Braving The Bitter Cold To Photograph Monument Valley At Sunrise

monument valley utah sunriseWaking up before dawn isn’t usually high on my list of holiday priorities, especially on a dark, frigid winter day. But on a recent trip to Utah’s Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the iconic place that more or less defines how we imagine the American West, I was up and out of my hotel by 6:30 a.m. in order to photograph the valley’s stunning sandstone buttes and mesas in the early morning light.
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In the dawn’s early light, the massive rock formations looked almost like a city skyline off in the distance. It was bitterly cold – 12 degrees according to my rental car’s temperature gauge but a fierce wind made it feel like it was well below zero (listen to the wind in the video below!). The front desk agent at Goulding’s Lodge mentioned that the sunrise would be around 7:30, but as I drove toward the Monument Valley visitor’s center it looked like the sun might rise earlier, so in a panic, I put the pedal to the metal and flew through the desolate streets.


monument valley utah at sunriseWhen I pulled into the mostly empty parking lot and saw a handful of frigid looking, camera-clutching tourists standing around in the darkness, my Indy-500 like burst of speed seemed more than a trifle unnecessary. At 6:40, there was enough light to get a few shots of the Sentinel mesa and the two buttes that every tourist loves to photograph – the Mittens, east and west.

There was a cluster of about a dozen Japanese tourists, but within five minutes of my arrival, the Japanese womenfolk all retreated to their cars at a trot due to the unseasonably frigid weather. (January can be cold in Monument Valley, but it was colder than usual.) But the men were either too macho or too intent on getting the perfect shot, so they stayed, despite the fact that most of them weren’t dressed for winter.

I was bundled up with several layers, a warm hat, a scarf and a heavy ski jacket, but I’d made the mistake of bringing a light pair of gloves and my fingers were numb within 15 minutes.

“Are you cold?” asked a Russian tourist, who later introduced himself as Andrey.

“Freezing,” I admitted, hopping up and down to maintain warmth as we waited for the sun to rise.

“We’re from Moscow, so we don’t think it’s that cold,” he said, as his girlfriend, Elena, who looked like she was about to sprout icicles off of her nose, rolled her eyes.

“It eees cold!” Elena said, correcting him.

Andrey put a further damper on my mood by mentioning that we were unlikely to get great photos due to the forecast, which called for overcast skies.

“So what are we doing here?” Elena asked.

I gravitated toward the Japanese group and struck up a conversation with a twenty-something man named Yamato, who was wearing just a hoodie, with no hat or gloves and flip flops with no socks! (see photo)

japanese tourist at monument valley utah“I’ve been living in L.A. for 10 years,” he explained. “I wear flip flops every day. I didn’t know it would be so cold here.”

All too slowly the sky broke out into a mélange of pink, baby blue and orange and we snapped away for a good hour, pacing and hopping up and down all the while to keep the blood flowing. I lost all feeling in my fingers and toes and couldn’t imagine how cold the barefoot and bare fingered Yamato was. But he never complained; he just kept shooting.

I don’t think any of us got the iconic, magazine cover image we were hoping for. In order to get the perfect shot, you need a bit of luck, not to mention knowledge and the right equipment, but it was still an unforgettable experience. Anyone who has seen the sun rise over Monument Valley will understand why we call it America the Beautiful. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Yamato and his samurai mentality. He was going to capture the moment even if it killed him.

“I might never be back here,” he explained. “I have to get the shot.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Four Corners: A Delightfully Confusing Tourist Trap

four cornersOf 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.


navajo nationRather 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.

four corners“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.

[Photo/video credit: Dave Seminara]

An Unforgettable Backcountry Tour Of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

monument valley utahI’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.
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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.


monument valley“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.

monument valleyAs 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.

monument valleyRosie 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]

A Day On Santa Fe’s Canyon Road

canyon roadI’m not what could be described as a patron of the arts, yet for some reason, I seem to have a knack for living in cities famed for their galleries and arts and culture scene: Vail. Lahaina. Santa Barbara. Calistoga. Telluride. Could I be a latent art groupie?

Nah. I’m just attracted to scenic places. I also spent many years waiting tables to support my writing habit, and it’s always been my belief that if I’m going to suffer for my art, then I’m sure as hell going to live someplace beautiful … where I can also make mad tips.

I’ve never lived in Santa Fe, but I’ve spent a lot of time in what’s best described as the arts epicenter of the Southwest. I’ve written of my obsession with the city’s restaurants, but my fondness for Canyon Road is more about visual, rather than prandial, pleasures. According to its official website, “within a few short blocks, visitors to Canyon Road can experience more than two centuries of the historic adobe architecture for which Santa Fe is famous…”

Located within walking distance of downtown and the Plaza, this 3/4-mile stretch of galleries, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and artists’ studios is world-renown amongst art collectors, particularly those attracted to Southwestern and Native American themes.

