A Monumental Valley
Director John Ford knew it. So did filmmakers Stanley Kubrick, Dennis Hopper, Clint Eastwood, and Harold Ramis. Director Robert Zemeckis had his hero, Forrest Gump run right through the heart of it in the eponymous movie. That place is Monument Valley, on the Utah-Arizona border, and it truly is one of the most scenic, if isolated, regions in the world.
Author Zane Grey was probably to the first to bring the place to a mass audience through his 1922 novel The Vanishing American. But Ford, especially, is so closely tied to this place that it’s said Monument Valley became the central character in his Westerns. Ford himself said it was the “most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth.” He made ten feature films there, including classic films like Stagecoach, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers.
Calling it a valley is a misnomer. There are dry washes and riverbeds and even a creek or two running across the arid plain. But there is more “up” here than there is “down.” It’s those massive 2,000-foot-tall pillars of red stone, shaped by millennia of wind and water, that make Monument Valley and the surrounding region the attraction it is today. Most famous of the geological features are “The Mittens” at the entrance to the 30,000 acre Monument Valley Tribal Park.
What Ford and the other Hollywood directors knew is that there is no place else on earth that looks quite as “western” as this land of sculptured sandstone. Iconic actor John Wayne, who starred in many of Ford’s Monument Valley westerns, upon arriving there for the first time exclaimed, “so this is where God put the West!” It’s easy to feel very small here and even the bigger-than-life movie star knew it.
The countless buttes, mesas and spires are the ideal backdrop for that quintessential American movie genre, but there was a lot of history here long before Hollywood came knocking. The land belongs to the Navajo nation, and these Native Americans treat this place as sacred. If you want to leave the 17-mile public loop road, you will need to have a Navajo guide. They will tell you stories from the old times and show you vistas few visitors get to witness.
Those famous “mittens” are known to the Navajo as the hands of the gods. In the Navajo language the valley is Tsé Bii Ndzisgaii, “the streaks that go around in the rocks.” A small population of the tribe still lives there, carving out a living ranching or selling their famous silver-work and woven rugs to the 350,000 visitors who come annually to see this ethereal landscape.
Other gorgeous vistas can be found nearby, and a short drive north takes you into equally amazing scenery. For the bravest motorists, a trip to the top of the near-vertical escarpment via the daunting “Moki Dugway” section of Utah Highway 261 provides a broad view of Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation. Because the dugway area is outside the reservation, ultralight aircraft enthusiasts come here to enjoy the landscape and to fly among the spires.
Not all the early visitors were smitten with the place. Shortly after the Mexican-American war ended in 1848, the U.S. government sent a military expedition to explore the newly annexed land. U.S. Army Captain John Walker called Monument Valley “as desolate and repulsive looking a country as can be imagined.” As the old saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste.
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Keith Crowley, www.crowleyimages.com
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