The Movie “172 Hours,” the Furnace in Arches National Park, and Me

Don and Goldie at Arches National Park

What do you think when you see this picture of Don and me? That we are enjoying a moment of  quiet repose, soaking in the scenery of Arches National Park and breathing in the dry desert air?

We are standing at the fenced off entrance to the Fiery Furnace waiting for the ranger who will lead us through this area so convoluted with slot canyons (narrow passages), fins (slim vertical rocks), and other rocks that casual visitors are not allowed into the Furnace by themselves. The park service requires that you sign up for a ranger guided tour or obtain a special permit. Tourist books call the Fiery Furnace a maze or a labyrinth; it is also one of the most incredible and spectacular spaces in the park. The route through requires scrambling and squeezing through tight spaces. We had each paid our non-refundable $25 for the trip, there was a waiting list of people who didn’t make the quota, and in the picture I am wondering if this trip is something I really want to do.

I was sick. I had left home with “a little cold,” and the heat (over ninety degrees every one of these September days), the altitude (over 6,000 feet), and my dehydration from the first two had made my little cold much worse. I seemed to be constantly coughing, and I had already started on my second box of cough drops for the day. On the other hand, I knew this was probably the only time in my life that I would have the opportunity to go through the Fiery Furnace. I felt miserable, so of course I chose to go with the ranger. I coughed my way through: I scrambled, crawled, and squeezed. I ate cough drops. Near the end of the tour, the ranger had the group spread out on a flat area, surrounded on all sides by straight rock walls. She told us to lie back and look at the sky, while she led us through the millions of years of history of this remarkable place. It was a beautifully meditative moment, and I was out of cough drops. I coughed and coughed. Finally another hiker offered me her supply. At the end of the tour, I apologized to the ranger, I apologized to the other hikers. They were generous and lovely. They said I had not disturbed them, they said I was wonderful, a role model, a real trooper. We want to be like you when we grow up, these young people assured me.

What does this incident have to do with the movie, “172 Hours,” about a single hiker trapped in a slot canyon who amputated his own arm in order to escape? Only that we watched the movie and I was reminded of the Fiery Furnace, I thought again of how dangerous the wilderness can be and how fool-hardy it can be to take chances there. After the Fiery Furnace, I dragged through the rest of our time in Colorado, went on to my 60th high school reunion like a zombie, and when I came home my doctor told me I had pneumonia.

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