When we got tired of taking pictures of ourselves doing twister on the Four Corners monument, we left by way of the corner belonging to Arizona, driving West on Highway 160 through the Navajo Nation. There’s an awful lot of country and not so many people living in the Navajo Nation. From the highway, you can see the homesteads off in the distance, many just solitary dwellings, others little multigenerational family villages. Most of the homes are either trailers or ancient frame cabins, but occasionally there’s a manufactured ranch house that looks like it was lifted off a city suburb by Dorothy’s tornado. One assumes these belong to the more affluent members of the tribe.
There’s always the traditional hogan sitting there, looking incongruous next to the family RV. An interesting factoid about hogans –there are two kinds, males and females, like the Chinese Yin and Yang principle. Male hogans are cone shaped temporary structures, mostly bark, that can be taken apart and transported elsewhere. Female hogans are round, permanent dwellings of sun baked mud. The latter are often still inhabited.
There may or may not be cars or trucks parked in these places, and occasionally there’s a horse occupying a rail fence paddock. But a lot of these people probably walk when they have to go someplace, maybe ten or fifteen miles at a time.
Have you noticed I’m kind of fascinated by hogans? It’s the continuing cultural vitality of a classic form of architecture, one that’s been around for several centuries, and people still live in it. It’s also the startling juxtaposition of that type of dwelling sitting next to one built at a factory in the last ten years. The history of human civilization unfolding before one’s very eyes.
I’ve got a good mind to get a hogan and plunk it down in the yard — that is, if we ever get a yard again. Meanwhile, I’m writing in to HGTV to suggest they produce a show called Home Sweet Hogan. Stay tuned.
After an hour or so on the road, we turned North on Hwy 163 and headed for the biggest movie set in the world. That’s Monument Valley, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border. According to the guidebook, it’s a vast plateau covering 92,000 acres, formed about 65 million years ago. Right in the middle, perfectly framed for maximum viewing, are a couple dozen giant sandstone formations (classified into mesas, buttes and spires — they look just like their names), 1500 to 5000 feet tall. The whole place is red — that’s the dominant image. The land is red, the towers are red, the sky is red, the visitor center is red. The whole thing. Perhaps visiting Martians painted the place to remind them of home.
Monument Valley has been used to film more movies than just about any location I can think of. Coincidently, it also looked familiar to me when I first saw it because it’s the wallpaper background on my computer.
The story of how the movie thing came about has to do with a couple named Harry and “Mike” Goulding. A number of people have written about it in detail; I recommend an article from Vanity Fair magazine, available on http://www.vanityfair.com/monumentvalley. It tells the tale far better than I can, so I’ll just hit the highlights.
Harry Goulding was raised on a sheep ranch in that area, fought in World War I, and married a girl named Leone. He nicknamed her Mike because in his love letters he wasn’t sure how to spell “Leone”. The two raised sheep and opened a trading post in the 1920’s, doing business with the Navajo. The sheep business was wiped out by droughts in 1934 and 1936, leaving the Gouldings and the Navajo destitute.
A couple of silent movies were filmed in Monument Valley in the 20’s, which is probably how Harry got the idea to go to Hollywood. He took a portfolio of photographs of the valley and camped out in director John Ford’s office. When the secretary buzzed for someone to throw Harry out, the guy who answered was Ford’s location manager. He took one look at Harry’s photos and decided to film the now legendary movie Stagecoach there. Ford hired the Navajo as extras and Goulding to provide services, supplies and accommodations. HarryHaH
Since that time, by my count, 38 feature films have been shot there, including 10 by John Ford, as well as a number of TV shows, several album covers and a dozen video games. If you’ve ever seen a movie with John Wayne, you’ve seen Monument Valley. In fact, there are people who have trouble distinguishing John Wayne from the other rock formations there.
The most recent movies I know of were A Million Ways to Die in the West and the Johnny Depp version of The Lone Ranger. Both were turkeys, but that wasn’t Monument Valley’s fault. I’m sure that if the scripts for those films had gone before a review board of mesas, buttes and spires, there would have been some changes made.
Goulding built a hotel just over the Utah line, next to the trading post that’s been turned into a museum. The whole place is now a major complex, with restaurants and a modern supermarket doing business next door. The museum is full of movie posters, costumes, antiques and artifacts from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s a great introduction to the area, even though it’s outside the Navajo Nation Monument Valley Tribal Park. The tribal park operates its own hotel, in addition to Goulding’s place. We’re told that either one is a great place to wake up in the morning and watch the sun rise over the desert.
There’s one thing that should be clarified before going any further on this subject. Don’t get Harry and Leone Goulding confused with Harry and Leona Helmsley. They’re not the same people. The former you may not have heard of before now, the latter you probably saw something about on the news a few years ago. Harry and Leone Goulding built a hotel in Utah, were lifelong friends of the Navajo people, and are legends in motion picture history. Harry and Leona Helmsley built hotels in New York City, treated their employees and everyone else horribly, and are best known for committing tax fraud. The Gouldings were good guys; the Helmsleys bad guys. Harry and Leone, good; Harry and Leona, bad. Got it?
Maybe it’s not fair to associate such a spectacular natural phenomenon as Monument Valley too closely with Hollywood glitter, but, frankly, who would ever have known about the place if the movie people hadn’t needed somewhere to shoot off their cap guns? However, if you’re more interested in experiencing the place as a stunning geological act of God, you can ignore the Goulding spread and go right into the Tribal Park.
To get there, you head down a mile-long driveway, get in line behind a couple dozen other cars and pay your vehicle admission fee at the concrete ticket booth. I hate to say this, but that part of the experience reminds me of going to a drive-in movie back when they had drive-in movies. Oops. Sorry.
