The road unfolds downhill, straight as an arrow, and appears to dead end at an otherworldly collection of sandstone buttes and mesas. We’ve all been here before, even if we’ve never stepped foot in the state of Utah. If you find yourself driving south on Utah Route 163, you will feel a strong sense of déjà vu about 12 miles north of Monument Valley. If the vista seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before in dozens of movies, commercials and music videos. When a producer is looking for a symbol of the American West this is where they come.
The story of how Hollywood discovered Monument Valley starts with Harry Goulding, an audacious entrepreneur with a fifth-grade education who established a trading post in the area with his wife in 1924. During the Great Depression, Goulding and his wife, “Mike” loaded up their Model A Ford and drove to Hollywood with a suitcase full of photos of Monument Valley. Goulding turned up unannounced at the office of John Ford, a legendary Hollywood producer and was reportedly asked to leave.
Goulding supposedly went out to his car, grabbed his bedroll, and laid it out in the waiting room of Ford’s office, announcing that he wasn’t going home until he was allowed to see Mr. Ford. The secretary called security, but the person who came to escort him out happened to be one of Ford’s site coordinators, and he was enthralled by the photos of Monument Valley that Goulding had spread out on a table.
Within weeks, Ford’s team was in the area filming “Stagecoach,” and he went on to shoot six more films in the area. John Wayne and other Hollywood luminaries were in the area so often that Goulding’s Lodge became their home away from home. Wayne, Ford and Goulding gave English language names to many of the area’s buttes and mesas, and hundreds of westerns have been shot in the area over the decades, not to mention scenes from a host of other movies including “Thelma and Louise,” “Easy Rider,” “Back to the Future III,” “Windtalkers,” and “Mission Impossible II” to name just a few. It was also the place where Forrest Gump got tired of running, and last year Johnny Depp was in town to film scenes from “The Lone Ranger,” which comes out in July.
Even if you haven’t seen any of these movies, you’ve surely seen Monument Valley in a Road Runner cartoon, in a commercial or a music video. But even though the place seems immediately familiar, I wasn’t prepared for how awe-inspiring the scenery is. Everywhere you look, there are towering buttes and mesas, with every shade of red imaginable, and the panoramas are completely untarnished by tacky development. There is no Starbucks, McDonald’s or any other chain within many miles of this magical place.
The area gets just a fraction of the tourist trade that the Grand Canyon gets and, at least in the winter and summer, most of the travelers are from overseas. I was glad to have the place practically to myself in early January but I couldn’t help but think that Monument Valley deservers a lot more visitors.
If you want to get a taste of Monument Valley’s Hollywood connection, consider staying at Goulding’s Lodge, which has comfortable rooms with great views, not to mention John Wayne movies every night. Either way, definitely check out their free Trading Post museum, which is filled with interesting movie memorabilia and trading post artifacts. I also highly recommend their guided backcountry tour, which gives travelers an opportunity to see areas of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park that are off limits to non-Navajos and offers insights into Navajo culture and traditions.
According to Rosie Phatt, my Navajo tour guide, locals never get tired of Monument Valley’s breathtaking vistas, but they have gotten used to all the celebrities who descend upon the area.
“Johnny Depp was here in April when they were filming scenes for TheLone Ranger,” she said nonchalantly. “He stayed in his own RV and nobody bothered him.”
I’m sitting on a humble metal chair inside a traditional eight-sided Native American hogan, made with wood planks and packed dirt, trying to work up the courage to ask an intimidating Navajo medicine man if he has the power to heal me. The rich, deep red clay floor looks like the tennis courts at Roland Garros. A wooly sheepskin rug lies before us, a small American flag is hung on the wall, and there’s a loom with a colorful Navajo rug in the corner.
Over by the door, which faces to the east, the direction of the morning light, where Navajos believe that all good things come from, is a wood-burning stove. The smell of burning cedar fills the crisp winter air and the crackling of the fire punctuates the gaps in our conversation. Outside the hogan, the towering buttes and mesas of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park lend an almost mystical aura to the place.
To my right is Herman Chee, a 60-year-old Navajo medicine man, and his grandson, Larry Holliday, who serves as an interpreter. Chee speaks some English, but is more comfortable speaking Navajo, an oddly melodic tongue with no alphabet that the U.S. military used to confuse Japanese code-breakers in World War II. Holliday is a baby-faced young man who is wearing a straw hat and has a blue handkerchief tied around his neck. He smiles easily when I ask his grandfather questions and radiates warmth.
