Zane Grey knew how to make an entrance, or at least how to describe one. As the famous Western writer liked to tell the story, he was on horseback in 1913, riding deep into Navajo country, when a flash lighted up the desert. That flash, Grey wrote, “revealed a vast valley, a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”
Grey had found his way to Monument Valley, before John Ford and John Wayne showed up to make Stagecoach and before all those other makers of movies and television and marketers of cars and cigarettes made the buttes a symbol of the Wild West. Even if you suspect poetic license in the timing of that lightning bolt, the man saw the valley raw.
Thinking of him last month, I rose before sunrise in a hotel on the Arizona-Utah border, drove to a parking lot and hiked down Wildcat Trail into the heart of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Mark Boster, the photographer accompanying me, had set up on high ground, so I was alone.
There was a scent of wet sage, almost no sound but the wind. Then the sun rose, the mesas blazed and dead ahead, the towering West Mitten Butte jumped from pre-dawn obscurity into silhouette.
It was tremendous. Only for a moment did I wonder if this was where Chevy Chase crashed the Griswold family station wagon in National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Nation reservation, 175 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., about 25 miles north of the sleepy town of Kayenta. The valley’s most famous mesas, buttes and spires stand within the boundaries of the tribal park. And you, my fellow Americans, should go to see them.
Why? Because it’s embarrassing to stand in the middle of such stark beauty and realize that most of the other tourists are speaking French, German, Italian, Japanese or Chinese.
You should know, however, that this is no national park. Instead of the National Park Service infrastructure, you will find a 17-mile dirt road looping around the valley’s most admired landmarks, a dozen or more jewelry and souvenir stands, two hotels in the immediate neighborhood, and no alcohol on their menus.
To leave the loop road, you must hire a Navajo guide. You may notice a weather-beaten trailer, perhaps neighbored by a rounded earthen mound. These are private homes and traditional hogans, without electricity or running water, that house a handful of Navajo families that date back here for generations. Many of them make their living from tourists, but most don’t want a paved road inside the park because then too many would come.
And then there’s the uranium. From the 1940s to the 1960s, with the approval of U.S. and Navajo leaders, mining companies extracted tons of ore here to fuel U.S. nuclear programs. Then they abandoned the sites, including Skyline Mine on the valley’s Oljato Mesa. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found lingering elevated radiation at Skyline and in 2011 completed an $8-million cleanup, but elsewhere in Navajo country hundreds of abandoned mines await remediation. A tourist might see none of this, but locals know all about it.
So the valley is complicated. But it’s also plainly spectacular, beginning with the approach up U.S. Highway 163. You snap to attention at the sight of angular Agathla, aka El Capitan, first of the buttes, looming like a stairway to the stratosphere. Soon after comes Sentinel Mesa, a sort of Greek Acropolis, if the Acropolis were swaddled in orange by Christo.
Most tourists stay a day or two. We stayed four, circled the valley alone and with a guide, under blue skies and gray. We paid respects to Rain God Mesa, the Thumb, Gray Whiskers, the Hub and the Cube; ate enough fry bread to last a lifetime; and stood among the tripod people at sunset, lining up the Mitten buttes with the same boulders that Ansel Adams used in 1950.
Then one afternoon, a roar filled the valley and the clouds burst. Monsoon.
Within minutes, Spearhead Mesa had five waterfalls coursing down its face. Sentinel Mesa wore a crown of dark clouds. In the storm, the landscape seemed doubly alive, reds and greens literally saturated, sky riven by lightning, puddles and streams threatening the road. We sprinted for the car and rushed away, scared and thrilled.
We stayed one night in the View Hotel, earth-toned, low-slung, handsome on the valley-facing side and homely on the other. It was built in 2008 by the Navajo tribe, and every room has a balcony that looks out on a classic panorama.
Then we moved to Goulding’s Lodge, five miles outside the park. It was Harry Goulding (with his wife, Leone “Mike” Goulding) who started a trading post here in the 1920s, and it was Goulding who traveled to Hollywood in 1938 and persuaded Ford to come and shoot Stagecoach.
The Gouldings ran their desert outpost for decades, tending to filmmakers, peddling curios, steadily adding rooms and services. Spend a few minutes among the old photos and movie posters in its little museum and you’ll see the old guest register in which John Wayne wrote: “Harry, you and I both owe these monuments a lot.”
Check the new guest register and you find that of the last 115 guests who arrived before Aug. 26, 76 were from abroad. Are Americans outnumbered because we’d rather wait for cooler weather? Because Europeans are more curious about Native American culture than we?
I don’t know. I tried asking a few Navajo, but we always ended up veering to another subject.
Ned Black, 44, paused at his jewelry stand to tell me he tries to be happy all day, but “it’s hard to be happy all day. You don’t know who you’re going to come across.”
Charles Phillips, a 36-year-old guide, stopped for provisions before carrying us off on a demanding four-hour off-road exploration in a battered Chevy Suburban: “I’m gonna get me a drink before we go. Gonna get me a Budweiser,” he said, a twinkle in his eye, testing us.
A minute later he was back with a Powerade. (Phillips was working with two broken ribs, because the week before a horse had thrown him onto a rock. Laughing hurt, but he still wanted to.)
I was ready for more sly wit from Linda Jackson, who operates the cafe trailer at John Ford’s Point. “Sarcasm. One of the free services I offer,” said a sign next to the counter. But Jackson instead told us a heartfelt story about the day her 32-year-old son, Ericson Cly, died.
He was struck by lightning, she told us. Right here at John Ford’s Point. On an August day in 2006.
We told her how sorry we were, looked at the dirt, looked at the sky, looked at the memorial marker that stands nearby. Then we made another loop through all that harsh beauty.