Once inside the park, there is the usual visitors center and parking lot, with the usual snack bar, information desk and gift shop. Here’s a tip for the savvy traveler — If you have to use the rest room in this place, there’s two ways to get there.
One, you can follow the official signage from the front of the building, which takes you on a ten minute trip around the building to the other side, where you stand in another line behind a couple of busloads of very antsy senior citizens. I won’t say they’re old, but one guy had a picture of himself next to the original Martian spacecraft from when they were painting the place red.
Two, you can ignore the sign in front, walk through the glass door directly ahead, and end up right there. No kidding — the official route goes all the way around the building when the bathrooms are located right inside the front door. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like it. The only thing I can figure is that it’s a Navajo religious ritual.
One of the traditional Navajo gods is Coyote. Yup, it’s that coyote, the one who goes around at night in city neighborhoods throughout the Southwest eating everybody’s family dogs. Coyote is known as the trickster; his official god duties include playing pranks on humans. The way I figure it, when they were building the visitors center, Coyote came along and changed all the restroom signs, just for a giggle. Once done, they couldn’t very well change it back — I mean, you just don’t do that to a god. So they left it there, and to this day Coyote sits somewhere laughing at the people walking all around the building to take a pee.
There are a lot of ways to see Monument Valley, including guided tours by SUV, ATV, horse and on foot. In the Tribal Park literature, it also says there’s a 17 mile driving loop you can do in your own car.
We turned off the main road following the signs for the self-guided route. Fifty yards or so in, the road started to get a little rough. A little farther on, we hit a bump that would have sent us flying out the car windows if we hadn’t been strapped in. A moment later we were enveloped in a tidal wave of dust. At that point, we stopped to reconsider our situation.
When you read the phrase “self-guided driving tour,” you naturally think of something resembling a road built for automobiles to drive on in reasonable comfort and signs to tell you which way to go. In this case, there’s no discernible road, only a dirt track heading out into the desert. We slowed down to where the speedometer needle stopped moving altogether and settled in for the crawl through Monument Valley.
Seriously, 17 miles of rutted, rock-filled dirt and dust clouded trail. I suppose this is to provide the authentic trek across the Great American Desert experience. For the next few miles, we bounced off of rocks and sank into holes, enveloped the whole way by clouds of dust.
** [See below]
Suddenly, through the haze, I could see Coyote perched atop a mesa laughing for all he was worth. He picked up and old style megaphone and yelled something that sounded like “Action!” Immediately, our way was blocked by a band of American Indians wearing feathers and waving ugly-looking mallets on long shafts, while arrows flew overhead.
Barbara and I got into our rental car, rolled up the windows and crouched down for protection. After a few minutes, everything went quiet, and then we heard a tapping sound. We looked up to see one of the Indians, probably the chief, tapping on the driver’s side window. I shook my head no, but then he made the universal outstretched hand signal meaning please, so what could I do but roll down the window?
“Has the bus come by here?” He asked.
“Are you going to scalp us?” I said.
“Are you kidding?” He answered “That’s icky.”
“Why are you carrying those war hammers?”
“What war hammers?” He looked around as one of his band held up a mallet and waved it threatening. “Oh, that? That’s not a war hammer. It’s a croquet mallet.”
“You mean,” I asked, “you’re a roving band of croquet players?”
“That’s right,” he answered. “We’re trying to get to Phoenix for a tournament. Has the bus come yet?”
“I don’t know about the bus, but I’ve heard the legend of the lost Navajo croquet team. They say that throughout the West, when the wind kicks up, you can hear them hitting their balls through their wickets and shrieking in pain. What’s the name of your team?”
“Well, we used to be known as the Savage Indians, but that’s considered politically incorrect now. We had to change the name to the Donald Trumps.”
“They’re still working on the design for our jerseys. Can’t seem to get the hair right. That’s why we’re wearing feathers, instead.”
Suddenly I saw a cloud of dust and heard something that sounded like, “Hi yo, nickel cadmium!” A moment later, a large man on a white horse wearing a hat with a brim 4′ X 3′ rode up. That is, the man was wearing the hat, not the horse.
“Howdy,” he said.
“Howdy stranger,” said the captain of the croquet team. “What’s your name?”
“They call me Tex,” said the stranger.
“What part of Texas are you from?” I asked.
“I’m not from Texas. I’m from Louisiana.”
“How come they call you Tex?”
“I won’t have anyone call me Louise.”
“That’s a very old joke,” I said.
“This is the Old West. It’s the only kind we do. Did you hear the one about the rancher, the Mormon and the Indian medicine man who walked into a bar?”
“Maybe later,” said the Indian croquet player. “Can you tell us where to catch the bus to Phoenix?”
The guy on the horse looked at him in amazement. “You don’t know where the bus stop is?”
“They’re the Lost Navajo croquet team,” I explained.
“Ahh,” he said. “Well sure, it’s right over the hill there.” He looked at me. “Is that your Volkswagen?”
“It’s a rental,” I answered. “But, yeah.”
“I’m forming up a Volkswagen train to lead out of this valley. If you hurry you can come along.”
“Oh, thank you, kind sir, thank you, thank you!” said Barbara.
“Can’t stop for thankyou,” he answered. “Better form up in line behind that van with the peace signs plastered all over it. We’re moving out.”
We got between the van and a 1973 Karmann Ghia. Being one of the modern Volkswagens, we would have stuck out like a sore hitchhiker’s thumb, except that the car was covered in dust. How we’re ever going to explain that to Avis, I don’t know.
In any case, the VW train moved out across the wide prairie and we found ourselves safely back on Hwy 63 within a matter of hours. As I pulled onto the highway and started to speed up, I looked back and could have sworn I saw Coyote waving at us.
He had crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out between closed lips, and we could hear the sound of a Bronx Cheer echoing in the distance.
** [All this last part is mostly made up.]