127 Hours of True Isolation

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on April 25, 2011 • views: 594

I finally got a chance to see the movie 127 Hours a couple weeks ago. After all the accolades I was looking forward to finally getting a chance to share in what everyone was talking about—the amazing story of this young man who cut off his own arm to survive in the middle of the Utah desert.

Like most people, I followed the news story when it broke. A young man named Aron Ralston struck out for a day of adventure in Canyonlands National Park. Negotiating the narrow passageway through Blue John Canyon, he became trapped when a stray boulder jarred loose and pinned his arm against the rock. For the next five days he tried everything to get loose, including chipping away at the boulder, leveraging and lifting it with ropes, and even attempting to cut his arm with a knife too dull to make it through the bone. In the end, when he’s near death, he finds the courage to break the bone by applying force on his forearm, and cuts the rest away with the dull knife. Once free, he still has to hike several miles out of the canyon and rappel down a 65-foot rock face before he meets some fellow travelers who get him the help he needs.

The story is an incredible tale of survival and the human will to live, but when I watched it I was struck by one thing: Aron’s total and complete isolation. Once trapped, he goes through several stages of emotions, including shock, anger and fear. But that night and the following morning, what seems to hit him the hardest is the stark isolation surrounding him.

I grew up about 100 miles from Canyonlands. I know what the desert looks like between eastern Utah and Western Colorado. I enjoyed many hours horseback riding on the soft clay roads over miles and miles of land that belonged to the Bureau of Land Management. The closest I ever got to experiencing the stark solitude of the desert, however, was in a valley about five miles south of my mom’s ranch. On board my trusty Quarter Horse mare, I would follow the rocky path between the hills until I rounded the corner to look out over a vast valley that stretched for miles and miles into the distance, flanked by the Grand Mesa on the eastern side, trimmed with wart-like hills to the far south, and etched with threads of gullies that dropped ten feet or more into the earth.

Only a handful of times did I set out early enough to traverse part of the valley and get back before dark. But those few times I remember well. Most of the time my progress was halted by coming upon one of those gullies that was too steep and too dangerous to cross, after which I’d have to turn back. But before doing that I’d pause for a break, unwrap the lunch I’d brought and marvel at the absolute silence around me, for out there was a vast stretch of nothing. No cars, no distant highway, no civilization of any kind. No birds, and a lot of times, not even any wind. The silence was so engulfing it was like being in another world—one that had experienced the apocalypse and had yet to be reborn.

I had my horse with me, and in a lot of ways she was my best friend. When I watched the movie, my heart broke for Aron’s experience of utter, desolate isolation. He was trapped out in the middle of the still, unforgiving desert, with no one and nothing to keep him company. No cell phone. No television. No radio. Not even a horse.

Few of us can even imagine a place like that anymore. Our lives are so permeated by noise and distractions from every direction, we hardly know what it’s like to be really, truly alone. Unlike Aron, however, most of us are afraid of such an experience not because we fear for our lives, but because in a situation like that, we have no choice but to come face-to-face with ourselves so completely, we can no longer look the other way.

Aron’s long journey into his own soul reveals many things: his sadness over losing his ex girlfriend, his deep love for his family, and finally, in the end, his strong hope for a future when he will raise a son. (Which by the way, comes true.) I wouldn’t recommend anyone go off alone on an adventure—as Aron learned, it’s always best to let somebody know, just in case. But I often find myself thinking fondly of those few days spent out in the valley, just my horse and me, when everything was so quiet, I couldn’t help but hear myself think. It seems to be a rare experience these days.

© Dgrilla | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

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