Linda was up making coffee at 5 a.m. again, at Cottonwood Campground. I stepped out to check the weather and head to the men’s room to shave and attend to other tasks. Linda did not believe that my report of “crisp and clear”. She did not dispute the condition of the sky, but requested that I get an indoor-outdoor thermometer. Our destination today, Saturday (5/21/11), would be Monument Valley, which is in the Navajo Nation, straddling the Arizona Utah boarder.
First we had Operation Reorganize. I dropped Linda and Emily off at the laundrymat in Chinle, while I topped off the tank ($3.79/gallon), picked up some more groceries, and cash. By 9 a.m. we headed north toward Bluff, then west toward Monument Valley. We both did not recall much of note on this section of road, from our drive south two years ago when we traveled from Moab to Canyon de Chelly. Maybe we were both asleep or in the back of the Civic then, but the morning light brought many features out for this drive. Of particular vividness was the crossing over of the San Juan River with rippling reds and ash colors curving on the slope, pushed along by a high uplift, with shelf after shelf of rock reaching toward the sky. Then the monuments began to appear.
We pulled into the Mitten View Camp ground were only a handful of other RV’s had set up. The campground is not much more than a somewhat leveled, red sand pad overlooking the entrance to the 17-mile drive around the monuments. This area is within the Navajo Nation and is run as a Tribal Park. One can drive a vehicle, preferably a high clearance SUV, but we were not going to take an RV on this dirt and sand road. We had reserved a Navajo guided tour (firstname.lastname@example.org). When we met our guide, we were surprised to learn that his first name was Larson, as was he to learn our last name. We had booked two tours, and afternoon tour of Monument Valley, and an evening tour of Mystery Valley. Larson would take us on both.
As I mentioned, the dirt road is open to the public with a fee. Thus the first taste of the ride one must get used to is the line of cars, motorcycles, and open bed tour trucks bumping along and stirring up dust. At first we wondered why our guide drove on all sides of the road, other than to avoid soft sand bumps. However, we figured out later than he was trying to minimize the amount of dust that we followed in. After a few brief stops, he had worked his way ahead of the other groups, and turned off of the main loop to take us around sections of the drive, which you may only visit with a Navajo guide. While driving your own vehicle would allow you to take as much time as you wished at the views, vendors, and trails around the monuments, having someone do the driving and take you to place that you would not find otherwise is worth the admission price.
Monument Valley is a combination of stunning and nostalgia. The views of buttes rising up from the high desert floor are the opposite of viewing canyons descending into the same rolling vistas. The afternoon clouds added contrast to the overwhelming rusts of the sandstones. Much of this landscape has become iconic of western movies from the films, which John Ford set around this area. While this was a great experience, we were even more dazzled by the evening tour in Mystery Valley.
Fortunately for us, Mystery Valley is around the mesa from the big-show at Monument Valley. You can only visit this with a Navajo guide. Few devote the time to do both valleys, so as the drive-yourself and the got-to-see-the-familiar folks raced around one valley, Linda, Emily, & I headed off with Larson as our driver for the other valley. We met up with only one other tour for the next four hours.
Mystery Valley has fewer of the skyscraper buttes, but hosts many arches and ancient ruins. Larson knew these like his grammar school playground. For this leg of the trip, without the other four tourist from the first tour, he dispensed of the standard tour recitation and showed us his
playground with the enthusiasm of an uncorrupted youth. Our discussions broadened from –ologies (i.e. geology, archaeology) to conversations about our cultures, our interests, and our families. In the bowl of arches, with ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs above us, he played his flute (adapted from the Plains Tribes’ style flute), and the other guide told stories and sang songs. Such beauty is not in technique but in realizing a moment that cannot be captured.
Larson also took us on a few wild rides, which no amusement park could replicate with fiberglass rocks or special effects. When he suggested that we hold on while he drove “a little faster” to get through a sand dune, he did not mention the 30 degree inclines, forward, back, or side-to-side. Near the end of the trip, he turned off the traveled tire tracks to a seldom used path. Then he made a sharp curve up a rock incline. Half way up
he stopped, got out, checked the clearance, and shyly said, “I didn’t know if this truck could get up here. I but I only take professional photographers up here.” We were treated to a ridge top view of the curving, rock-preserved sand dunes from another age. I asked about his flute, which he brought out. “I never thought of playing it up here, but this feels like a good place.” He sat on a ledge, and we sat nearby, listening to his music, unrehearsed, watching the evening sky overtake the day with high clouds pulling a blanket over the plateau.
We did not have the spectacular golden-red sunsets, which so often dominate photo-books of Monument Valley. However, had we regretted missing the picture-postcard view, we might have overlooked another wonderful detail much more mystical than monumental. When we returned to the camp ground, with the Mittens turning deep purple in the night, dozen of photographers hauled away hundreds of dollars worth of equipment joking about what they did not get that evening. They will be back. Maybe some day they will capture their expectations. But, they will not likely have experienced an evening as we did with Larson.
Sunday morning (5/22/11), we woke to watch the sunrise, then took the 3.2 mile walk around the closer Mitten. Linda preferred the Navajo name form for these monuments: The Hands of God. Good place to be on a Sunday morning. Before leaving for Page, AZ, we stopped at the gift shop. I picked up an flute. Now Larson from the east can bring the inspiration of Navajo music to the Short Mountain… maybe.