Chee is a serious-faced man wearing a blue bandana, a long turquoise necklace and elaborate bracelets. His bulky medicine bag is on the floor between us and it looks like the sort of briefcase a pharmaceutical rep would schlep around hospitals and office parks. Each time I ask a question, he closes his eyes, grimaces and turns his head skyward before relaying his answer in Navajo, often using hand gestures to reinforce his points. It isn’t clear if my questions are annoying him or if he’s channeling some sort of spiritual guidance. My instinct as a journalist is to keep the interview impersonal but I have multiple sclerosis (MS) and I can’t leave this hogan without asking him if he’s confident he could heal me.
When I decided to visit Monument Valley, which sits right on the Utah/Arizona border inside the Navajo Reservation, the largest Native American reservation in America, I resolved to find a medicine man. It sounded like a fine idea but finding one proved to be a tribulation. Legitimate Navajo medicine men don’t have websites or Facebook pages and they don’t advertise in the white man’s Yellow Pages.
A contact in Utah’s state tourism office introduced me to Ronnie Biard, the general manager of Monument Valley’s Goulding’s Trading Post and Lodge, who agreed to help me find a medicine man.
“Finding a medicine man isn’t as easy as it used to be,” Biard warned. “It’s kind of a dying art.”
Patients use medicine men to cure them of illnesses but also to restore their spirituality, or purge bad mojo that comes from experiences the Navajo consider taboo, like seeing a dead body. According to a story in USA Today, some insurance carriers in the southwest cover ceremonies performed by medicine men, which can cost thousands of dollars. Medicine men are highly respected in their culture, but a few have abused that power in recent years.
In September, Francis Nez, a medicine man from Gallup, New Mexico, was charged with two counts of sexually assaulting members of his own family, and in 2007, a Navajo medicine man named Alden Chee (no relation to Herman Chee) was convicted of sexually assaulting a female client with a mental disability. Two other medicine men – Herbert Yazzie and David Filfred – were also convicted of rape in the last decade.
Biard asked if I was willing to pay the medicine man for his time and although I’ve never paid anyone for an interview, I was also asking the medicine man for a consultation or a service, so I felt that I could justify it. I told Biard that I wanted to ask the medicine man how they would cure someone with MS and he said that his wife also had MS and had used a Navajo medicine man to try to help improve her condition.
“She went to a sweat lodge and had them perform a ceremony for her several years ago,” he recalled. “I think it made her feel better for a while but I don’t think it really worked.”
“How much do you think they’ll want to meet with me?” I asked.
“I’m just going to throw a number out, and it’s possible they won’t charge at all,” he said. “I’m going to say $200.”
That was more than I could commit to, so I asked Biard to try to find a medicine man who’d be willing to meet me for $50. A few days later, Biard called to tell me that he’d found a medicine man willing to work with my modest budget and the following week, I found myself in the hogan with Holliday and Chee.
Chee tells me through his grandson’s interpretation that he “was picked by the creator, the element, the spiritual people,” to become a medicine man after his wife became very sick about 27 years ago and was treated by another medicine man who healed her.
“After the ceremony was done, she was healthy,” he says. “She recovered and to this day, she’s alive.”
Chee says that medicine men can help relatives but they can’t help themselves or their spouses.
“A lot of the people who come to see me were hit by lightning, which disturbs their spirit,” he says, when asked about his patients. “Or if they see a dead body. We Navajo are very superstitious, so when we go to a funeral, that interferes with our spirit.”
“So how would you treat someone who is struck by lightning?” I ask.
Chee says that he has instruments, tools in his medicine bag to treat them, but when I ask to see them he closes his eyes, grimaces, tightens his jaw, exhales deeply and is silent for several moments. I can hear the crackling of the fire and a bird squawking in the distance as the anticipation builds. I’m like a child hoping to get an ice cream cone.
“In the traditional way I learned from my teachers, these instruments were given to me to use in ceremonies, so this stuff is sacred,” he says. “It wouldn’t be right to bring them out just to show them to people.”
Chee tells me he was in the Air Force many years ago and has worked as a bus driver and a carpenter but is now simply a medicine man. I ask him if he refers very sick patients to medical doctors and he shakes his head dismissively.
