Monument Valley 

Saturday 8th. We are woken by the most spectacular sunrise that makes its presence felt directly between two of the Buttes at the entrance to the Valley named ‘The Mittens’ as they look like two giant hands pointing to the sky. I brave the chill of the early morning and the thistles under my bare feet to catch as many photographs as I can from the front porch.

Before entering the park we decide to clamber up to Teardrop Arch that towers behind our lodging. We pass through the garden of a neighbour, over a sand dune and find ourselves scrambling up the screed of red rock. We get so far before Marilyn has had enough and needs to descend on her backside. I am secretly quite relieved as the last climb is probably beyond my capabilities and, if I do manage to make it, the coming down will present difficulties and looks a mite scary. We follow a lower path around the bottom of the Mesa and are rewarded by wonderful views into Monument Valley itself as well as close ups of the various flora that clings to life up here. 

We notice huge nests up in the high rock. I estimate they are at least six feet wide and later we are told they are the nests of eagles. We continue to follow the path that clings to the edge of the plateau. Marilyn is very brave when it necessitates passing inches from huge drops but draws it to a close when I have to clamber under an overhanging rock close to the edge. I leave her doing her ‘yoga breathing’ to get back her composure as I search the back ledge. I would love to go on and higher but we have other adventures in store.

We scramble down and take the car into the ‘ Valley’. Technically it is not a Valley at all but a series of gorges formed after erosion created the series of rock protrusions that make up the aptly named ‘ Monuments’. For Monuments they are. Higher than any Cathedral, each Mesa or Butte, Hoodoo or Fin of rock has its own character and energy. The seventeen mile drive takes us hours as we stop and admire the changing scene and allow our imaginations to maybe see some of the images that more ancient people have been admiring and revering for eons.

The area was made famous in the 30’s by the coming of John Ford and the Westerns but this has been very sacred Navajo land since their earliest history and we begin to appreciate that John Ford’s version of history, so fictionalised and wester romantic, has served to steal the Navajo history. Money was made by the actors like John Wayne and Henry Fonda but little of it seems to have trickled down to the majority of the Navajo who still live here now. They are the largest Nation of indigenous people and the most politically organised but the levels of poverty and the paucity of good education or health care or housing has left them at the bottom of the heap in terms of average salary, employment, and life expectancy.

I am amazed to find that they were not given the right to vote until 1953.

We learn by talking to our host Ilene that the Navajo have not always made it easy on themselves. They are still learning how to enter the modern age in terms of their own governance even. She complains of the many hoops her own legislature make anyone who wants to start a business jump through. 

Strange things happen when two cultures clash.

They are a diffident people. Ilene, like many of the people we speak to is very soft spoken. They are taught not to make a noise or to be obtrusive. Eye contact and touching is not the norm for them. They are generally shy and reserved.

It must be hard for them to meet head on the often brash and monied tourist that tramples over their sacred lands searching for the best photo opportunity. I think hard about my own place in all this and have no easy answers except to try to listen first hand to their stories and to experience the lands we pass through as an emotional and spiritual event.

It does make me sad to hear how alcohol especially, but western diet and other materialistic ideals, are eroding the bonds that link the Navajo to each other and to their land and culture. I have seen this in Australia, New Zealand, South America and Africa. There is no stopping progress but it is hard to reconcile within myself the feelings one experiences sat quietly watching a sunset change the face and shape and character of a huge rock with those felt in a casino in Las Vegas, surrounded by canned noise, glitter, monstrous architectural ‘Monuments’, fast food, machines gobbling money and the hedonistic search for a different ecstasy.

Moments of quiet contemplation as we slowly drive around Monument Valley reinforce my fears that we are getting it very wrong.

This day has been a highlight of an amazing few weeks.

We finish by visiting the ‘Goulding Lodge’ and learn more about the man and his wife who set up a trading lodge here in 1923 and seemed to live in harmony with the indigenous Navajo. It was he who persuaded John Ford to come and film ‘She Wore A Yellow Ribbon’ with a young John Wayne in the early 30’s and the subsequent tourist boom. It was because of the Goulding we got to see these iconic rocks in our front rooms and cinemas during our childhood. He seems to have been a generous and beneficent man and his entrepreneurial spirit opened up opportunities for some Navajo. They do have control of the Valley. They have built and own a huge panoramic hotel at the entrance to the Park that brings in much needed revenue and employment. It will be interesting to see in what direction ‘ progress ‘ goes.

It is certainly bizarre to do one’s mundane shopping in a supermarket at the Lodge and to exit to the most beautiful view of the sun setting the rocks in the Valley alight.

Strange things happen when two cultures clash.

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