Monument Valley, Utah: Hollywood’s Wild West

monument valley vistaThe 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.

monument valley utahGoulding 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.

goulding's lodge museum john wayneIf 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 The Lone Ranger,” she said nonchalantly. “He stayed in his own RV and nobody bothered him.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

The Western will never die at Old Tucson Studios

The Old West was a place where there were gunfights on every street, the bank got robbed every day, and every saloon was filled with girls dancing the can-can.

Well, actually it wasn’t, but that’s the way it seems from the movies, and a lot of those movies were filmed at Old Tucson Studios.

Located a short drive west of Tucson, Old Tucson Studios is the perfect place to film a Western. There’s an entire recreated Western town there surrounded by Arizona desert, with the Tucson and Catalina Mountains providing a scenic backdrop. Oh, and the sunsets are more beautiful than anything you’ll ever see on the screen.

The main attraction at the studios is the town itself, which has provided a backdrop for seventy years of films. Movie buffs will be in a constant state of deja-vu. Wasn’t that saloon in The Outlaw Josie Wales? Isn’t that the ranch from Bonanza? In case you’re having trouble playing Spot-The-Set, there’s a seventieth anniversary exhibit on right now showing never-before-seen production stills from some of the many films that used Old Tucson Studios. A preview video can be seen here. Some of the employees are really knowledgeable, so you might want to go on one of the historical tours.

There’s plenty going on too. Costumed performers rob the bank, there are gunfights full of stunts, and even magic shows and train rides. It’s all a bit hokey, but that’s part of the fun. Kids love it.

Unfortunately there was a bad fire in 1995 that destroyed many of the buildings and irreplaceable movie history, but there’s still plenty left to give you a good dose of movie nostalgia. So saddle up and ride down to Tucson, and while you’re there you might want to see some more of the Old West attractions southern Arizona has to offer, such as the ghost towns, the Saguaro National Monument, and the Old Spanish Trail. Tune in next time when I’ll be talking about Tombstone, a real Wild West town.

Two other anniversaries: the first Civil War battle and first Western gunfight

The whole world is celebrating yesterday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and while that amazing event deserves all the press it gets, there’s just one problem–you can’t walk around where it actually happened! Luckily there are two events that happened on this date that you can actually see where it all took place–the first major battle of the American Civil War and the first Old West standoff between two gunfighters.

On July 21, 1861, the United States had been in a Civil War for three months, but there had been very little real fighting. Both sides were busy recruiting men and training them, and except for a small battle in Carthage, Missouri, and a few skirmishes, the Union and Confederacy had not really tested each other, or themselves. That was about to change.

President Lincoln decided to act, and ordered the huge army guarding Washington, DC, to move south and defeat the Confederate army camped at Manassas Junction, Virginia, just 25 miles south of the capital. The Union troops marched out in a festival-like atmosphere and many wealthy citizens followed them in carriages, hoping for a good show.

The two armies clashed on July 21. At first things went well for the larger Union army and they pushed the Confederates back, but the rebels launched a counterattack that smashed the Union lines. Panicked, the undisciplined Union troops began to flee. The civilians who had come to watch abandoned their picnics and fled too. A disorganized mob of civilians, wounded, and soldiers who had ditched their weapons hurried all the way back to Washington. The Union had been thoroughly beaten and lost almost three thousand men killed, wounded, or captured. The Confederate army, while scoring the first major victory of the war, had suffered terribly too, losing two thousand killed and wounded. Despite the urging of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Confederate commander didn’t follow up his victory by attacking Washington. Perhaps he was shocked by the huge losses, something neither side expected. Everyone now realized it would be a long, bloody war.

The Battle of Manassas (also known as the First Battle of Bull Run) is memorialized by an excellent National Battlefield Park. The visitor center has an interactive electronic map that shows you how the battle progressed. Several interpretive trails take you around the major sights, but if you have the time, reserve a park ranger tour. I’ve been on several of these at various Civil War battlefields and they’re always good. The park rangers really know their stuff and bring the battles alive.

A little bit of trivia: the Battle at Manassas was the first time the Confederates used the famous rebel yell. This YouTube clip takes a recording of a Confederate veteran and multiplies it so you can hear what it would have sounded like to have a whole regiment of these guys charging at you. Intimidating to say the least.

If you like Westerns, you’ll be interested in the other historic event that happened on this date.

By July 21, 1865, the Civil War was over, but the bloodshed hadn’t stopped. Wild Bill Hickok, a former scout for the Union army, and Davis Tutt, a Confederate veteran, were both gamblers in Springfield, Missouri. They had fallen out over an alleged affair Hickok had with Tutt’s sister. One day Hickok was playing cards with a group of Tutt’s friends and winning big. Tutt was hanging around, lending his friends money in the hopes that Hickok would lose. When Hickok kept winning, Tutt grew angry and demanded he pay back $35 from a previous game. Hickok claimed it was only $25 and wouldn’t pay any more than that. Tutt grabbed Hickok’s gold pocket watch and said he would keep it as collateral. Hickok was furious, but sitting in a room full of Tutt’s friends, there was nothing he could do. He stormed off, warning Tutt not to wear the watch. Tutt laughed and said he’d show it off on the town square the next morning. An appointment had been set.

Tutt showed up on Springfield’s town square the next morning just as he promised, and so did Hickok. Some townspeople intervened and tried to settle the dispute. Tutt now wanted $45, and Hickok insisted he only owed $25. They had a drink over it, but nothing was resolved. At just before 6 p.m. they were both back on the square, this time ready to fight. They faced off for a moment, then drew their weapons and fired at the simultaneously. Tutt missed, but Hickok plugged Tutt in the side. Tutt shouted “Boys, I’m killed!” and ran around a bit before dropping dead.

This was the first time that a proper Western-style gunfight had ever occurred and it captured the public imagination. Similar fights have been played out in books and movies thousands of times, but in reality few gunfighters actually fought this way. Even Jesse James didn’t die in a proper showdown. He got shot in the back of the head by someone who was supposed to be his friend.

Two plaques on Springfield’s town square show where the gunfighters stood for their epic duel. Also take time to visit another plaque that marks the spot where three black men were lynched on April 14, 1906, for allegedly assaulting a white woman. A mob of two thousand people forced their way into the town jail, dragged them to the square, and hung them from a tower that contained a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Lynching was all too common in the United States at that time and even today people try to forget it ever happened. A former employee at the state’s historical society, now thankfully retired, once told me there were “hardly any” lynchings in Missouri. The historical record shows otherwise. It’s good that Springfield owns up to the darker aspects of its past. The local paper did an investigative report on the incident.