In the back room of a nondescript government building in Kanab, Utah, a middle-aged Chinese man in street clothes taps the bottom of his empty coffee cup, anxious for his number to be called. A group of 20-somethings straight out of an REI catalog forms a good luck scrum, jumping up and down as if they’ve already won, hydration tubes bouncing. A pair of Germans in motorcycle leathers scowls; this is their seventh try.
My husband and I tried a year and a half ago, and again yesterday. Hoping that the third time’s the charm, we’re ready with cameras, sunscreen, and plenty of water. We’re lucky that the weather is springtime mild; summer temperatures edge over 100 degrees.
At the front of the room, a ranger in the sand-colored uniform of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management presides over a bingo cage of numbered wooden balls. Behind him are information sheets that are handed out to winners, with versions in English, Spanish, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Russian, Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese.
In a few minutes, he’ll call out the numbers of the 10 people who’ll be today’s winners. Months back, another 10 spots were awarded in an online lottery. Odds for us walk-ins are better than for those who try online, and today, they’re better than usual. Often there are more than 100 people, and the day after Thanksgiving, 319 people showed up. Today’s 80 is nothing.
“We’ve got just one more minute before we start,” the ranger says, flashing a game-show host smile. “And it’s not one of those New York minutes. It’s a full-on Southern Utah minute.”
The audience responds with strained smiles. There are those who’ve tried 10, even 14 times. Some built a trip from abroad around this daily lottery in a small U.S. town of about 4,500 people. Others will stay long after they should have gone home, sure that just one more try means they’ll go home winners.
We’re here for the chance to see a rock. A very big and beautiful rock, to be sure, but still: a rock. It’s called the Wave, for its liquid sweep and flare. Picture huge ocean breakers, and then freeze the frame just as they’re crashing into each other sideways. Trade blue for the colors of a Technicolor sunset. Switch the texture to dry, rough, and delicately ribbed. Now brace for the synesthesian disorientation of rock that thinks it’s water.
Fittingly, the Wave was born in water, back when this area was a vast inland sea. The water receded, and dunes hardened to stone. Geologists describe the Wave as converging U-shaped troughs of Jurassic-era sandstone. The two major troughs measure 62-by-118 feet and 7-by-52 feet, but what impresses isn’t the Wave’s dimensions: It’s the kinetic surge of something that, by all rights, should be static.
Getting there is a trudge through sand in the high desert sun. With the strict permitting process, winners expect the experience itself to be highly managed. It isn’t. Though the round-trip hike is only about 6 miles, there’s no real trail, and people get lost. In 2013, three hikers died, including a 27-year-old woman celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary; her husband survived.
Talking earlier with another ranger, I learned of a Japanese woman who’d arrived at the office, having run more than a mile because she couldn’t find a cab. She collapsed on the carpeting, sobbing, when she learned she was too late to enter the lottery. Other people try bribery; some even claim it’s their birthday or that they don’t have long to live. “Not gonna work,” said my informant. “You can’t buy or lie your way into the Wave.”