“But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt. It is fixed and blind, a robot programmed to kill. We are free and seeing: we can only try to outwit it at every turn to save our skins.” –Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
We slept on hard desert earth. We slept in a yellow tent over red dirt, beneath red towers of rock. We slept poorly and woke stiff and sore. We moved slowly in the mornings.
I ate oatmeal heated over a camp stove. I drank tepid water from my water bottle. I blinked over and over again, forcing my face to adjust to daylight.
I thought we were too late. We didn’t get to the park until after 10:00am. We walked into the visitor’s center and hustled to the front desk.
“Are there anymore permits left for the fiery furnace?” I asked the park ranger.
“There’s a few left,” she said. “Have you been in before?”
We both shook our heads and I couldn’t help but grin. I told her it would be our first time, and we were incredibly excited.
“We recommend that you go with a park ranger led group the first time,” she said, holding the permit in her hand, but not passing it over the desk.
“I know,” I said. “But we’d really like to do it on our own.”
The park ranger hesitated, but handed us the permit and showed us where to sign. We watched a five-minute movie about where to hike in the furnace and where to avoid. Walk over slick rock and washes, don’t step on the biocrust. Carry a lot of water. Speak softly as sound carries through the sandstone canyons. Be out by sunset.
The fiery furnace has no trails. It is a maze of towering sandstone walls, narrow passages, and dead ends. GPS devices don’t work within the labyrinth, compasses can tell you north, but can’t tell you how to get there. There are no maps. It is just you and your wit and your judgment.
When we began, we tried to remember major milestones. A giant rock that looked like a T-Rex, a hole you had to climb through. But after a few hours, we gave up, and just let the rocks and washes take us where they would.
Edward Abbey once said the best way to experience the desert is to crawl through it on your hands and knees, which is precisely what we did.
We slid through tight places, scraped the skin on our palms and legs. We climbed up to the peaks of the sandstone walls and slid back down, successfully ripping a hole in my shorts and leaving brush burns down my thighs.
We wandered this way for hours. We saw an occasional hiker, but for the most part, we were alone.
It wasn’t until the end of the day that we stumbled upon the most incredible part of the fiery furnace. A steep climb up sandstone, using hands and feet, led us into the cool, shaded enclosure of canyon walls.
The sandstone towered over us creating a vast emptiness in between its embracing walls. We whispered to each other as we walked over the cool, pink sand.
Great smooth walls led us to hidden arches, to quiet pools of still water, to mysterious dead ends. Our whispers reverberated over the sandstone and I could feel the hum of our voices deep inside my head.
We paused our hike at a pile of sand next to a deep green pool at the base of one of the walls. I lay down, my skin tingling from the cool sand that pressed into my body, my scrapes and cuts burned. The sky above was deeply, impossibly blue. Not a single cloud passed the sliver of sky between the canyon walls. I closed my eyes and listened to the silence. No birds, no wind, no voices.
Slow down. Come closer. The earth moves beneath your body. A brief figure often forgotten. Recede into your cellular being. Sights like these remind us of the scope of motion and time.
I felt dead. I was listening for Ed Abbey. Can you feel the energy of a decomposing body buried beneath desert sand? I believe you can.
I clung to the earth as though it might let me go, flinging me into the landscape of the universe.
Slow down. Come closer.
There exists the reason for love of the earth. Let anyone lay down in that quiet canyon, covered in cuts and bruises from the journey, muscles twitching with overuse, and they too will want perpetual existence of this solitude. They too will want man to stop his constant need for dominion over that natural space, over that sliver of sky, over the towering walls that remind you just how small you are.