For me, Canyon Road is less about the art, and more about people watching, architecture, and cultural immersion. And let’s face it: with my writer’s salary, I’m hardly in the market for “investment pieces.” The great thing about Canyon Road, however, is you don’t need money or an interest in art to enjoy it.canyon roadOver the years, I’ve spent many peaceful hours, in all four seasons, wandering Canyon Road. I especially love the enchanting adobe homes that line the side streets and far eastern end.

There’s no bad time of day to visit, but I prefer early morning, before the galleries open, when the only signs of life are dog walkers and the odd sidewalk washer. A late afternoon or evening stroll or run is my other favorite way to experience Canyon Road. The hoards of tourists are gone, and I can pop in and out of galleries as I get in some much-needed exercise (eating, as I’ve mentioned, being my other favorite activity in Santa Fe).

See
What galleries you choose to visit of course depends upon your interests. For what it’s worth, I love Pachamama, a lovely shop specializing in Spanish Colonial antiques and Latin American folk art – both passions of mine. The owner, Martha Egan, is a renown scholar of Latin folk art, and has written some excellent books on the subject. One of the reasons I enjoy this storesanta fe is that it’s full of affordable treasures. I also love Curiosa, a quirky boutique selling milagros, folk art, jewelry and other trinkets.

Eat/Drink
Canyon Road is home to some of Santa Fe’s most famous (and expensive) restaurants, including Geronimo, The Compound, and the venerable El Farol. Personally, I suggest you save your money and fuel up with breakfast at The Teahouse, located at the eastern end. In addition to things like steel-cut oatmeal and house-made granola, they make absolutely insane, gluten-free “scones (more like muffins)” topped with a mantle of crusty melted cheese, green chiles and a soft-boiled egg.

If you’re jonesing to start your day with authentic New Mexican food, you can do no better than the pork or chicken tamales at Johnnie’s Cash Store (above), less than a ten-minute walk from the galleries, on Camino Don Miguel. Go early, and as the name implies, bring cash. Five dollars will fill you up.
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While you may want to skip the more spendy places for a meal, the patio of El Farol is a favorite spot for an afternoon glass of wine or beer, or happy hour cocktail. The Tea House also serves beer, wine and coffee drinks.

For an afternoon pick-me-up, head down Canyon Road, and turn left onto Acequia Madre, which has some of the area’s most beautiful adobes. Make a right on Paseo de Peralta, cross the street, and you’ll see Kakawa Chocolate House. Revive with a hot or cold sipping chocolate (“elixirs”) and a sweet treat; the red chile caramel coated in dark chocolate is outstanding.

Stay
My favorite hotel in Santa Fe just happens to be located around the corner from Canyon Road. The Inn on the Alameda (right) is an attractive Pueblo-style property with 72 spacious, comfortable rooms, many with French doors and balconies. It’s not the hippest spot in town, as it’s popular with older travelers. I suspect it has something to do with the elaborate full breakfasts and the daily wine and cheese happy hour, both of which are gratis for guests. And really, who in their right mind wouldn’t love a deal like that?

Don’t let the median age dissuade you if you’re a bright young thing. The hotel has stellar service, an outdoor hot tub, free parking, allows pets and is close to all of Santa Fe’s attractions. It’s also across the street from a bucolic creekside running path, and offers killer packages (especially if you’re a food-lover) in conjunction with the Santa Fe School of Cooking, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the farmers market. A stay here always feels like coming home to me, but then, Santa Fe just has that way about it.

P.S. Canyon Road on Christmas Eve is a vision of fairy lights and farolitos.

[Photo credits: gallery, Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau; gallery, Flickr user xnergy; Johnnie’s Cash Store, Laurel Miller; Inn on the Alameda; Alice Marshall Public Relations]

Sunset Magazine’s ‘Westphoria’ Blog Celebrates The Weirdness Of The Western States

chickenIt’s no secret that the 13 states comprising the Western U.S. are a bit unusual. Enter Westphoria, Sunset magazine’s 4-month-old blog dedicated to celebrating all that’s quirky, kick-ass, and distinct about the Left Coast, Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions. Think retrofitted teardrop campers, chicken “sitters,” bike-powered farmers market smoothies, and, uh, hotel rooms designed to resemble giant bird nests.

For those of you living on the other side of the Continental Divide, Sunset is the nation’s top Western lifestyle magazine, focused on travel, gardening, design, green living, food and the outdoors. Understandably, we’re big fans here at Gadling.

Westphoria is sort of like Sunset’s black sheep little sibling: edgy, on-trend, a smarty-pants with a sweet soul. Categories include themes like “House Crush,” “Made in the West,” “Dream Life,” “Food” and “Wanderlust.” I’m hooked.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Green Garden Girl]