The biggest goal for my time back in Southern Utah, besides visiting family, was a hike to The Wave. Located just over the border in Arizona, the hike is famously hard to do, not because the hike itself is too difficult, but because permits are hard to get. Only twenty people are allowed permits to visit The Wave on any given day; ten of twenty are available in an online lottery three months in advance, and the remaining ten are given out the day before the hike.
My cousin Shannon also wanted to go before she relocates to Oregon some time this year, so we were determined to make it happen. The two of us woke up early one Wednesday morning and arrived at the BLM office at 8:00 am sharp, prepared to fill out the paperwork. This was completely unnecessary. The door to the lottery room does not open until 8:30, and the application paperwork only takes maybe five minutes. We milled around until lottery draw at 9:00 am, in a room that was packed. There were 148 hopeful hikers for ten available permits. But it was better than yesterday, said the likable BLM ranger: “yesterday it was over 160”. People were crowding between rows of seats, and into the hallway, waiting.
The lottery was over by 9:05 am. Our number wasn’t picked.
We thought seriously about hiking The Wave anyway, without a permit. We had this moment of defiance. I mean, we’re locals! Never mind that I’d had my chance, even if I didn’t realize how close the wave was when I lived here as a teen. Growing up out here The Wave was always just a photo on display on businesses' walls, much like those of Horseshoe Bend, or any of the myriad arches in the area. People actually visit here? Naw…
Also, some people we know kind of indicated that rangers never patrol out there, anyway. This was implied by the rangers themselves, inside information, like when some official gives you a tip for how to save time in lines at the DMV office. You know, if you come down here just before lunch on a Tuesday… But we didn’t know how to get to The Wave without the directions provided with the permit. So we hiked a non-permit trail above Kanab, instead, and decided to try again for Wave permits later.
The drive from where we were staying to the BLM office was forty minutes, making the application process a challenge. For days after our first try for permits, we found ourselves too busy to drive into Kanab for what felt like a long-shot anyway. But then Scott and I checked into a temporary townhouse rental which turned out to be a convenient 100 yards from the BLM office. I had new determination to go over every morning for the lottery until we won our permits.
That first morning, another Wednesday, I walked over late, kind of bleary eyed and dressed in whatever I’d retrieved off the floor from the night before. I turned my application in a few minutes before 9 am, and found a seat. There was less of a crowd this time. Only numbers in the mid 120s for those 10 lucky permits.
Our number was 26, and nine of the ten permit slots were filled before they called it out. It took me by surprise. I was already thinking about what I’d make for breakfast when I walked back to the townhouse. When it registered our number had been called, my hand shot up, like, “Oh me!” although luckily I didn’t shout it out and make a fool of myself.
We were able to get two permits, thanks to the BLM’s “plus-one” rule for situations when there is only one permit left in the lottery. The ranger gave me my bright green permit and a detailed map. Breakfast would have to wait until after orientation, but I did not mind.
Later that day I bought a wide brimmed hat (50 SPF) from my favorite little shop here in Kanab (They also have great coffee. I never fail for excuses to stop in for a cappuccino), Willow Canyon. I borrowed the Mudge’s Camelback and filled it with snacks and gear I might need. I set my trusty trail runners out. I was ready! Scott gave me a little ribbing for my girl-scout style prep, but I was not dissuaded.
The next morning, Shannon picked me up in her little Toyota truck and we were off, down the highway with tunes blasting. After parking, the trailhead starts off in a sandy wash, all dusty colors strewed with chalky gravel. The morning coolness and the slightly more subtle early pre-bake desert sunlight mixed with our rose-colored attitude and made the hike beautiful right from the beginning. We’re doing this!
After the first of only four guideposts on the hike, we left the wash and scrambled up the first hill onto the first sandy plain, trudging through the coral-pink sand around sagebrush and clumps of long silvery grass drooping over the path. Stone formations in the distance gave us a direction to walk. This is where the hike started to really impress. We went slowly, taking in views, taking pictures, and cursing the limitations of technology for capturing the essence of the place. Once we crossed over the first ridge, the pale rusts and creamy muted colors started deepening, with brick-reds and the occasional intense orange of the stone playing against the neon indigo sky.
