The Seattle PI profiles acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton and his work on urban soundmarks. Gordon learned his craft while working as a messenger

Hempton lived here from 1978 to 1994, working for years as a downtown bike messenger. While dodging cars and buses he developed his “seuketat” – Eskimo for “ears of an animal.”

I know the sounds of the city cited in the article and the sounds of bikes in a peloton, group ride, and bike stand. I also listen intently when I’m delivering cargo.

There’s a bottom bracket creak, a loose seat, and dry chain. That distinctive whap-crunch-smack sound of a crash. I can also detect Hed or Zipp wheels and the breathing of someone working hard on a climb.

Air, Metal, Rubber

The peloton makes curious metallic, whooshing sounds. It’s air being pushed by wheels. Chains against cogs. Rubber on the road and legs turning pedals.


Photo: Kevin Tumara

You get close to it once, hear it, and you’ll never forget it. I focused on Time Trials once many seasons ago. Went to Nationals and would count the helicopter-like whoops from my Tri-Spokes to gauge how fast I was going (it’s an old mental trick to not look at your speedo, especially in a headwind).

Monkey Music

The current most identifiable soundmark for me is the one Bettie makes at full Cargo speed. I recorded it for an NPR project and you can hear it in this video. There’s a harmony to it, a working, churning hum. Todd swears my Stokemonkey is the only one that does that. Well good and cool if so.

Ride Ears

What do you hear when you ride?

Gordon’s got a book out on One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World.

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