The time machine

By Sandy Compton
Special to the Reader

I spend a lot of time on the road between Hope and Paradise. I have a home along that road. It’s the initial route I take to almost anywhere, whether it’s a drive to town for work or pleasure, or the first leg of a journey to some adventure far away. 

There is always something to see, if I care to look. The road is never boring, winding as it does between stone up there and water down there. Some of the passages are narrow, indeed. My father called it “our last natural barrier” between the roaring modern world and home. It’s caused me to question my sanity on nights when oncoming lights reflect off the icy pavement or millions of streaking feathers of snow come at me and at me until I think I may go blind.

On one of those trips, a small paper sign appeared beside the eastbound lane where the highway turns to follow Pack River out to the lake. It had an arrow pointing east and the words “Time Machine — Free Rides.”

I had to laugh. Did the sign maker know how truly they represented the road when they drove the stake into the shoulder above the delta? Have they been to my house, relic of another time, grown from a seed planted by my grandfather, braced up by my parents and built on a model invented in Scandinavia thousands of years ago? Did they know my brother and I would stop a few days before and watch the ancient dance between predator and prey as an eagle stalked an elusive loon?

Maybe they thought of the time warp at the border, where our chronological ties to Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are sliced off by the sharp, invisible edge of Mountain Time, and travelers slip into the epoch of Butte, Provo and Albuquerque.

Someone perceptive put up that sign, recognizing the road itself as a time machine. I am glad they pointed it out, for it explains what happened to me one December night when I felt an urge to stop in the dark to gaze at the sky and the lights across the lake.

It’s not fair to just sit in the car and look unless company and conversation are available. It’s good to get out and taste the night, feel new air on the skin, find a new star, perhaps, or an old friend hanging in the void. It’s good to wait for a hole in the sounds of our busy world, step into it when it comes, and be immersed in the loudest and longest noise in the Universe — the stars singing to themselves as they race through space toward times to come, the clamor of silence.

That night, I stood up to my ears in that sound, until another made its way into my consciousness, so faint that only its persistent rhythm and an absence of other distractions allowed me to hear it. At first, I doubted what I was hearing, but as eyes adjust to seeing in low light, my ears adjusted to that tiny noise flowing off the mountain.

I couldn’t hear the lyrics, but I knew the song, riding to me on the singular sound of a piano through still, cold air. I recognized the tune and by that, what the choir was singing — a libretto ancient and familiar:

“‘Hark,’ the herald angels sing, ‘glory to the newborn King …’”

I found myself mouthing the words without noise, wanting to hear all I could of that concert. “‘… peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled …’”

I have no idea how far back — or forward — in time I was thrust, but the song continued to slip through the silence and down the mountain. I have never been so close to what I might imagine was the experience of shepherds in the stories listening to celestial music, and I sang along silently to the rocks and trees and mountains and the big, wide lake.

“Silent night,” we sang, “holy night. All is calm, all is bright …”

I know. Somewhere up on Eagan Mountain, someone was playing a piano or maybe just listening to a recording. The music was leaking out of their house and coming to me on the evening breeze. I mean, given a choice of all the joyful noises in the Universe, would angels really sing “Silent Night”?

I can’t say that they would, but I have never been so touched by that old song as I was standing in the dark along my favorite road, looking at the lights of my favorite town across the lake, straining to hear the celestial music. Maybe my road, the time machine with free rides, transported me for some few, wonderful moments to where angels sing old favorites in tiny voices and inner urges are the Universal Voice asking us to stop and listen.

Happy holidays to all of you, from out on the scenic route.

This story is adapted from Sandy Compton’s book, The Scenic Route: Life on the Road Between Hope and Paradise. More of his writing and books can be found at

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