I’d seen this quintessentially Western landscape many times before in Marlboro ads, Geico commercials, Roadrunner cartoons, and in dozens of movies. But until I started to plan a trip to the Four Corners region, I had no idea that the famous, starkly beautiful dreamscape of red sandstone buttes and mesas is called the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
The 30,000-acre park sits on the Utah/Arizona border inside the Navajo Reservation, which is about the size of West Virginia and is home to about 300,000 Navajos, many of whom retain their distinctive language, which was used to confuse the hell out of the Japanese during WW2 and customs.
I almost never sign up for a guided tour unless I’m compelled to, but in this case, I decided to sign up for a backcountry tour offered by Goulding’s Lodge, a historic inn that was once John Wayne’s home away from home. I booked the tour because the Navajos only allow visitors to see a 17-mile loop of Monument Valley and because even that road requires a very sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle.
Rosie Phatt is a Navajo Indian school bus driver and mother of six who has been giving tours through Gouldings for 13 years. We set off from the visitor’s center down a rocky dirt track and I was immediately in awe of the wild, untrammeled landscape, which is impressive under any circumstances, but even more so if you live in the flat Midwest, as I do.
“The name Monument Valley means Light in the Valley,” Rosie said. “These red sandstone buttes and mesas have been here for 250 million years.”
As we creaked our way through the Valley’s backcountry, winding our way betwixt and between the towering buttes and mesas, some as high as 1,200 feet, Rosie explained that there were 13 mesas, which are flat-topped rock structures, and 11 buttes, which are essentially the remains of what were once mesas. They all have Navajo names and English language names like The Three Sisters, Right and Left Mitten, and the Landing Strip. The English language nicknames were created by John Wayne, the legendary Hollywood producer John Ford and Harry Goulding, the founder of Goulding’s Lodge who lured Ford to the area to shoot movies in the ’30s.
As we bumped along the rocky tracks all over the Navajo backcountry, we listened to KTNN, the voice of the Navajo Nation on the radio, which was playing a haunting Native American ceremonial dance that made a perfect soundtrack for our journey. Rosie said that sometimes tour vans and jeeps get stuck in the snow or mud.
“But no one ever complains,” she said. “They think it’s all part of the experience of being in the Navajo backcountry.”
I got out to take a walk at John Ford’s Point and felt almost weak kneed and giddy as I looked around at these gargantuan, timeless rock formations and the sea of earthy, deep red southwestern splendor in every direction. Why had it taken me four decades to visit this truly majestic, almost supernatural place? And why were there only a smattering of tourists, nearly all of them foreign in this glorious place?
As I popped in and out of the van, Rosie gave me some background and Navajo history, culture and traditions. The Navajo Nation has its own courts but for serious crimes like rape and murder, U.S. courts also get involved. Navajos run the gamut from completely traditional people who speak mostly Navajo, use medicine men and have traditional Navajo weddings complete with dowries and blue corn mush baskets to Americanized Navajos who worship in the white man’s churches and can’t properly speak the language, despite the fact that it’s taught in their schools.
The Navajo Reservation is completely dry, and people who live in this end of it near Monument Valley, have to drive 22 miles to Mexican Hat, Utah, just to get alcohol and all too many of them don’t mind doing just that, as alcoholism is a huge problem. (After the tour I picked up a copy of the Navajo newspaper and noticed that there were far too many obituaries for young and middle-aged people.)
At one point while I was out taking a walk while Rosie sat in the van staying warm, two snarling dogs came charging after me as I got a little too close to some sheep.
“They belong to that family over there,” Rosie said as I jumped back into the van, pointing to a modest trailer parked smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
“People live out here?” I asked, astonished that anyone could survive in such a desolate location.
Indeed, there are about 10-12 families that live in the backcountry of Monument Valley with no electricity, running water or central heat and they have to drive to Gouldings to fill water tanks several times each week.
Rosie was great company and the buttes, mesas and ancient petroglyphs we saw were unforgettable. As we retreated back to the visitor’s center for some sunset photo opps, I was touched by the fact that Rosie pulled out her mobile phone and started taking photos.
“For us Navajos, it’s all about nature,” she said. “I never get tired of the scenery here.”
As we drove back to Gouldings, Rosie called my attention to a huge butte off in the distance.
“We live over there,” she said.
“I don’t see any houses over there,” I said.
“It’s just us, we’re out there all alone,” she replied.
As she explained that they too had to trek to Gouldings to get water and also had just a wood burning stove for heat, it dawned on me that I’d gotten more than just an explanation of all the area’s natural beauty. It was also a little trip into another world, one that is very alien to me.
[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]