“Most of the time, I don’t,” he says. “I can remove and fight witchcraft and illness. I’m a crystal gazer and a hand trembler. I help a lot of patients, even people with cancer. I’m so positive about my ceremonies, that I don’t usually recommend doctors.”
He says that his clients have to make a reservation to see him and that they pay him for his services, or if they don’t have money, they offer him turquoise, buckskins, sheep, jewelry, horses or even cows.
“What do you do if you get really sick?” I ask. “Do you visit another medicine man or go to a hospital?”
“I go to a doctor only if I have a severe illness or broken bones,” he says, as Larry gets up to add some logs to the fire. “But if I just have a fever or small illness, I go to another medicine man.”
Larry tells me that his grandfather wants to know more about me and I see this as the opening I’ve been waiting for. I explain that I have MS and would like to know if he’s treated people with this disease and if so, how and what was the outcome.
“There is a ceremony that can be done for this,” he says. “But you have to make a reservation.”
I suppose it makes sense – you don’t walk into a medical doctor’s office and expect to be treated on the spot – but the response caught me off guard and I wondered if they were expecting me to ask for a price quote. Perhaps they sized me up as a typical ignoramus who rolls into town and expects to have some natives do a tribal dance on the spot and I didn’t want to be that guy.
“How would you treat me?” I ask.
“After you make your reservation, I will go to the Sacred Mountain and ask the elements, all the different gods how to treat you. (The four sacred mountains mark the traditional boundaries of the Navajo Nation.) And I will get all those herbs and plants, bring them home and I will give you the medicine bundle. And I will build a fire and talk to the different gods to invite them to the hogan. I will look in my crystal and X-ray you with my crystal, from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head and that’s where these elements and different gods will talk to me and tell me how to treat you.”
“But does it work?” I ask.
Both men look at me as if to say, “Well of course it works, you damn fool. If it didn’t, why would we do it?”
“After the ceremony, you have four days where you don’t shower,” he says, after a long pause. “You’ll be covered in herbs and medicines and given some prayers and songs. They will put you back together in one piece. All the evil, the taboo will be left behind. It’s helped a lot of people. Five days later, patients come back and say ‘I feel much better.’”
I’m a skeptic by nature and I’m really not the sit in a circle and bang a tribal drum with people wearing tie-dye and taking peyote type of guy. I believe in science and drugs, not spiritualism and native healing. But after seven years of daily injections of a medication that would cost $50,000 per year if, God forbid, I was uninsured, I want to believe that Herman Chee, sitting next to me here in this hogan can cure me. Fuck injectable medications, I’m in the Navajo Nation now.
“To respect our ceremonies and traditions, you have to witness them,” Chee says, when I ask if white men are usually skeptical of his powers.
I have a deep respect for the Navajos and their traditions but I’m from another world, another culture. Still, half the battle in fighting illness is mental. If you believe you’re getting better, you can actually feel better.
But I resist the temptation to make a reservation for a ceremony because I don’t want to leave this hogan as a skeptic buying a ceremony just to test if it works, because under those circumstances, the experiment is doomed to fail. Herman tells me that he makes people feel better and I believe him.
I want to ask him about the three Navajo medicine men who were charged (two have been convicted so far) with sexual abuse crimes, but decide to lighten the mood first by asking if he knows of any cures for hangovers. As Larry translates the question, a huge smile breaks out across Chee’s distinctively featured face for the first time and both men begin to laugh hysterically before Chee responds.
“Give them another beer,” he jokes.
Medicine men don’t cure hangovers but they can help treat alcoholism, he says. I ask about the criminal medicine men and Chee says he doesn’t know them and knows nothing about their cases. He estimates that there are about 200 Navajo medicine men on a reservation the size of West Virginia with a population of nearly 300,000. But he suggests that they probably weren’t real medicine men to begin with and says that those who abuse their craft will have to pay for their crimes.
We step out of the hogan and the luminous glow of the towering, ageless buttes and mesas off on the horizon lend our meeting a fitting denouement. In these parts, where the landscape hasn’t changed much in centuries, it feels normal to be meeting with a medicine man. But Holliday and Biard mentioned that medicine men were becoming harder to find and I want to know if there will still be medicine men in the Navajo Nation 20, 50 or 100 years from now.
