Catch the Wave 2007


Last month Dianne, Cheyenne, Cody and I traveled out West. I have some musings about part of that trip that I offer for your perusal:

Driving in the pre-dawn darkness, in the driver's side window I can see the reflection of the instrument panel. The soft green lights look vaguely mysterious. The headlight beams pick up the streaming little lane reflectors like a trail of luminous bread crumbs leading the way to great adventure. The promise of a new day will soon manifest in the rearview mirror, but just now I find the darkness exciting and watching all the lights soothing. The radio is churning out oldies. My heart soars. There are dreams to catch down this road, and the journey has begun. You are all invited to come along...
I know that on this trip we will see many beautiful and awe-inspiring sights as we travel through southern Utah and visit Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon (North Rim) and Canyonlands National Parks and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and I am full of anticipation. But, my thoughts keep returning to a special dream that I hope to realize along the way, and it is that dream I want to share now.
A few years ago I learned of a place in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area that spans the border between Utah and Arizona. The place is called Coyote Buttes. Coyote Buttes South is in Arizona, while Coyote Buttes North is in Utah. Within Coyote Buttes North, there is a place called "The Wave". From the time I learned of The Wave, I dreamed of one day seeing it. But seeing it is not easy. Only twenty people a day are granted permits to enter the wilderness area, and there are always more than twenty wanting to go on any given day; a lot more. So, a lottery system is in place. One representative from each group that shows up at the ranger station is assigned a number, and all the numbers (which are on wooden cubes) are placed in a little rotating cage (like one that might be used to draw numbers for a game of Bingo). At 9:30 a.m. local time, the ranger spins the cage and starts drawing numbers. When a number is drawn, then permits are issued to all the people in that group (groups are limited to six people), and the number of slots is reduced by the number of people in that group. The drawing continues until all twenty slots are assigned. If you don't get a permit, then you can come back the next day and try again. There is no assurance that you will get a permit in the next drawing, but you are given two numbers then to go in the cage. And so it goes. If you perservere for a number of days, you will probably get a permit eventually.
Our base of operations for our attempt to see The Wave is Page, Arizona, which is 27 miles from the ranger station, which is in Utah. Because Arizona does not observe Daylight Saving Time, Arizona time is one hour behind Utah time (during the months of DST). I make sure to leave Page with plenty of time to make it to the ranger station at the correct Utah time. We spend the half-hour drive saying to each other over and over, "I sure hope we get lucky (as in get a permit) today".
When we arrive at the ranger station (with 20 minutes to spare), we are dismayed to see the size of the crowd already there. There must be 60 people; all hoping to get lucky. We fill out the application and are assigned our number. It is 15, which means that there have been 14 groups apply before us. As it turns out, we are the last group to get our number in the cage today, and as soon as it's in, it's 9:30 and the ranger starts spinning the cage. The first number he pulls out is not ours, and six slots vanish before our eyes. The next number is not ours. Nor the next. The drawing continues until there are only two slots left. I feel like I'm at roulette table in Vegas. Come on 15!!!!! The ranger pulls another little cube out, and with only a slight dramatic pause, announces the number. There is a chorus of moans and one exclamation of delight. The exclamation has sprung from OUR mouths. We are IN!!
We spend a few more minutes filling out paperwork that mostly tells them where to send the bodies should we have the misfortune to die in the desert. We are issued 4 permits (two for the boys, but they didn't count as slots in the drawing), and we rush out to the jeep to deliver the good news to Cheyenne & Cody. They share our enthusiasm.
The permits issued on a given morning are valid for the next day, so we have the rest of today to do some sightseeing. We head for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  We drive through the desert below the Vermilion Cliffs and watch the colors come alive in the morning sun. When we reach the little junction of Jacob Lake, we head south on the sixty mile drive to the Rim. We have gained a lot of altitude (over 8,000 ft), and the temperature is quite pleasant as we motor through a forest of Ponderosa pines. We stop along the way to play in meadows of broomgrass and to enjoy the cool, crisp, totally clean air. The boys look like furry pinballs as they bounce around exploring with noses to the ground. My heart and senses grow full.
When we reach the Rim, we see familiar views of the Canyon. We have passed this way a few times before, but we never grow tired of the granduer. The Canyon seeps into your soul. At one overlook we look east and see the Painted Desert some 75 miles distant. From another, we look directly across to the far away South Rim where we know the tourists are thick, and in the stillness of the North Rim we imagine we can hear all the oooh's and aaah's coming from them. We send our own similar greetings to them. Should they decide to join us, they will have to drive 245 miles, because the nearest bridge across the Colorado is the Navajo Bridge far to the northeast of the South Rim. Both the North Rim and the South Rim amaze and inspire all who visit.
We return to Page to eat supper a neat little Italian restaurant called Strombolli's. Great lasagna! Afterward, we spend most of the evening checking our gear and looking over maps for the next day's hike. I am almost too excited to sleep, but we turn in early, for we plan to start very early in the morning.
Morning arrives as soon as I close my eyes, and I have to kick-start my excitement. It's 4 a.m. Arizona time, and the first light is creeping into the sky. The air is cool. We throw our gear in the jeep and head for the trailhead, which is 16 miles down a dirt road (and I use the term loosely) that departs the paved road a few mile past the ranger station. We arrive at the trailhead about 5:45 Utah time and we hope to make the round-trip hike (of 6 miles) before the day heats up. We put Cody's backpack on him and load it with six pint bottles of water. I have 3 three-liter bottles in my pack, and Dianne has two such bottles in her's. We have hats and boots for the boys. They will need both, because the terrain is slickrock and there are no trees except for the first half mile. I check my camera, film, compass and maps one more time, and we are off.

