09/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHAT'S LOW, THROBBING, LOUDEST at night and irritating enough to drive some people to distraction? Hundreds of residents of previously tranquil Taos, N.Mex., wish they knew.
For months this scenic community, long a haven for artists and new agers, had been split between those losing sleep over a mysterious low-frequency hum and hear-nothings who called the alleged problem humbug. Families are feuding; at least one couple has split up. "She could hear it, he couldn't, and he had no sympathy for her sleeplessness and irritability," a friend says. But now it may be time for those who have turned a deaf ear to listen up. A Denver acoustical engineer has isolated and recorded the offending tone. Oscillating between 17 and 20 hertz, it would be audible only to those with acute hearing—and scientists are preparing to investigate.
Catanya Saltzman can't wait. It has been a stressful 16 months since the 44-year-old dancer and choreographer was "awakened in the middle of the night by this sound I could not get away from." A few weeks later her photographer husband, Bob, 47, who hadn't initially heard anything, was soaking in the tub when, he says, "I noticed my head was bobbing up and down the way you do when you're listening to music." Since then Catanya has had to give up dancing because the sound seems to affect her inner ear and sense of balance. Bob says he has trouble sleeping and is suffering from throbbing headaches. "The truth is," he says, "if we can't get this solved, we're going to have to move."
Earlier this year, when what Catanya a describes as the "low, pulsing drone" seemed to be building in intensity, she started driving around the area and found she could hear it for up to 30 miles from Taos in all directions. First she bought a typewriter and fired off letters to government agencies; then she wrote a letter to the Taos News. The response was deafening.
Mail quickly poured in from other residents, most of whom had been suffering in silence. The letters, and the discussion they sparked in the community, made it clear that this wasn't something that could be dismissed as "just the 'crystal gazers,' " says News editor Jess Williams. "I was convinced at first it was a hoax. But seeing the sound on an oscilloscope and talking to people who claim to be affected by it convinced me that it's out there."
Among those affected is Apollonio Ortiz, 55, superintendent of the Taos Country Club, who says, "I think I've been hearing it all my life." The explanations ventured are equally varied. Among them: aliens, the generator at the Taos Country Club, spirits of Taos Pueblo tribal ancestors, high-tension electrical wires, the Second Coming and underground testing at the Los Alamos National Laboratory 60 miles away. "You hear all kinds of goofy stories," says Ortiz. "I'm more of a believer that it's a natural phenomenon."
Reports of people who claim to feel the sound, like geologist Vickie Daniels, 41, who says sometimes her "ears ache from the pressure," aren't really farfetched, according to acoustical engineer Dana Hougland. "Sound is basically a pressure wave," explains Hougland, who isolated the Taos hum after two days of work with equipment including a sound-level meter and oscilloscope. She says disruptions in sleep and other feelings of discomfort are also not surprising in light of aerospace-industry experiments with low-frequency sound. Says Hougland: "You can make people feel like they can't breathe and can't see."
During the next several weeks Hougland and other engineers plan to conduct coordinated testing to pinpoint the source. And if it turns out to be something as down-to-earth as the local sewage treatment plant, nobody will be happier than Catanya Saltzman. This seems to be one instance in which few are banking on spiritual answers. "We desperately hope the sound is man-made," she says, "because then something can be done about it."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Taos