Monday, October 20, 2008

Monument Valley

Monument Valley is an iconic American landscape. It's provided the setting for the Westerns of John Ford and other directors. Clark Griswold wandered around and nearly died here in National Lampoon's Vacation. It's provided the backdrop for innumerable print and TV ads for cigarettes, trucks, and other products.

Although parts of Monument Valley are plainly visible from U.S. Route 163, which runs to its north and west, I wanted more than a "drive-by" experience. I didn't want to risk damaging my little rental car on the dirt road of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, so I decided to go on a guided tour. There are numerous tour firms operating in the park, but I did a little research and found that people seemed consistently pleased with the tours offered by Goulding's Lodge.

I secured a place on the 3.5-hour afternoon tour, and joined about 15 other tourists (mostly French and British) on a dusty, bone-rattling, and thoroughly amazing ride through the park.

As is the case with the Grand Canyon, it's pretty hard to take a badly composed photograph of Monument Valley; even the shots I took from the open-air tour van as we went over jolting stretches of road generally turned out well.

The Mittens (only one of which is pictured here) are probably among the most photographed geological features in America--and with good reason.

One of the perks of going on a guided tour of this sort is that you get to see portions of the park that are not open to people traveling on their own.

Had I been driving solo, incredible formations such as Big Hogan would have been off-limits to me; I was actually standing inside the formation when I took this picture!

I wouldn't have gotten to see these pteroglyphs, either. (FYI, the dark streaking that forms the background of these pteroglyphs and is evident on Big Hogan and other formations is desert varnish.)

One key reason that parts of the park are off-limits to unaccompanied travelers is that a sizeable number of Navajo people live in it. Our tour includes a stop at the hogan of an elderly Navajo woman who has lived in Monument Valley all her life. She cleaned wool, spun yarn, and demonstrated how she used her loom to weave rugs as our guide, a Navajo herself, explained what the woman was doing. Although our guide subtly emphasized this woman's agency (by, e.g., pointing out that all of her rugs are of her own design) and the importance and value of traditional lifeways, the fact that we tourists were traipsing in and out of this woman's very modest home drove home some hard truths about the disparities of wealth and power that exist in this world.

I anticipated that sunset at Monument Valley would be spectacular, and I was not disappointed.

As the light faded, the orange of the rocks was washed in soft lavenders, blues, and mauves.

After the landscape was dark, the clouds caught fire; unfortunately, compressing this photo so that it's suitable for Web posting dampens the flames a bit.

Go to Monument Valley if you can.

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