We stopped for lunch between the Twin Buttes, conical sandstone formations that served as a signpost and navigation point along the hike. We perched on a ledge, eating cheese and granola bars. Two hikers we had seen on the trail caught up and passed us; two guys who looked lost as they glanced from paper directions to GPS unit and back again. I was feeling a little bit self-conceited using only the directions and a good old fashioned compass, but it turned out they were BLM employees checking the accuracy of the directions. I checked a bit of my ego back into my pack and instead, chewed my granola over the spectacular view. I was glad to realize they were not so clueless as they looked.
The last push at the end of the hike was the most difficult. There is a steep sand hill to reach the saddle in the rock ridge you must cross to reach The Wave. A steep hill with shifting sand that slides out from underfoot. We named the hill, “Our Nemesis” but we scaled it and the rest of the way becomes more gradual, if still uphill. When we arrived at the sandstone formation for which this hike is famous, we were a bit winded and sun-weary.
Arriving at The Wave felt a little bit anticlimactic. We had crossed eerie vistas full of twisted formations of stone, alone, only glimpses of a couple other hikers besides the BLM pair. Crossing mile after mile (so it seemed) of No Man’s Land and we arrive at our destination, only to find it overrun with people.
There could not have been more than twenty people, but it felt like a crowd. There were several photographers who all seemed to leave their equipment laying around in prime photo spots. An adorable Asian family wandered through, all sun-hatted but not carrying any other gear, their children following along like ducklings. “I’m thirsty,” said one of the children, a boy maybe six years old, when they passed a pool of water that had settled in depression in the rock.
A young photographer took forever setting up just the right shot of a girl in athletic gear, her leg a prosthetic from the thigh, as she held a handstand in the center of The Wave. They were joined by some other young people after the photo and went hiking up the hill with their gear on their backs, looking as they went, like a more polished version of a crew out of a post-apocalyptic television show.
There was also a ranger who checked our permit, chatting casually as he did so. We were so glad we had not gone through with our ill-conceived plan to hike without a permit. Apparently the fines could be pretty steep.
Shannon and I scaled around the ridge checking out other formations in the area while we waited for a better photo opportunity, but we found ourselves drawn back down toward The Wave. From anywhere around on the ridge, it stands out, the lines on the stone flowing like rivers toward the depression.
We had first arrived to find the crowd at the end of The Wave’s prime photo hours (2pm), and an hour later the people had emptied out like downtown just after morning rush-hour. One last photographer took her time, folding her tripod and packing her gear right in the middle of the formation, completely oblivious to the fact that we were on the hill above, waiting, cameras in hand. Finally, she left. The imperfect afternoon light had scared away the crowds of photographers with their thousands of dollars in equipment, but the gathering shadows were too shallow to dissuade us amateurs. By mid-afternoon, we had the whole place to ourselves.
When we had enough of our study of light and stone, we dawdled on our way out, oohing and aahing over wildflowers nestled in among the cactus: red, purple and white. The way back seemed longer, as it always does. There are fewer landmarks to guide you traveling in the return direction from The Wave and, while we did not deviate much, we found ourselves on the “alternate path” shown in the guide crossing the sandy plain, a little bit of a animal track that connects back up to the main path again before the steep descent toward the wash.
The wash, all washed-out (ahem) colors and grit, did not seem as special on the way back. Our knees were sore from all the downhill hiking on the return. Trudging along toward the end, feeling sun-baked, we realized acutely why napping is the preferred way to spend a desert afternoon. We just kept stepping down, carefully placing our feet as we backtracked our way toward the truck. But we finally made it, and we did not get lost, thanks to my trusty little compass. In the ride back we kept the window down and rocked out to the radio. We did it! Our goal to meet in Southern Utah: Done!