“The Earth is beautiful. The Earth is beautiful. The Earth is beautiful.” — Navajo blessing song
MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah – It was 7 a.m. when the tour van got stuck in the sand, and the temperature was 32 degrees, and it was still a little bit dark.
My sister and I, the only passengers, got out of the battered vehicle and stomped around to keep warm amid the sharp gray-green sagebrush and snakeweed. Otherworldly spires in the distance were silhouetted by the impending sunrise. All was silent in this magnificent Navajo tribal park along the Utah-Arizona border.
Then I heard clanking. It was the driver, Don, trying to jack up the rickety Dodge Ram van’s right rear tire in the deep sand of the off-road trail. Then he trudged out of the ditch. He called someone on his cell. He said, “I knew I should have brought my own truck, but they made me take this one.”
He didn’t say much else. He tried driving us out of the ditch, halfheartedly, a few more times. Then he called the tribal park version of AAA, a friend with a truck.
Outside the van, my sister and the driver stood patiently and silently in the crisp splendor of Navajo country.
Inside the van, I grumpily sneaked a sip from the driver’s Thermos of hot coffee and plotted how we could avoid paying $95 each for the hopelessly delayed three-hour tour.
I have to explain that visiting Monument Valley has been a dream of mine for at least three years.
A photograph of Monument Valley’s awesome topaz and sapphire-colored landscape is thumbtacked to the bulletin board next to my desk. The park’s 3-year-old VIEW hotel has garnered rave reviews for its service and vistas from every room.
Monument Valley is so iconic that anyone who ever saw a movie will recognize it. It’s the place where Forrest Gump tires of running and says, “Think I’ll go home now.” It’s the place where sandstone buttes and strange-shaped spires stand like beautiful monuments carved by God. It’s the place that has been the backdrop for famous Westerns, from John Wayne’s first film, “Stagecoach,” in 1939 to Johnny Depp’s bomb “The Lone Ranger” early this year.
The part I didn’t know is that this park, which gets 360,000 visitors a year, is quirky.
Operated by the Navajo Nation, the park has excellent, well-paved entrance roads.
However, the 17-mile loop tour inside the park has dirt roads that are really, really terrible, so terrible that they recommend you do not drive your own vehicle unless it is four-wheel drive, and certainly do not go off-trail lest you get stuck in sand or tumble into a ditch. Tours are operated independently by Navajo vendors, so you deal directly with each vendor and get what driver and vehicle they offer – rickety van, nice truck, chilly open-sided vehicle or sturdy Jeep.
And you really do need to do the tour if you want to see the park’s hidden wonders which we did, which was why I was on this sunrise tour in the middle of nowhere, tapping my foot.
Monument Valley might have eternity, but I did not.
Naturally, we got out of there. After an hour, a friend of Don’s came with a big Chevy and towed the van out in two minutes, and away we went. It was done in what is often called the Navajo way – not much talk. Not much mention of what happened. Just continue on.
And Don didn’t scrimp on the tour. We started near Totem Pole, a famous spire that is one feature of Monument Valley’s unique geology. Rocks you see today are about 160 million years old, formed when water, wind, volcanic eruptions and an uplifting of the Earth’s crust created what look like statues and monuments across a vast plain.
In the valley, we saw Anasazi rock drawings of animals, echoes of an ancient Southwest people who lived here as long ago as 1300 AD. They vanished, long before the Navajo arrived 400 years ago.
The van bumped along and made it safely to two iconic outposts that have famous openings in the rock – Sun’s Eye, surrounded with stripes on the rock that look like eyelashes, and Ear-in-the-Wind, in the shape of a human ear. We passed buttes shaped like elephants and camels and the twin buttes Right Mitten and Left Mitten (eerily shaped like Michigan). The van shuddered on sandy roads past a trio of spires called the Three Sisters, and past mesas as big as whole city blocks.
Visitors used to the emptiness of national parks might find it jarring, but people live in Monument Valley. Some Navajo clans still dwell in tiny enclaves, and their trailers are dots in the landscape – but a definite human presence. From the valley, we also could spot the VIEW hotel in the far distance. Low-slung and tan colored, it was nearly invisible. Which is exactly as the hotel designers planned it.
Finally, on a high cliff, we stood at John Ford’s Point, where the movie director liked to stand when orchestrating his magnificent Westerns and where today you can take a picture of a horse in front of the scenery for $2. A local vendor was struck by lightning and killed at that spot in 2006.
Then Don talked as he drove. He worried that kids today aren’t ambitious. He said his dad would whip him if he didn’t obey, but now you can’t spank kids, too bad.
And then he drove us back to the hotel parking lot.
When we got there an hour late, nobody said anything about our mishap, the tour vendor didn’t apologize, and I don’t know why but I only made a token attempt to get our tour rate cut. In the end, I paid for the whole thing, plus a $20 tip for Don, who was still brushing the sand out of his boots.
As I went in for breakfast, I realized that it didn’t matter, the money or the delay or the ditch. What mattered was, the Earth is beautiful.
If you go
Getting there: Monument Valley is 300 miles north of Phoenix, a 5½ hour drive. Along the way are Sedona and Flagstaff and the Navajo towns of Tuba City and Kayenta. No gas stations except in the towns. The park is open year-round and gets little snow, but in winter the challenge is making it through snowy Flagstaff to get there.
Admission: $5 per person to enter the tribal park. It is not part of the National Park system. Its Navajo name is Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, and it is 5,564 feet above sea level (www.navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm).
Lodging: The VIEW hotel (from $219/night, www.monumentvalleyview.com, (435) 727-5555), or try Gouldings Lodge (4 miles from Monument Valley) or the Hampton Inn in Kayeta (30 miles). The park is building a new RV campground, but it’s not open yet.
Tours: Book tours when you arrive from vendors in the hotel parking lot. Tours are daytime, sunrise or sunset, last between 1z and three hours; a three-hour tour is about $100. Driving the 17-mile loop on your own generally requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You also can hike the 3.2-mile Wildcat Trail or take a horseback ride.
Shop: The VIEW hotel is attached to a visitors center and the large Trading Post gift shop featuring Navajo pottery, rugs, jewelry, flutes and blankets; find authentic Hopi baskets at the TUUVI Travel Center in Tuba City on the way.
Note: No alcohol is sold inside the Navajo Nation, including restaurants.