Night had fallen with a crystalline clarity that made the chill intense. The stars seemed to press down in a way that I hadn’t seen before. The God of Winter was not about to relinquish its hard-won dominion without a tussle. Through the night, the rain froze on impact leaving the ground frigid outside the tent. Pulling the warm sleeping bag around my shoulders, I attempted to fend off the night’s chill breath. I’d slept without changing for the last few nights, my clothes seemed part of me, like thick folds of aged skin. With traces of the moon bringing some illumination, trickling light into the world, I peeled myself unwillingly from my cocoon. The damp night air raining with snow felt sharp in my lungs: today was the day.
Rewinding a couple of days, in spite of my hot irritation of wrongly assuming we wouldn’t need our heated clothing by late March in the southern states, a sudden need to shiver settled in my flesh. The bracing air probed my riding gear with such icy fingers, I couldn’t help shivering shortly into the 75-mile motorcycle ride from Page in northern Arizona to Kanab, just north of the state line into Utah. Riding the last ten was no easy task with fingers beginning to stiffen like clubs from the cold.
The town’s welcome sign ‘Abra Kanabra’ manifested itself the moment we rocked up. “Hi, how are you?” a young waiter enquired with jovial eyes, replenishing the cafe’s outdoor dog bowls with fresh water. “COLD. I need coffee,” was my abrupt response. “Hey sure, we’ve got plenty of that—come right in and I’ll get you some.” Oh, that was nice, his respect quotient had gone suborbital when I’d shown him not a smidgeon of friendliness. Five cups later, racking shivers had ceased to possess me and came only at sporadic intervals.
Offering to guide us to the Wave—let’s call the waiter ‘Jonny Hot’ to maintain anonymity—there was something the way he responded that waved a green flag in my mind. We’d known this guy a couple of hours at most but I was already comfortable to latch onto him, like a barnacle to a mangrove root. His quiet demeanour oozed reliability and trustworthiness. And Jason being classic Jason, wanted to reach the Wave before the sun’s first smile. Namely getting up at stupid o’clock and trekking hard for some steep, sandy miles up and down and over slick rock in the head torch beam, illuminating a smattering of snow. There was enough common sense from experience in me to know how outlandish rising from the dead of night would feel—I often wonder if I’m a Dolly Mixture short of a quarter.
Situated on the Colorado Plateau, the Wave is a series of sandstone buttes, which sit at the bottom of Utah’s Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument and the upper section of Arizona’s Paria Canyon—part of the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness area. Scores of travellers gravitate from all over the globe with an unyielding desire of experiencing the Wave. Although ascertaining a permit is on a par to winning a Willy Wonka ticket. We just happened to get monumentally lucky.
Famed for its gallery of implausibly twisted sandstone resembling: uncannily American pancake stacks, deformed pillars, textbook-perfect cones, domed mushrooms and other unfathomable creations. As part of the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, the Wave is notorious for a handful of fatalities each year. People often undertake the hike in summer armed with sunglasses and a litre or less of water—get caught royally unawares, heinously lost and succumb to dehydration. Around a gallon per person: check.
Subjected to an intense blizzard en route, I prayed hard in Jonny Hot’s clapped out old truck that the dirt road would stay passable and free of destructive precipitation. Voluptuously muddy in the pouring rain, we’d been told under no uncertain terms to ride our motorcycles there in the wet: southern Utah’s mud reaches claggy heights with which no other region can remotely compete.
Jonny Hot amazed me. A sure-footed mountain goat, he seemed to think about every step before he took it, every placement of his hand—deftly—as though taking care not to inadvertently hurt any of the tiny spirits that filled the world around him. He wasn’t hiking the same sandy slog I was, he was gliding effortlessly in a way only seasoned backcountry explorers of these parts can. I loved his different voices, one so far out of the South that it seemed to carry the whole of Louisiana with it. How could a relative stranger kindle such warmth and fondness within me?
Only on our way out of the iconic buttes did I notice the landmarks we passed on the way in; visuals Jonny Hot had used to keep us on the jackrabbit-laden track. Such as the vertical crack, a sizable slick rock mountain; the twin buttes near a slick rock bowl where a wash was encountered; and multi-coloured domes on the opposite side of the wash amid juniper trees. In fact, the whole area was awash with an exquisite combination of depth, diverse widths, length, complex layers of rock colour and an ethereal beauty. It teetered on abstract perfection.
A subtle humour in those warm brown eyes revealed much and more. “Can you keep a secret?” With identities protected—“Of course!”, I assured him. “I had sex with a hot girl, right there,” pointing to a spot on the Wave. Belly laughter erupted unbidden from deep down and out of my mouth. Concerned about any passion-induced grazing on the slick rock, Jonny Hot alleviated my kill-joy worries by explaining they were cushioned by a soft bundle of clothes.
Unlike Jason who, overwhelmed in true photographer’s haste—instead of mastering slick rock scrambling in positioning himself for one of his long exposures—slipped and landed clean on his elbow instead. Crunch. Cracking the bone. A bellow of pain ensued that seemed to start deep within his soul before it burst, like a train from a tunnel, into a crescendo of utterly, sheer, gruelling pain. Unbearable agony of him rolling around like a dog covered in Alabama ticks was captured on the photograph. Plain unlucky or prone to dyspraxia, I’m not sure, may be a bit from option A and a bit from option B.
Snowflakes big as quarters continued to gently fall from the sky and eddied around the chasm, blanketing the rock in patches of white. Deposits of iron claim some of the responsibility for the unique blending of colour running like rainbow candy stripes through the mineral-rich rock. Creating a dramatic flow of ochre, burnt oranges, corals, deep pinks and blood reds. Never have I seen such intricate geological patterns like it, although I hear the vicinity is choc-full of similar features in the landscape.
I felt spiritually drunk on the dune field, its unspoiled and sacred magnificence. So delirious on the rock strata that lay before me, a flying saucer would not have been unexpected. Surely, that much elation would logically attract an answering happiness from across the stars. Walking around the high desert dusted in snow was the icing on the rugged cake, akin to descending upon an alien planet. Stunning but strange. As weather erosion goes, it was perhaps the most perfect confluence of wind and water, symmetrical and perfectly formed. What a remarkable natural phenomenon. A truly hidden treasure with a unique twist.