“Not too many young people are studying to be medicine men now,” Chee concedes. “But medicine men are always going to be here. Our prayers are always going to be here. Our language will always be here. That’s our survival. One hundred years from now, there will still be medicine men here.”
Of course I knew that Four Corners – the spot where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet – would be a tourist trap. But on a recent road trip from Durango to Monument Valley, Utah, I passed just five miles away from this geographically auspicious place and found that I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and see the only spot in America where four states meet.
The Navajo Nation operates the site, which sits inside their vast reservation, which is about as large as West Virginia. After paying the modest $3 fee in a booth, I noticed a sign warning tourists against spreading ashes at the site, as the Navajo believe that cremation is a “malicious desecration.”
I parked and made my way towards the monument, expecting to be able to touch an actual piece of dirt where the four states meet. But low and behold, the site, which is set amidst some wild, beautiful southwestern scenery, is an ugly monstrosity.
Rather than allow an untrammeled view of nature surrounding the site, there are four hideous concrete structures with stalls for vendors – all but two of them were unoccupied when I was there – and the entire site has been paved over, so there’s nothing but concrete. It was a cold Saturday morning and there was just one family at the site aside from myself.
One of just two Native American vendors who turned up that morning told me that in the high season people sometimes have to wait in line an hour or more to get their photo taken at the spot where the four states meet. I couldn’t help but wonder which state would have jurisdiction if an enraged tourist decided to kill someone who was taking too long posing for photos on the spot.
After walking across the spot, I noticed that my car seemed to be parked in New Mexico, which baffled me. I’d be driving in Colorado and hadn’t passed any sign indicating that I’d crossed into New Mexico. I looked back at the spot and tried to rap my head around the fact that I could look in four directions and see four states. And for the first time in my life I was thoroughly confused about what state I was actually in.
“Excuse me,” I said to the Navajo woman operating the booth at the entrance to the site. “But are we in New Mexico right now?”
“This is New Mexico,” she said. “But down by the river, it’s Colorado, off to the right, it’s Arizona, and over there it’s Utah.”
“But there was no sign to indicate that I had left Colorado and entered New Mexico,” I said.
“A drunk driver smashed into the sign,” she explained. “So it’s gone now.”
I crossed back into Colorado and then into Utah, crossing my 8th state border within ten minutes. Or was it 7? I still have no idea.
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.
“Welcome to the Navajo Nation,” said my guide, by way of introduction, as I piled into a van and was pleased to find out that I was the only visitor who turned up for the tour.
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.
“An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.” –Tony Hillerman
Yesterday, when I read that Tony Hillerman died, I flashed back to one afternoon when I went as a guest to a writer’s group meeting at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I introduced myself, was I surprised when I shook one man’s hand, and his warm voice said, “My name’s Tony Hillerman.” I had no idea that this was the writers’ group he attended.
What struck me about Hillerman was his unassuming aura. He was generous and thoughtful with his comments to the other writers, and not any more important than the others in the room.
Like anyone else who lives in Albuquerque, I was aware of Hillerman’s work as a mystery writer whose stories center around the Southwest. A person cannot live in that city without being aware of how he brought weight to the region. Plus, his books are everywhere. I recall racks of them.
I’m in awe of writers who are able to attach themselves to a place and dive deep into its nuances. Reading a Hillerman novel is a trip to the Four Corners region of the Southwest. His version is not the one that requires putting one foot in New Mexico, one foot in Arizona, one hand in Utah and the other in Colorado before buying a Navajo taco from one of the food vendors.
If you go to Four Corners with Hillerman’s eye, you look for the person behind the scenery. Who is the person who is selling you that turquoise bracelet? Who lives in the houses far flung at the edge of the hills? What about life matters most to them?
Although tourists may visit the various pueblos and Native American reservations across the Southwest, those experiences are merely glimpses of these cultures. Hillerman wrote about people here by getting under their skin.
As he said, “I always have one or two, sometimes more, Navajo or other tribes’ cultural elements in mind when I start a plot. In Thief of Time, I wanted to make readers aware of Navajo attitude toward the dead, respect for burial sites.” [Brainy Quotes]
Considering that Halloween is coming up this week, here’s a Hillerman title for you: Dance of the Dead. The novel is the second one in his series featuring protagonist Lt. Joe Leaphorn. It won the Edgar Award for best novel.
For an interview with Hillerman in Book Page, click here, and for yesterday’s NPR All Things Considered segment on Hillerman, click here.