The Wave

Sometimes our best memories are created at places we never expected to visit.

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.”

Fifty years ago, the only modern-era folks to have seen the Wave were a few wandering cowboys and miners.

“It’s 9 o’clock,” the ranger emcee announces. “Heeere we go!”

Experienced contestants scan the room, alert to large groups. Only one person per group can enter, but they can list up to six people on their application. If someone’s number is called and they’ve listed the maximum number, more than half of the day’s 10 spots are gone quicker than a flash flood in a slot canyon.

Competing against other nature lovers for the chance to get outdoors may seem like an oxymoron along the lines of “wildlife management.” (When John Muir wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” he didn’t have to enter a lottery to fulfill his destiny.) But these days, with millions tramping along in Muir’s footsteps, we gladly throw our hats into the ring for marquee outdoor experiences. Lists of the most difficult outdoor permits to get often appear in adventure magazines. The Wave always makes the list, as do permits to climb Mount Whitney, hike the Enchantments in Washington State, and raft the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument.

Even humble car camping close to home can be a challenge. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery if I’m able to book a weekend campsite within three hours of San Francisco,” says Katie Cook, a freelance writer who spends every free moment hiking and camping. But Cook lucked out a little further afield in 2017, snagging the Sierra Nevada’s “golden ticket,” a permit to backpack the John Muir Trail, including access to iconic Half Dome, Yosemite’s sheer-faced granite monolith. While on the 211-mile trail, her group chatted with another hiker, who said he’d done it maybe a dozen times. When she marveled at how he’d managed to get so many permits, he shrugged. “Permits? Who needs permits?”

Christine Colbert, who is writing a book about public land use, says that the lottery system is designed not just to protect the land but also to safeguard our experience of it. She tells me about how, in nearby Zion National Park, the Narrows—one of the area’s premier hikes, along or in a river that runs through a narrow gorge—can see thousands of people on a given day. In contrast, the Subway, a slot canyon in the same park, has a lottery allowing just 80 visitors per day. Recalling her time working on trail maintenance in Zion, she says, “You can smell the Narrows even before you get there. With that many people, you need to provide outhouses along the way.”

Many national parks are seeing substantial increases in visitor numbers, and attractions on other kinds of public land also wrestle with how to contend with their own popularity. Because of that, lotteries attract more people every year. In 2017, 161,467 people entered the Wave lottery for a shot at 7,300 permits. Just four years earlier, only 86,898 people applied.

Once the Wave is on your radar, you see its pulled-taffy undulations everywhere: on calendars, in social media feeds, featured in blog posts, articles, and films. But 50 years ago, the only modern-era folks to have seen it were a few wandering cowboys and miners.

Long before that, Ancestral Puebloan and Paiute peoples came through, as did a 1776 expedition led by two Spaniards looking for an overland route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to their mission in Monterey, California. Outlaws hid in its canyons, ranchers ran their cattle, and prospectors mined for gold and uranium.

Starting in the 1990s, guidebooks, articles, and films featuring the Wave caused an explosion of local and international interest. In 1997, the Bureau of Land Management introduced a website allowing visitors to obtain permits up to a year in advance. In 2007, the new lottery system made 10 spots available online four months in advance and 10 more up for grabs in person.

The town of Kanab has come to rely on the year-round influx of aspiring Wavers. A 2015 proposal to make the lottery online only—eliminating the walk-in event—was shot down, in part because the town appreciates the nearly $7 million tourists contribute to its economy each year.

We’re halfway through the draw. The emcee milks it, pausing dramatically before calling out the numbers. Winners hug and exclaim in various languages. The rest of us slide further down in our chairs. “There are plenty of other great places nearby,” the ranger soothes. “We’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.”

Most of us are going to lose, and we’re going down faster than we think. The ranger calls the number of a person who listed four others on her application. All at once, today’s remaining spots are gone.

The room deflates in a collective groan. There are more than a few glares thrown in the direction of the winners.

So we lost, for the third damned time. But hey, we joke, with all those online photos and firsthand accounts, it’s almost as if we’ve already been there, right?

Still, we’re disheartened. We realize we’ve just played our part in the carnival of landscape lust that makes the Wave famous not just for its beauty but for how many of us are denied that beauty.

Some of us seem frozen in our chairs; others get up and flounce away. Over coffee yesterday at the local bookstore/café/gear shop, the owner told us, “People get really mad when they don’t win. They get tunnel vision. But the Wave isn’t the only place to go around here.”

We end up heading out on unpaved Cottonwood Canyon Road, through the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. At first the landscape is flat and arid. A lone cow slumps near the only bush in sight.

Then we come up over a rise, dropping down into a scene that looks like Dr. Seuss smacked into the Summer of Love. Red spires have eroded into giant melted chess pieces that stand sentinel around a tiny oasis of green. Orange cliffs, glowing as if lit from within, are tiger-striped with desert varnish. Oversized mushrooms of peach-colored sandstone look good enough to eat.

We’re finally starting to get it, what everyone told us but we couldn’t believe—until now. The Wave isn’t the only—or even necessarily the best—option.

Candy-colored rock pulses under a bright blue sky. And aside from one snooty sandstone starlet, the high desert is ours for the exploring.


Share your own tales of unexpected adventure with Erin at contact@erinvanrheenen.com.

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

Originally Published May 2018