Saturday, May 28, 2016

On the Road: Monument Valley (May 23-May 24, 2016)

Monument Valley is visible from many miles away. It takes a surprisingly long time to reach the valley after the famous rocks begin to appear on the horizon. A large visitor center overlooks the most famous of the formations, formations familiar to anyone who has seen a few classic westerns. Guide companies hang out near the visitor's center. Bernard, my guide, was a big Navajo man who at first seemed taciturn but turned out to be a good talker with a sense of humor. There's a road through the valley that allows a self-guided tour, but traveling with a guide gives you access to the back roads. Bernard showed me some of his favorite back country views, a natural bandshell in which he played flute and drum, and a wall with petroglyphs left by occupants that pre-date the Navajo, who began to occupy the valley around 800 years ago. The petroglyphs, obliquely lit by bright sun, were almost invisible until Bernard raised an arm against the stone walls to create a shadow.

The natural amphitheater mentioned above is a consequence of the sandstone's tendency to form domed shapes that erode away to leave behind concave spaces, these eventually turning into arches if erosion occurs on both sides of the dome. In some places there were large curved chunks of fallen rock that looked remarkably like giant reddish-brown seashells.

I ended up staying overnight in the valley, sleeping on the dirt floor of a traditional Navajo hogan, a round yurt-like dwelling built of cedar logs chinked with bark and sealed with mud. The stars were beautiful despite a bright, nearly full moon that gave the monuments an eery quality after dark.

The next morning, I got up early to watch the sun rise behind the spire known as "The Totem Pole," although that seems incongruous, as the Navajo don't make totem poles. The Totem Pole stands alone next to a cluster of similar tall, thin rocks that Bernard referred to as yei' bi' che, which appears to be the Navajo word for the deities the Hopi and others call kachinas. The sunrise behind these rocks has been photographed so often that it's become a cliché. It's used on the cover of the AAA guide to the region I picked up before leaving, for example, but it's an impressive view nevertheless.

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