Big Water, Utah

So there I was, standing with about 30 other hikers in boots and backpacks, jammed into a room no bigger than a double-wide in a one-story beige government building in a destitute moonscape otherwise known as southern Utah on a warm Friday morning.

If I sound surprised, I suppose I was. The day before I had flown to Flagstaff, Ariz., rented a car and driven more than two hours to Page, near the Utah border. I'd then gotten up early for a 30-minute drive to Big Water, only to find myself in the kind of hardscrabble wasteland that even rattlesnakes would be embarrassed to call home.

So, c'mon, who were all these people -- and why were they so eager to hit the trail? I never thought these parched, hellish deserts could draw a crowd -- unless you're the Burning Man type.

Inside the crowded room, a staffer with the Bureau of Land Management started the ritual. He stood up tall behind a counter and began to drop a handful of numbered bingo balls into a small oval cage. The room fell quiet as he slowly turned the crank. Once the balls had jumped around a bit, he stopped and let one pop out of a hinged opening. He picked it up.

"Number one!" he shouted.

A young Seattle couple, standing nearby, let out a breath and grinned. They -- and eight other hikers in quick succession -- had just won a permit to hike into this wilderness, and they couldn't be more thrilled.

"That's it, folks," the BLM worker announced with little emotion.

It was no big deal for him -- he does this every day -- but the losers weren't happy at all. They grumbled and shuffled out to their cars, cursing and vowing to return.

OK, I shouldn't have been surprised. This lottery determined who got to see the Wave, which, if you don't know, is probably one of the most-photographed rock formations in North America. Apparently, you can't call yourself a landscape photographer if you haven't snapped a photo or two of the Wave. Only Hollywood's terrible tabloid trio -- Britney, Paris and Lindsay -- have been in a camera view finder more than the Wave.

As a result, hikers and tourists from around the world have become fixated on this slice of sandstone, an obsession fueled by the thousands of glossies that fill hundreds of guidebooks and online galleries.

To keep the Wave from being damaged or overrun, the BLM allows no more than 20 visitors a day (10 from the on-site lottery and 10 from an online lottery), and during the peak spring and fall seasons, the odds of winning that treasured permit can be as high as 1 in 10. It's so competitive that some hiker nerds devised a computer program to improve their chances of winning, which worked out pretty well -- or so I'm told -- until the BLM revamped the system last summer.

Now, I'd seen these photos. But you certainly couldn't call me a Wave fanatic. I was drawn here by my cynicism. I expected an up-close tour of the Wave to fall way short of the hype. Call me a hater, but how many times have you read over-hyped stories about places that just don't live up to the billing? It's like when you meet your favorite celebrity, and he turns out to be a short, balding jerk. Still, I was curious.

And because I preferred not to make the trip to Big Water and be disappointed in return, I secured my permit months in advance by playing the BLM lottery online, a decent alternative to the drop of the bingo ball. I submitted my application by e-mail in July along with my $5 fee and learned a few days later that I had won one of 10 online permits for Sept. 12.

I was ready to be underwhelmed.

A TIE-DYED GUIDE

Once the crowds at the BLM office dispersed, I knew I had to hurry. I didn't want to get caught plodding through the desert in the midday heat. The temperatures in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness can shoot from hot to infernal in a few short hours. Even lizards start looking for cover around noon.

Even though I had a well-marked map with color photos to guide me, I didn't want to take a chance on getting lost. So I hired a guide.

In a tie-dyed shirt, blond ponytail, blue jeans and heavy work boots, Steve Dodson looked more like a 51-year-old Woodstock roadie than an outdoor guide. I met him at his restaurant, the Paria Outpost, about half a mile from the BLM field office near Big Water, Utah. When he's not slicing up barbecue at his eatery, he's leading tourists into the desert. He's been doing this for more than 10 years.