Monument Valley   2 comments

View of some of Monument Valley’s stone monoliths from the south.

I’ve seen my share of western movies.  In fact, I have to be honest and admit that they are one of my favorite film genres.  I have always wished I was born in St Louis during the mid-1800s.  When I was young I would certainly have headed west to be a mountain man, a guide on the Oregon Trail, or simply a cowboy.  John Wayne (the Duke) was most definitely a giant of western movies.  All this preamble is to say that some of my first impressions of the western landscape are of Monument Valley.

Old portraits of John Wayne appear throughout Monument Valley.

It was an area favored by John Ford and other directors at an early stage, and from the late 1930s through the 50s, large tent camps full of movie crews popped up from time to time amongst the buttes and mesas.  The era of big westerns, such as 1938s Stagecoach (the Duke’s breakout film) eventually came to an end.  But the valley still attracts crews filming car commercials and the like.  John Wayne’s image is a more common sight here than pictures of any Navajo.

Monument Valley is big country.  Lying in the arid American desert southwest, it straddles the Arizona/Utah border.  The valley is characterized by towering sandstone monoliths.  The rocks are reddish from iron oxides. Combine this with the fact that the monoliths take on such a variety of tall buttes, towers and extremely narrow fins, and also because the area between the monoliths is flat and mostly treeless, and you have a landscape that is dramatic in the extreme.  As a backdrop to wagon trains, or to big men in cowboy hats riding horses, it simply can’t be beat.  Photographers are drawn to the valley of course, and in the right light it certainly can yield amazing compositions.

The light was not bad during my visit just before Halloween.  When I arrived in the late afternoon on my first day, there were some promising clouds in the western sky, and so instead of trying to drive through the entire valley, I parked along Highway 163 near its high point and took off walking.  The countryside is easy to hike in this area, no trails required.

Of course, you want to be cautious about where you walk, since it is all Navajo land.  There are areas where one or a few families live, sort of like very small villages.  But by and large, the land is empty of people, so there is not much chance of being hassled.  Signs will warn you of private roads, or where trespassing is particularly frowned upon.  I found some pretty nice pictures in this area just west of Mitten Buttes, primarily because I was just high enough in elevation that trees, yucca and other interesting shrubs formed nice foreground elements.

I drove out onto the vast flat part of the valley lying north of Mitten Buttes, looking for a place to park and sleep.  I was tired and did not hunt in my usual careful way, so wound up parking fairly close to lights that indicated a settlement.  Soon a pair of headlights appeared, bouncing over the sagebrush, heading my way.  I pulled up to meet them (always a good thing), and was greeted by a three young American Indian men in a Bronco.

The driver informed me that I was on their land (which I knew).  But he also added that they were just checking to make sure I wasn’t a drunk or up to no good.  I offered to find someplace else to camp, but he waved me off.  He said I was welcome to camp there, as long as I didn’t hang around too long in the morning.  I was fine with that!  In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised by their attitude.  I know that, were this land owned by a white person, and I was discovered there in the dark, that I would very likely be ordered off the land unless I wanted to deal with the police.

These native guys were naturally concerned about who was driving on their land.  But they were reasonable, able to tell immediately that I didn’t pose any danger.  Why not let me sleep a few hundred yards from their modest little houses?  What I’m saying is that they were not paranoid about a stranger, unlike so many folks I run into on the road.  They were secure men, secure in their judgment, and secure in their ability to handle me if they turned out to be wrong about me.  I like that because that’s the way I am.  And to think at Ship Rock I was worried about camping on Navajo land.  I should know better by now.  American Indians are more similar to the locals I met in African villages, or high in the Nepali Himalaya than they are to white Americans.  They are real!

The wind often blows through Monument Valley. piling sand dunes up against Rain God Mesa.

Over the course of the day, while taking care of laundry and the other necessary road trip duties, and while treating myself to a rare hot breakfast, I noticed a few things.  I never knew how much tourist traffic there was in Monument Valley.  This was the time of year when things wind down, and yet plenty of tourists were here.  There is an infrastructure under the name Gouldings – lodge, RV camp, restaurant.  Obviously this is not a Navajo-owned company, but they do provide jobs.  There are plenty of tour buses filled with overseas tourists (especially Japanese), and open-air tour vehicles ply the roads.  These are very much like safari vehicles in Africa, where the passengers sit above and behind the driver.  On the the gravel road that loops through the heart of the valley, this means a dusty ride.  It costs $5 to enter the tribal park and drive the scenic but very rough loop (such a deal!).

But as I was driving this spectacular loop, getting bumped and jolted by the rocks and dips, one thing was obvious: you don’t want to do this during peak season.  I can imagine that in late spring and summer, driving through the tribal park would resemble a sort of long, dust-choked follow-the-leader game.  I can’t recommend doing this drive unless you are visiting at a less-busy time, as I did.  Or perhaps you could start out at dawn.  You can certainly see much of Monument Valley without ever entering the tribal park.  There are other roads, including the one that heads out onto Douglas Mesa, and the road that goes to Oliato Trading Post and beyond.  Both of these roads explore the far western reaches of Monument Valley.

The Tribal Park is definitely worthwhile though.  Even the view from the spectacularly located visitor center is well worth the $5 entry fee.  From here, you can easily scan the loop road to see exactly how crowded with vehicles it is.  And finally, you can take a nice 3+ mile hike from near the visitor center.  Called the Wildcat Trail, it is a sandy desert walk that loops round the Mittens.

A lizard made its way across the sand in Monument Valley, Arizona.

I braved the dusty loop road through the tribal park late on my second afternoon in the valley.  I spied some decent-sized sand dunes from the far end of the loop road. Beyond the dunes stands several tall sandstone spires, called the “totem poles”.  And so I decided this was as good a place for a sunset photo walk as any.  I’m not sure it was legal to hike off-trail, but nobody hassled me about it.  I love photographing in sand dunes, and was looking forward to some shots of the rising near-full moon as well.  For some how-to discussion on moon shots (not on a rocket ship!), and using Monument Valley as an example, be sure to catch the next blog post.  It was not as colorful a sunset as the previous evening’s was, though there was some cloud cover to the west.  I still find it difficult sometimes to identify the types of clouds that will lead to a colorful sunset.

Desert sands and backlit rabbitbrush cover the southern portion of Monument Valley in Arizona.

I ended up shooting until dark, and since I was tired and the place had literally cleared out, I decided to just park it there and sleep.  Although it is not okay to camp inside the Tribal Park, I guessed (correctly) that nobody would be out there to hassle me.  If somebody did come by, I would have just apologized and left.  I think I know the Navajos well enough now to safely assume no undue officiousness on their part.  I shot some moon-lit landscapes, then slept until dawn.  I was alone when the sun first touched the rocks, burning them orange.  That little bit of sunshine was all it took to begin warming the clear, frigid air.  It warmed to 70 degrees that day!

Though hanging around on the Navajo reservation does involve small sacrifices (modern society’s conveniences, like a cheap grocery store, for e.g.), I really am getting used to it.  It is a bit like visiting a country like Mexico.  It takes a while to get used to, but once you’re there for a time, you begin to absorb and embrace the differences.  You begin thinking like the locals.  You begin to really be in the place, to really feel it.

Monument Valley shows off rare clouds at sunset.

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2 responses to “Monument Valley

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  1. Stunning pictures…you are an awesome photographer, keep it up

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