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.