Vail Daily column: Sounds of the night |

Vail Daily column: Sounds of the night

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

We had dinner last night in a new restaurant owned by a good friend of mine. It was so loud that I had to get up and sit on the other side of the table next to my wife so we could hear each other talk. Later, the owner explained that restaurants today are designed with acoustics that will always be very loud.

On the way home we talked about how night sounds have changed with each passing year. As we drove through the harvest-moon night, it brought back memories of some of the unique night sounds that I remembered for the rest of my life.

In 1943, I first heard a night sound that later became very familiar on clear moonlight nights. I had driven my date up to Malibu to show her what the ocean looks like under a full moon. (My wife says, yeah, right.)

I had my redwood surfboard sticking out of the back of my car and when I pulled off of the highway onto the shoulder, high waves were breaking crisply along the beach. After sharing the evening with my date and a half an hour of mentally riding each and every one, I paddled out to try to ride a wave at midnight. I had never surfed at night before but when I finally managed to catch one, the sound of the waves breaking behind me along with a splash of the wake of my surfboard made me feel as though my overseas Navy assignment was a long way away.

Two years later, I heard almost that same sound but so but much louder. I was surrounded by 60-foot high waves that were crashing all around me. This scene was mixed with the stinging spray of the typhoon force winds while I was aboard a ship that was sinking in the South Pacific in the end of World War II. The shouts of the officers and the enlisted men, the plunk of the munitions that we threw over the side as rapidly as possible to lighten the ship, all came together in a symphony for survival. We somehow managed to stay afloat until dawn when we were picked up by another ship in the convoy.

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In 1968, on a freezing cold clear evening, I heard the flup, flup, flup of helicopter blades as a pilot tried to lift our terrified bodies off the summit of the Tasman glacier in New Zealand aboard a three-place helicopter. Somehow it lifted five of us plus an extra 100 pounds of camera equipment. There was only room inside for three of us so two skiers were tied on the outside like a couple of dead deer. The whine of the turbine engine was way above the red danger mark on the instrument panel when the pilot finally got us far enough into the air so we could fall off the nearby cliff and get enough airspeed for the rest of the trip. The sigh of the pilot as he finally quit holding his breath in his extra effort to help the engine get airborne was lower than the whine of the jet engine.

It was very quiet as my wife, Laurie, and I drove into our driveway and the harvest moon was shining brightly on the water in front of our house. We startled three deer nibbling on the bushes alongside of our fence and their cloven hoofs sounded alien. It was a cool night so we stayed in the hot tub long enough to want to fall asleep, climbed in a hot shower and we were both finally in bed and falling asleep when we were startled by a very strange sounds coming from the salt-chuck out in front of the house. There are sounds the dock makes when there are waves and wind and there is no combination of letters in the alphabet that can describe but we were used to those. Neither of us could figure out what was causing it so we put on our bathrobes and walked down towards our dock. The sound were as if it was a combination of waves breaking at Malibu, the howling wind in the typhoon in the South Pacific mixed with helicopter noises for counterpoint and all mixed together with the volume turned down.

Swimming just off the end of our dock was a large pod of orcas or killer whales that even under the harvest moon was impossible to count. They spouted, many times as they chased of school of salmon down the path of the moonlight on the water. They spy hopped and dove down with their tails appearing. They seemed to be having a great party. Their gradually lessening spouting sounds became quieter as they all swam on west through the pass between the islands. Finally they were through the narrow pass and headed to who knows where as silence once again settled around us. We walked slowly back up to the house when the cooing of a loon disturbed by the noise of the passing orcas was a lovely sound in the night. Then there was darkness without a sound. Because of their very sophisticated underwater echo-ranging gear, whales are able to navigate through the inky black water through several hundred islands in the middle of the night while chasing their dinner and never hit a rock.

Night sounds can be terrifying but they also can be very soothing.

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto

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