Firing Order: The Sounds of Wheeling

Firing Order

I've been thinking about the sounds of off-roading and how we integrate what we're hearing into our driving as well as how sound has an effect on the overall wheeling experience. One of the most memorable wheeling days I've had was filled with awesome sounds.

It was early in the morning and I was piloting a Jeep Wrangler up the Imogene Pass trail near Telluride, Colorado. The soft top was folded back and I was bombarded with sounds. The T-case was emitting a low whine in 4-Lo as the Jeep climbed up the trail, and the good ol' 4.0L I-6 was producing a growl as it pulled in higher rpms. I could hear small stones crunching and shifting under the all-terrain tires. On the shelf road near Society Tunnel, the stone and engine sounds reverberated off the rock wall to my left. In the tunnel, there were a few echo-filled moments and increased noises as the sound bounced off the walls. By the time I got to Savage Basin at approximately 11,800 feet of elevation, the wind had increased; it whistled around the windshield and rollbar, which added a mind-psych soundtrack to the cooler temperatures, making it feel colder than it really was. Above the tree line on top of Imogene Pass, all I could mostly hear was the wind. Up there on the top of that pass, far from "civilization," it seemed weird to hear the sound of the Jeep's door when I pushed it closed. A sound that is white noise in the city can seem very odd in the backcountry.

As I pointed the Jeep down the trail toward Ouray, the stones and rocks in the trail became more varied in size. Soon the tinkling of smaller stones under the tires was replaced with a deeper tone, as fist-sized rocks were displaced by the all-terrains. There's a definite difference in tone between a small and large rock moving under a rig's tires, and whether we realize it or not, as we wheel our brains are adding that data to our other active senses. As I dropped in elevation and entered the tree line, the wind pushing through the pine trees became pronounced. Soon the trail was dotted with water crossings, the small ones producing just a slight sound as I passed by, while larger ones roared with snowmelt. The splashing sound of the Jeep's tires pushing through the water joined the scores of other sounds.

I love the sounds of wheeling. But there are sounds I could do without. I'm less than enthused when my Backcountry Symphony is interrupted by sounds of things going wrong. By far, the not-so-great sound I've heard the most is the hissing of a punctured tire. That sound, often rising and falling as the tire rotates, can be very short-lived or continue on for a while, depending on the type of puncture. Other sounds I can do without: engine coolant hissing from a hose, banging from a ring-and-pinion, the pop of a U-joint failing, and a lower link bar dragging on the ground (that's another story for another time).

Some may think it's strange, but I like the sound of a winch. Even though the sound often translates to a stuck 4x4, I think of the sound as an indicator that someone is pushing the limits with their 4x4 and learning what works and what doesn't. To me, the sound of a winch is reassuring and welcome.

Heck, I even like the sounds that happen after the trail. Recently I was in camp after a day of exploring and I was listening to all the sounds. It was a hodgepodge: tools being used to repair rigs, the sound of tent zippers, bottles being uncapped, cooking gear being used, and the crackling of a campfire.

Right about then I heard the sound of an electric impact wrench and I had to go see what was going on.