Suzanne and I are giddy with excitement as we stand alone in a small parking lot at Arches National Park. We hold in our hands a golden ticket, perhaps as rare and coveted as the famous golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory!
For a hiker-addict like Suzanne, getting a pair of last-minute tickets to the ranger-led Fiery Furnace Hike (that sells out months in advance), indeed feels like a getting a guided tour of the candy factory. We just happened to be at the Visitor’s Center the day before when a school group had turned back 5 of their excess tickets (that we and 3 other unsuspecting senior tourists were able quickly snatch up). I had wanted to treat Suzanne to this hike for her birthday after she had treated me to such a wonderful Star Party at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas back in March for my birthday, but had been unsuccessful in getting tickets until we happened to be “in the right place at the right time” at the VC for fate to intervene.
We arrive to an empty parking lot 15 minutes before the tour is to begin. Are we at the right place? A trailhead sign confirms that we are:
Soon, an “active elderly” couple arrive, jumping out of their car gleefully holding their prized golden ticket. Then, another solo senior drives up with hers.
The anticipation is now buzzing as a final group of cars and vans roll into the parking lot and a dozen 8th-graders begin bursting out of their vehicles with their 3 young teachers not far behind. Somehow, when Suzanne and I heard “school group cancellation” at the VC yesterday, we thought the entire school group had cancelled. Little did we know that we were now about to become honorary 8th grade students of Mr. Wiley’s for a day!
A handsome burley young mountain man, Mr. Wiley was probably not even born yet when Suzanne and I were fresh out of collage in our first careers. But he politely introduces himself as the 8th Grade advanced honors science teacher from a Denver charter school who will make sure that we and the 3 other “new students” are comfortably assimilated with our new fellow 13-year-old classmates.
Finally, our hike leader drives up. All of about 5 feet tall and 80 pounds, Ranger Alice hardly looks old enough to drive a car, let alone guide us through the dangerous and death-defying sandstone cliffs and twisty slot canyons known as the Fiery Furnace! But little Ranger Alice assumes quick command of our pubescent pack and lays out the first ground rule—if she raises her hand, we all need to stop immediately and listen.
The second rule is that we can only hike single-file like a bunch of elementary school kids marching in from recess, but there’s an important reason for this. Ranger Alice asks the class why and a few pre-teen hands fly up as us other new fellow students look at each other in bewilderment. “To minimize disruption of the cryptobiotic soil?” one girl answers. “That’s right!” replies Ranger Alice “Don’t bust the crust!”
Soon we are entering one of the first of many “canyons” formed by the tall fins of Entrada sandstone towering hundreds of feet over our heads. Ranger Alice leads us beneath this little archway and continues to ask the class various questions about the geology and biology around us. As the 13-year-olds continue to answer correctly like the future Jeopardy game show winners, doctors, and scientists they are surely to become, Suzanne and I begin to feel more like “Dumb and Dumber.” How on Earth have these kids managed to get so smart so fast?!!!
Soon, the kids are not only running circles around us intellectually, but they’re beginning to seriously out-pace us with their physical prowess as well. Ranger Alice decides us elder 8th-graders need to be moved to the front of the class so that she can keep a better eye on us and keep the younger gazelles from racing ahead. We gladly comply!
We arrive at a small “pothole” still filled with rainwater. One of the boys notices some tiny orange specs in the water, “Are these Fairy Shrimp?” he asks. “Yes, they are!” replies Ranger Alice. We then learn that these amazing creatures have adapted incredibly to their environment, with females being about to reproduce and lay eggs within just 41 days of their birth! What happens if the pool should dry up before their eggs can hatch? The eggs morph into a dehydrated state for as many months or years that it takes for moisture to return to the pool. Once it does, the eggs are miraculously rejuvenated and a cycle of life begins anew for these tiny little crustaceans. Isn’t nature simply amazing?!!!
We then gaze up at the arch formations above us. This one is called “Skull Arch” because it looks like an upside-down skull mask. Cool Halloween beans!
Just when I begin to think the warnings of this difficult 2-mile hike are all wrong, and that it’s nothing more than a slow-moving “walk and talk,” Ranger Alice begins leading us through a half-dozen rock climbing exercises. The first being to jump over a dark “bottomless pit” crevasse—just a simple jump of about 6 feet or so from one steeply sloped sand-covered slab of slickrock to another steeply-sloped slab.
I watch Ranger Alice and all my 13-year-old classmates hop over the gap with hardly a care in the world, but when I get up to the gap, what do I do? FREEZE!!! I make the mistake of looking down before I look forward. The 6 foot jump now looks about 60 feet wide and a hundred feet deep!
Mr. Wiley is on the other side of the gap extending his hand towards me, “Just grab my hand and look forward. I’ll catch you!” All I can imagine is me pulling beloved Mr. Wiley to his early demise at the bottom of the bottomless pit! Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but likely only a couple of minutes, Ranger Alice walks back to assess the situation. She spryly straddles the crevasse planting one foot on each side and extends her forearm in front of her to act as a newfound “railing” for me to hang onto as I then easily crossed the divide.
Guess I’ve majorly flunked the first test! Now on to test number two!
This one involves planting our arms on one cliff wall, while feet are planted on the other and then crawling sideways over the crevasse. Fortunately, this crevasse is only a couple feet deep and fully lit by the midday sun. I make it through this next challenge successfully. Yippee, my GPA might now be up to a C-minus!
After a few more penguin walks, and rock scrambles, we arrive to a very, VERY, narrow slot canyon that has one large 4 foot high “choke stone” that requires jumping up and over. By now, the pimple-faced boys ahead of me know I’ll be holding up the line (and the girl classmates of their young hearts’ desires behind me) if they do not intervene. When the young man ahead of me summits the choke stone, he turns and extends his hand “Can I help you up, Ma’am?” Thank goodness he spares me another visit from Ranger Alice! There are indeed smart, polite young men in our nation’s future!
Suzanne brings up the rear of the pack as we head into our final “room” of sandstone rock.
The room is nearly cave-like except for the slither of sky above us where the magnificent “Surprise Arch” embraces us overhead.
Ranger Alice has us all take our backpacks off, lay back and gaze up at this incredible scene as she reads a passage from Edward Abbey’s classic book “Desert Solitude.” Abbey, coincidentally, had been a ranger at Arches National Park, making his wonderful words now seem even more fitting and powerful.
We stop at one final slab to admire the tafoni as Mr. Wiley takes a quick photo of his old and new students,
and we admire the view from Fiery Furnace’s bizarre labyrinth of rock,
until finally it’s time to descend down the rocks and zig-zag our way back to the parking lot.
Suzanne and I most certainly felt like we had graduated from the 8th grade all over again after this hike, perhaps not the smartest or cutest kids in the class, but certainly kids still young at heart and eager to continue our life-long learning!
To celebrate our new knowledge and rock-scrambling skills, Suzanne peels the top off of “Bratty Tracker” and treats me to a convertible ride back down into Moab. What a grand and glorious day!