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There are no trails, but we have been issued directions with compass bearings and photographs of landmarks for the suggested route. We hike down a dry wash (called Coyote Wash) for 1/2 of a mile until we reach the sign in point just inside the wilderness boundary. I sign the four of us in and we move off along a sandy path that goes up and over a hill and drops into another wash where we start looking for our first landmark. So far we haven't seen any of the other eighteen people that are supposed to be heading to the same place we are, and Dianne asks me if I'm sure we are on the right trail. I remind her that there are no trails, and that calms her right down. Then I remind her that I was an Eagle Scout, and she asks me how much I really remember from when I was 16. I suggest that we conserve our energy by not talking anymore. We hike along the base of a sandstone ridge until I actually find the first landmark and we go up and over the ridge.

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The sight on the other side of the ridge is beautiful and a little scary. There is an unending vista of sandstone ridges and slickrock. There are no trees, save for an occasional gnarly pinyon pine that is little more than head-high. It's hard to believe that any tree could live here, for there is not one drop of water anywhere in this 17-million acre wilderness. Most of the vegitation survives off snow melt and dew. Neither of those are present today. Much more numerous than trees are scrubby juniper bushes and patches of dry grass. I consult the map and take a bearing to the next landmark (a pair of twin buttes) and we continue across a stretch of slickrock that is slanted to a degree that makes our gait quite amusing. The boys don't seem to notice the slant and want to move faster. They pull at their leashes.
At the twin buttes we stop in the shade of one of them to take our first water break. We froze two bottles of water, so at this point we have wonderful ice-cold water. We spend a few minutes enjoying the view and the water. Then we move to the other side of the buttes and easily spot our next landmark. We move down a gully and cross a relatively flat section of slickrock until we reach a deep sandy wash.

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On the other side of the wash we can see our final landmark. It is a deep cleft in a sandstone butte that towers above what the directions refer to as a sand dune. When we cross the last dry wash and stand at the foot of that sand dune, I make a mental note to tell the ranger to revise the description. I would call it a sand mountain. The entrance to The Wave is some 400 ft straight up that sand mountain. If you have ever attempted to walk in deep sand (as fine as sugar) up a 60% grade, you will have an idea of this obstacle. It takes us half an hour to make it to the top.
At the top we take a nice long break in the shade of a cliff at the entrance to The Wave. We survey the land we have just crossed. It is pretty spectacular from up here. The sky is bluer than blue and there is not a cloud in it. The air is warming up, but it's very comfortable here in the shade. We sit here and soak up the view. I am enjoying the anticipation of walking the next 100 ft for my first sight of The Wave. I feel just like a kid on Christmas morning. We get up and start walking. It's time to open the "big" present.

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By now most of you know that I'm a "wordy" person, but when I enter The Wave I know that I'll have a hard time conveying the experience. I think it's like walking into a magnificent cathedral for the first time. It works on all your senses at once. I feel awe and reverence. It's still and quiet and timeless. There are a thousand textures and an impossible pallete of colors. The Wave is kind of an elongated bowl with steep sides. It looks as if liquified sand has been swirled with some galactic spoon and then flash-frozen. Ripples of solid stone climb the walls and curve into narrow side canyons. Sun and shadow bring the rock to life and draw the eye to spectacular details. Up close, some parts look like finely crafted wood. This place is eternal and changing before my eyes. I want to see faster. I make my eyes move slower. We stand in the middle of The Wave and slowly turn 360 degrees. I have opened my present and I love it.

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After gazing for a while longer, I move to the edge of the bowl and touch the walls. The stone is warm and mostly rough to the touch. I take a lot of pictures and explore two small side canyons. Then I climb to the top of the far end. From up here I can see the whole Wave at once. It is beautiful.

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The four of us return to the entrance and settle in the shade once more. Other hikers start to show up. It's fun to watch them do what we just did. It's almost like there is a script. Each set takes their turn actually in The Wave and then moves to the entrance out of sight so that all can photograph their solitary experience. There's not much talking going on, and what talking there is is in hushed voices. No one wants to spoil the mood and the setting.
Ultimately, we must head back. We have already stayed longer than I had planned, and the day is really starting to warm up. In fact, it's getting way too hot, and I am concerned that the trek back might be too much for Cheyenne. Reluctantly, we head down the sand mountain to begin the return hike.
On almost any hike a return trip seems to me to be mostly work. This one is ALL work. The sand seems deeper, the slickrock is like an oven (the temperature is 104 degrees), and the landmarks have mysteriously vanished from this perspective. I thought I had looked back enough times on the trip out to pick out the route back. I am wrong, and I have to leave Dianne and the boys several times to scout out the way to go. It's getting so hot that I decide to take a short cut over the last ridge. It will cut about a mile and a half off our journey, but it means going up almost vertically for about 300 ft and then down almost vertically the same distance on the other side. I leave Dianne and the boys again and climb to the top. I can see the sandy "trail" that leads out across a wash at the bottom of cliff we must descend. I return  and tell Dianne what we need to do. She says we can do it. And so we do. I am proud of Dianne and of my boys. They have guts. I wish that we would see some other hikers so I could tell them, "My wife and my boys just came down that cliff over there and never gave up".

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The last mile out is pure hell. No complaints from anyone. We are a team, and we made it. I sign us out.
When we get to the wash that leads to the car, there is a large juniper tree, and I leave Dianne and the boys one last time. I hike to the car to get cold water for everyone. When I return, we all celebrate with long, long drinks of ice cold water. After a good rest, we hike the last 1/2 mile and collapse in the jeep with the air on full blast. We are exhausted, but our spirits are high. We will never forget this experience. For me, my dreamcatcher has worked. It caught a big one. Thanks for sharing it with me.
Love to all,
Buzzy Crowe