By Kristy McCaffrey
On a chilly December day I embarked on a hike with my dad to see The Wave. While you may envision us searching for an ocean overlook, this swell of nature exists along the Arizona/Utah border among the bottom of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the upper section of Arizona’s Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area. And after that mouthful, all you really need to know is that it’s a really cool-looking sandstone alcove.
To enter the North Coyote Butte Special Management Area, where The Wave is located, you must have a permit. Only 20 people per day are allowed—10 through a lottery system and 10 for walk-in permits submitted the previous day. It took my dad two tries to gain two permits and to my great fortune he invited me along. To understand this you must know that my younger sister is a ski patroller, nurse, gun-toting park ranger, and well-versed in search and rescue. I, however, am a writer. Who would you choose to take into the wilderness? Exactly, not me. So I was thrilled by the invite. I might not be able to save my dad should he fall from a cliff, but I’d be able to inscribe my thoughts about it later. And what about my mom? I think she gave birth (twice) so that my dad would have someone to hang out with on his outdoor adventures.
We arrive the day before in Page, Arizona and stay the night in a hotel. We arise early the next morning, find a Denny’s open at 6 a.m., and eat a hearty breakfast since our day packs aren’t filled with anything hot and tasty. The drive to the Wire Pass parking lot—the start of the trailhead—is about 43 miles from Page. The last 8 miles are on a dirt road that is impassable when wet, the red clay turning into a slippery muck. With the day overcast and the air a bit misty, the fact that we threw a few sleeping bags into the back of my dad’s truck at the last minute suddenly seems like a good idea.
The parking lot houses a restroom and a sign-in, likely to find those who enter and never return. But this wouldn’t be us since we feel well-equipped with a very detailed map provided by the Bureau of Land Management, a compass, and a GPS. But the start of the trailhead soon leads to a non-trail. We don’t pay close enough attention to the landmarks provided on the map and manage to spend the first hour in the wrong direction. Of course the GPS indicated we were moving farther away from our target rather than closer, but in my defense it was the first time I’d used the GPS app on my smartphone. I figured we were taking a circuitous route that would eventually bring us to where we needed to be.
Our detour did lead to an awesome slot canyon, however. And after backtracking we were soon headed in the right direction. We made certain we nailed every landmark thereafter.
The 5.5 mile hike scrambling over sandy hills and red rock takes us about 2 hours. The terrain offers sweeping views of sandstone pillars and red rock buttes, tiny cacti growing in crevices and giant juniper trees standing vigil. It’s a desolate and quiet place, far from civilization.
But that’s why we come to areas like this—to know ourselves with no expectations, no grasping for outcomes; to search for the boundary of our Self in a wide open space. It’s as if in this natural environment our own internal compass is reset. We’re grounded in a way we can’t be in our busy, everyday life, our soul craving the true order of things.
At last we climb a hill just below a prominent landmark called “the Black Crack” and enter the alcove known as The Wave. The undulating swells of sandstone greet us and we’re awed, but admittedly slightly confused. Is this all there is? I think we both thought it would be more like a bowl viewed from above.
Another hiker arrives and, having been here before, explains the layout. We must climb to above the alcove to find the picture-perfect spot, the one that he stakes out with his tripod and camera for the next several hours. I’m using my small handheld camera until my dad drops and jams it, then I switch to my phone camera.
Even with our less technical approach to photo-taking we still get awesome and surreal pictures. The rock flows like water around us and the eye can hardly believe it’s authentic.
We find the Second Wave and Hamburger Rock (per the hiker’s directions) and snap more photos.
My dad wants to climb ever higher but I’m beginning to feel tired and cold so I hang back. I begin to worry that he might come rolling off that cliff after all but he soon returns in one piece.
There are dinosaur tracks in the area but we decide the GPS coordinates will likely send us on a wild goose chase clinging to the sides of the cliffs and we can’t muster enough enthusiasm to warrant the search. Instead we drop into the small canyon below, exploring the narrowing curves of the walls as they close in on us. We eat lunch here, somewhat sheltered from the wind, and decide to begin our return hike.
The way back isn’t difficult but the landmarks are not easily discernible, blending into one another in a blur of red rock upon red rock. We reference the map and GPS frequently. My dad attempts a few compass readings but the simple device is deceptive. In our weary state we realize neither of us really knows how to use a compass. Luckily my phone battery is still above fifty percent. We’re soon sitting in a warm car.
All day I faced my own insecurity about entering the wilderness, a nagging worry carried forward from childhood that I’m not the adventurous daughter, that my dad would be better off here with my sister, whose entire life is an ode to Mother Nature herself. But I’m pleased that I was able to put these doubts aside.
I embrace the challenges instead of complaining at their presence. The day unfolds in the only way it can, from one moment to the next, and within that is a happiness that sits with me now and into the days that follow. My dad and I had an immensely good time. And to honor his choice to invite me along, I now do what I do best—I write.