The one-line description of Monument Valley is, Really Big Objects in the Desert. You don’t feel the boundaries of the valley, and you seldom feel that you’re in a defined place. Mainly you drive across an open plain, and these extraordinary, imageable, gigantic things are looming in the distance. You can’t get close to many of them (as they are off the road), and getting closer doesn’t really change the experience anyway. It’s like looking at a star, and then using a telescope – it’s the same thing, just a little bigger.
What you really notice here, even more than at other places in the Southwest, is the play of light and shadow across the landscape. The distances are so great that it takes a long time for a shadow to move an appreciable distance. The light and shadows are equal with the landforms in determining the view – the same view seen at two different times varies dramatically with the movement of a cloud.
Our experience of Monument Valley was the most mediated of any place we went in the desert. It is most famous for its role in dozens of westerns, including the great ones of John Ford. We stayed in a campground connected to the Goulding resort. The Gouldings were a young couple who came to Monument Valley in the early 1920s and set up a trading post on the Navajo reservation. This is the building they lived in, on the upper floor,
while the trading post occupied the ground floor.
When the Depression deepened, many of the distributors they depended upon went out of business, and they and the Navajo were in bad shape. They heard that Hollywood was looking for a locale for shooting westerns, so they traveled to LA and met with John Ford, showing him photos of Monument Valley. He decided to shoot Stagecoach there, which was the beginning of decades of filming. The actors and crew stayed at the Goulding’s inn, and many of the Navajo were employed as extras, especially in scenes which required serious horse riding. The old part of the Goulding’s is now a museum, with lots of movie paraphernalia. The storage building below was used as John Wayne’s quarters in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
There is a small theater, and every night they show an old western. We saw The Searchers and Stagecoach, and it was strange to see the same landscape elements appearing in scene after scene (even when the locations were supposed to be hundreds of miles away). The experience raised some of the same questions that arise when you see a painting you’ve seen reproduced many times – can you actually see the Mona Lisa, or is your perception so warped by the prior exposure that any genuine experience is impossible? At a certain level, this is the appeal of the place to visitors. It is a deeply meaningful place for the Navajo, but for us outsiders, it exists as the locus of image-making. The tourists we met were largely French and Japanese, who must have seen it in westerns and so came to this place. I think that the lack of Chinese tourists was due to their isolation from the west during the peak years of the western. I was surprised at the absence of Germans, as I know that the American West has long been a popular subject there. (Perhaps it is because their connection to the West comes from a series of books, and not the movies?)
This aspect of our visit was reinforced by some other factors. Monument Valley is a Navajo park, and the experience is quite different from the one you have in a National Park. Highway 163 runs through the Valley, and you can see most of the iconic monuments just by driving through. There is also a 20-mile dirt, loop road through narrower branches of the Valley. But there are not many opportunities to get off these roads to go hiking. There are many spots in the Valley that are sacred to the Navajo, and they are off-limits to visitors. The few trails that do exist are not very appealing – your experience isn’t very different from what you have on the road. For example, there is a trail that circles one of the big buttes. But you can’t approach it very closely, or climb it, so you are just walking around in the full sunlight in a very hot desert, getting a slightly different view of a butte that looks much the same from all sides.
There was one excellent but short trail, up the cliffs above our campground, which led to a big arch.
There were intermittent views out to the larger valley, with glimpses of the monuments,
and views to the campground. When we started our trip and camped at Craters of the Moon in Idaho, we thought it was really weird to be camping next to giant hunks of lava. By the time we got here, we thought it was completely normal to have a campground full of RVs in the middle of sandstone canyon.
The drive through the canyon branches was beautiful, and the scale was different from that of the big valley with the big monuments.
The road circles back to the main valley.
While some parks in the Southwest can be experienced at a wide range of scales, in Monument Valley it is overwhelmingly about the Big View. This is why the movies were shot here – it is completely scenographic, and the monuments are large enough to still be visually compelling even when far in the background. As Greta observed, you can’t take a bad photograph here. It contains the iconic representations of The West that were implanted in our brains in childhood. It is the land of Roadrunner cartoons. But even though you’ve seen the views hundreds of times on film, they are still stunning in person. Nothing moves but the clouds. It is completely quiet. The scale is literally awesome, as your mind can barely grasp the size of the buttes and the distances between them. The tourists stand transfixed, not quite believing this is real. The landforms don’t move, but the cloud and the shadows slowly do. The light changes constantly, sometimes quite quickly, and the same view can appear remarkably different, when you see it at different times.
Visiting Monument Valley is a very passive experience – you don’t hike, you don’t modulate your experience, you just look. But it’s a very satisfying view.