Type “Kanab, Utah” into a web browser and you’ll see images of towering red cliffs located seemingly in the center of town. You’ll also learn this city is known as “Little Hollywood” thanks to the famous classic westerns that were filmed in and around the area.
We chose to spend two nights in Kanab because it’s a vibrant little city within close range of Zion, Bryce, Grand Staircase Escalante and the Grand Canyon. It also happens to be where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issues what is arguably the most coveted backcountry hiking permit of the moment – access to Coyote Buttes North and the infamous Wave feature hidden within it.
Only 20 people total are issued permits to hike the area each day, so the competition is steep. Interested parties can apply for permits one of two ways:
- By entering the online lottery up to a year in advance. Your odds aren’t good, but you don’t have to go to much trouble to apply.
- By entering the walk-up lottery at the BLM office in Kanab. Your odds are somewhat terrible and it’s a hassle to make sure you’re there by 8:30 a.m. for a permit that is valid the next day.
Before heading out to Utah, we agreed that we’d really like to see The Wave, but we knew the odds were not in our favor. I know plenty of people who’ve tried unsuccessfully for years to obtain a permit and are systematically rejected time after time. There’s nothing you can do but continue to enter the lottery, pray, and repeat the process until dumb luck comes through for you.
With that being said, our hotel is only five minutes from the office, so we decide it’s worth a shot, even if it’s a very long one.
We wake up early on Monday morning and arrive at the office by 8:30 a.m. We snag the last spot in the parking lot and wedge ourselves into the corner of a very full lobby. At 8:45, a park ranger named Rick introduces himself and begins his well-rehearsed welcome speech.
He begins by warning us of the potential dangers and physical requirements associated with this kind of wilderness experience. He goes on to make sure we all know there are no toilets, vending machines, and search and rescue teams readily available in the backcountry. We all nod in agreement with the same cavalier nonchalance of knowing we probably won’t have the opportunity to actually put ourselves in harm’s way.
Ranger Rick funnels us into a conference room to fill out our permit applications. One permit per group (max size of six hikers) is to be completed in order to keep the odds as fair as possible for everyone. Luke is convinced I have better luck than he does, so I grab a clipboard and a pencil and begin filling out our application. People are starting to get pushy and the smell of body odor is alive and well, so Luke chooses to wait outside in the empty lobby rather than do battle with strangers. I wrestle my way through the throng and hand our completed application to Ranger Rick. He scans it to make sure it’s complete and writes the number 17 in Magic Marker at the top.
At 8:55, there are 70 completed permit applications spread out in front of Rick. I manage to score a chair against the sidewall, while the rest of the room is still squirming around each other trying to find a place to sit. The fluorescent lights are hard on my decaffeinated eyes and a short woman decides to stand very close to me, positioning her tiny butt no more than six inches away from my face. I debate whether this is a good use of our vacation time. Breakfast at the hotel only goes until 10:00 and I would hate to miss out on buffet-style scrambled eggs.
Three girls siting nearby momentarily distract me from the contained chaos in the room. Two are traveling together and the third, Sally, is working hard to impress them with her alternative lifestyle and devil-may-care attitude. Sally, a woman who no doubt has “Spiritual Gangster” tattooed somewhere on her body, has not held down a steady job in years because she can’t decide if she wants to be a vagabond, a yoga teacher or a bartender at TGI Fridays. The two women she’s speaking to are younger, college-age or newly graduated, and likely come from really good families who are horrified by their daughter’s decision to live out of a station wagon and grow out her body hair.
At 8:59, permit application number 71 lands on Rick’s table and with that, he officially closes the application process. He does a quick roll call of each applicant’s name and assigned number. After calling 71 names and receiving 71 responses in a rainbow of accents, Rick drops 71 Bingo balls into a cage and gives it a spin.
A nervous tension takes hold of the room. Chatter is suddenly silenced and the smell of BO cranks up ten notches. What little air was in the room gets sucked out of it. Countless pairs of arms rise in unison, camera phones poised and ready for an action shot. The short woman’s butt is still in front of me, so I stand to get a better view of the action.
Suddenly, a woman cries out, “This is the most exciting day of my life!” Everyone laughs, then goes instantly silent once again. The balls stop spinning. Rick reaches in and draws out the first number.
Luke jokingly instructed me to “be cool” in case our number gets picked. I laughed and considered the possibility to be so remote, I would never actually have to prepare myself for the situation. Thankfully, his words come to mind as I wrestle back the urge to throw my arms overhead and shout, “WOOWHO, THAT’S ME BITCHES!” Instead, I make a sharp gasping noise, whisper, “Oh my gosh,” under my breath and promptly sit down.
“That’s two permits for 17,” says Rick.
Luke, still in the lobby, texts me, “Were we the first one called?”
I pull out my phone and with shaking hands text back, “Were f&cking in!!! Yes.”
I black out for the rest of the lottery process and come to just in time to hear the collective groan of the final number being called. Ranger Rick asks those who’s numbers have been called to remain in the room, while 93% of the crowd shuffles out slowly and solemnly.
On her way out, Sally points at me and says, “You?” I attempt a casual smile and nod, but I’m probably grinning like a cartoon puppy. Luke enters the room after the last of the crowd clears out. We make shocked and elated eye contact with one another, in total disbelief of our good, dumb luck.
Five pairs of hikers were selected – three groups of Americans, one group of Chinese and one group of Germans. Ranger Rick gives us a 15 minute orientation detailing how to get to the trailhead, how to use the way-finding map he’ll distribute to each of us and how to avoid being a jackass in the backcountry.
After paying our permit fee ($7/person), we’re issued two neon green passes. One gets affixed to my backpack and one goes on the dash of our car. Then, we’re turned loose with nothing more to do than anticipate the arrival of tomorrow morning.
The moment I step outside, I let out a whoop of joy and disbelief. A non-pass-winner was still lingering in the parking lot and shot me a look of annoyance, which made me feel a little bad about my display of unbridled joy. I wait for him to leave, then do a happy little jig all the way to the car.
Best of all, we still manage to make it back to the hotel in time for breakfast.