionately known, air traffic over the Olympic Peninsula has increased. Seattle-Tacoma Airport is now one of the country's busiest hubs, while Growler jets from a nearby navy base fly training missions overhead, rumbling in the stratosphere.
As I stroll the two most accessible trails in the park, I'm painfully aware of every distant plane, as well as car horns, my clicking camera, even the crunch of my shoes on gravel. It's a rare sunny day in this notoriously damp part of the world (the Hoh receives around four metres of rainfall a year) and every sound is amplified in the clear conditions.
Then, of course, there are those families enjoying the balmy weather, their screaming children treating the forest like their personal playground. Attitude check time. This is a playground, an ethereal fairy garden dripping with moss and lichen, a lush wonderland illustrating the cycle of life and death, with decaying nurselogs playing host to fungi, new shoots and air-feeding epiphytes.
In the aptly-named Hall of Mosses, I stare in awe at monumental bigleaf maples dripping with wispy spikemoss, rays filtering through the canopy illuminating emerald ferns and tangled undergrowth kept in check by grazing Roosevelt elk. It's breathtakingly beautiful and despite my initial annoyance, I can't help but smile at some little girls laughing and playing in this storybook grove.
But it's on the 28-kilometre Hoh River Trail, en route to the One Square Inch of Silence, that I truly appreciate this living cathedral. As the crowds diminish and the car park clatter subsides, so I stop to listen. I hear nothing. No planes, no cars, no chatter – just the murmur of the forest; the chirrup of birds, the snap of a twig, a rustle in the ferns, the bubbling of the nearby stream. The silence is deafening.
Julie Miller travelled with assistance from Olympic Peninsula Visitors Bureau and Visit Seattle.
Delta Airlines flies daily from Sydney to LAX on the upgraded 777, featuring the premium select cabin. Domestic transfers are available to Seattle. See delta.com
The closest town to Hoh Rain Forest is Forks (the setting for the Twilight series). Accommodation in the Forks Motel starts from $US69. See forksmotel.com
Entry to Olympic National Park is $US30 for a seven-day pass. See nps.gov