Friday, February 14, 2014

44 Minutes at The Wave

                                                                           The breaking wave
                                                                           And the muscle as it contracts
                                                                           Obey the same law.
                                                                           Delicate line gathers the body's total strength
                                                                           In a bold balance.
                                                                           Shall my soul meet so severe a curve,
                                                                           Journeying on its way to form?

                                                                                               -- Dag Hammarskjold

In the remote wilderness of far northern Arizona, there's an amazing geological formation known as "The Wave."  It's made of lithified sandstone which was compacted from sand dunes about 190 million years ago during the Jurassic period when the area was an erg on the western edge of the supercontinent Pangea.  The dunes were later covered with other materials which, beginning about 15 million years ago, were eroded away by water and wind, exposing the fantastic stratification of the sand.  

To learn more about the geology of The Wave, you can read the Wikipedia entry by clicking here

Thanks to the work of the eons, The Wave is a visual feast, and a significant destination for photographers.  I first heard of it from my WGBH colleague, Elizabeth Benjes, and knew I had to go there.  But it isn't easy to get to.  It's in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area which straddles the Arizona-Utah border.  There are no marked hiking trails; no phone service; no drinking water sources; and very little protection from the sun and weather.  Three people died on the journey to/from The Wave last year, including a 27-year-old mother celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary.

In addition to being in a remote area, access to The Wave is regulated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by means of a lottery system, principally to limit wear and tear on the fragile sandstone environment and, to a certain extent, to weed out the casual (and unprepared) hikers.  Only 20 people per day are granted permits.  Ten permits are available for each day via an online lottery system four months in advance; the other 10 are available at a walk-in (day of) lottery at the BLM visitor center in Kanab, Utah, about 50 miles from The Wave.  Every month there are thousands of applicants; while the odds are better than winning the Power Ball lottery, they're still not good.  People try for years to snag a permit.

So I was thrilled when my friend, Duke Breitenbach, called on Friday of Super Bowl weekend to say that he had gone to Kanab for the walk-in lottery and had scored passes for 2 people on Saturday and 4 people on Sunday -- did I want one?  

DID I WANT ONE??!!!  Heck, yeah!!!

Duke lives in a suburb of St. George, Utah, and was the photography lead on an ill-timed Road Scholar trip I took last fall to (not) visit the national parks of Utah when the federal government shut down.  (I still haven't posted the story and pictures from that trip -- yikes!)  Duke and the other tour leaders made the best of a bad situation by finding great alternative photogenic locations on the same itinerary.  Just goes to show . . . you never know when something bad will lead to something good.

As I mentioned above, getting to The Wave is not easy.  On Saturday, I drove 325 miles from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, AZ, with a little side trip to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park . . . 

and a brief stop in Winslow as a pilgrimage in honor of the Eagles' song from the 70s, "Take It Easy."  

(Can you spot the error in the trompe l'oeil image of the girl -- My Lord! -- in the flatbed Ford?)

I spent the night in Flagstaff, then got up very early Super Bowl Sunday morning to head for the rendezvous point where I would join three photographers from St. George who had the permit and knew the way to The Wave.

I left Flagstaff at 5:30a, and it was 9 degrees.  By 7:00a, it was dawn and I could begin to make out the landscape that, up to that point, had been pitch black  -- very few lights and even fewer cars on the road.

I watched the rising sunlight strike the Vermilion Cliffs which are the eastern edge of the Paria Plateau . . .

then drove north to the Navajo Bridge across the Colorado River about 30 miles north of where it enters the Grand Canyon . . .

then back south along the eastern and southern edge of Vermilion Cliffs . . .


Yes, that's my car . . .

 . . . around to the rendezvous point on the southwest corner of the plateau 150 miles from Flagstaff.  Here's a map to show the area and my route:

About 9:15a the Utah contingent arrived, and I jumped into their rugged 4-wheel Jeep for a 20-mile drive on a rutted, washerboarded dirt road that runs below the western edge of the plateau to the trailhead.


An hour later, we arrived at the trailhead, signed the log book, and started walking.  

It's about a 3-mile hike each way, over loose sand and sandstone called "slickrock" -- which is, I suppose, slick when wet, but otherwise is good for hiking and great for mountain biking.  The weather was great, too:  about 38 degrees, sunny with occasional passing waves of cirrostratus and cirrocumulus clouds.

This is slickrock.


Along the way, we saw one amazing rock formation after another . . .

 including some that looked like soft-serve ice cream . . .

The terrain is rugged and desolate . . .

Little wonder people get lost and die out here, especially in the summer.

You cannot see The Wave until you are right on top of it because it is hidden within a steep mountainside (circled area below).  If you look closely at the image below, you can see a person standing at about the 4 o'clock position inside the circle.

But after almost two hours of hiking, we approached the last quarter mile, an uphill push of sand and sandstone.

Finally, we could see the entrance.  (Hmmm, that person is still standing there.  Wonder if it's the same one we saw from afar?  Or maybe it's just a statue?)    One of our party had been struggling for breath all along the hike, so he stayed behind while three of us went up.

As we approached the entrance area, we began to see the striations in the sandstone . . .

Then the ground began to tilt and The Wave began to take shape . . .

There was a sort of entry portal . . .

And then we were in . . .

We walked uphill and then looked back toward the entrance (the gap that those people are walking into):

The Wave forms a sort of bowl.  To give you some perspective and scale, here are a few shots moving further up the mountainside away from the entrance:

(Arrow below shows where the photographer was standing in the pictures above.)

Inside The Wave the views are fantastic and even a little disorienting . . .

Eventually, we had to head back.  

Because we had left one of our group down at the base of The Wave area, we spent less than an hour actually at The Wave.  The time from my first image in The Wave to my last was 44 minutes, during which I took 160 shots.

My round-trip distance traveled was about 1,000 miles.  To put this in perspective for those who live on the East Coast, it was like driving from Boston to Philadelphia (Corrales to Flagstaff); Philadelphia to Falls Church, VA (Flagstaff to rendezvous point); Falls Church, VA, to Dulles Airport on a dirt road (rendezvous point to trailhead); then hiking 3.2 miles over rugged terrain; then doing it all in reverse over a 3-day period.

But it was a great adventure, and one I would do again if the opportunity came my way.  You can see more images from the trip at my photography website, Todos Juntos Photography, by clicking here.