Earth's Most Iconic Valley



In this exposition, we'll be headed to another sector of the Navajo Reservation's stunning desert terrain just north of Kayenta, Arizona. Can you guess from the title where this diary will be taking you by way of a literary description in the guise of a tour? Here's a hint: the immensity of this picturesque setting is an approximate scenic 2.5-hour drive from the eastern shores of the Grand Canyon, then headed across a sector of the famed Painted Desert to what is arguably the most stupendous environs of downsized landmarks (by erosion) throughout the Southwest––MONUMENT VALLEY.

Although mere words fail to describe this boundless territory to someone who has never physically seen and experienced its splendor, I still feel I must try. And for those who have previously stopped by for a visit, you already have an idea just as visceral this landscape is––and by some accounts it's the kind of backdrop that pulls you in, like a visual snare.

I think most of you already know the valley's winsome backdrop with its excessively large monuments where one of Hollywood's most celebrated directors, John Ford, filmed a lot of his flicks. Of course, his favored movie star (and I bet you know who I'm talking about) loved being in those movies . . .pilgrim. . . either chasing the seeming recalcitrant native people across a wide and muddy river or else being chased by same. . . Yo-oooo! (Actually, there really isn't a river anywhere in the valley. The only water here is what falls from the sky or people bring with them into this typically dry, dished valley.) Of course, let'€™s not forget the most pivotal aspect of Monument Valley's mesmerizing scenery is home to the Navajo People, that is, this setting represents just one large facet of the largest Native American reservation in North America.


Monument Valley presents a vision of near eternity etched in sunburnt sandstone with the caveat nothing lasts forever...not even the rocks! Here in these leftover sands of time, the residue of sandstone erosion creates an imposing facade of articulated architecture like no other place in the world. Here the changing light also transforms the view almost at every hour, where blue-black shadows move like mystifying wizards. Besides the abrupt-standing East and West Mittens (easily the valley's most iconic landmarks), from the periphery of the road winding its way into and through the valley you see a dragon's spiny backbone; catch a glimpse of the Yebechei Rocks that are weird as they are wondrous to behold; discover a colossal rock totem pole; alters and temples of monster-sized rocks; or the world's largest chair with plenty of room to seat hundreds of people (if they could even climb such slick rock). Then you search for the outline of a stagecoach, sans driver. And the critter likenesses are here, too: an elephant; a rabbit; a bird; a turtle; but sorry...there are no running ponies. Not yet! There is a great big thumb, however, sticking straight out of the cochineal-stained desert pavement as big as it pleases. Perhaps it's an iconic rock replica for hitching a ride through this bewildering and bewitching estate, where other monster rocks live and shadows immortal wizards. But I also like the Thumb's other import: "THIS IS THE PLACE, FOLKS...THUMB'S UP!"

Next, I would like to mention part of the reason for sharing this Sandstone Sketch (chapter) of the larger story is because the Navajo have a thriving tourism market and want to keep it that way. Ergo, I gladly volunteer this unsolicited promotion. I have lived and worked among them for nearly forty years and I can tell you there are few others like them. Just remember when you' are visiting the reservation you are guests and kindly respect their traditions. So what follows is not only about the spectacular scenery, but also a conveyed and intentional perception of their tribal culture. And this is how the narrative
begins. . .

Yah-ta-hey is a common and expressive utterance spoken by the Dine (with an accent placed over the "e") popularly known as the Navajo (but prefer the former designate). Usual translations include "Hello," "Okay," or "Farewell with luck always." (Dine should not be confused with Dinetah, which is a term used for their traditional homeland.) As an expression, Yah-ah-hey can also mean "Howdy," or "Welcome." So to the reader I say Yah-ta-hey to one of the Southwest's most lionized geological settings, bar none!

Monument Valley is the Big Valley. Its metamorphosis through time by way of articulate honing of foundational materials is what this geologic panorama is all about erosion on a preeminent and aesthetically pleasing scale! I suppose we all have our preferences for natural beauty and the desert-canyon country certainly is mine. I might even say the overall environs acts as a talisman of sorts, though I find explaining this more difficult than it is to admit.

The Ideal Time To Visit The Valley
In this diary we will, as mentioned be taking a tour. And no tipping the guide is even necessary! The season is around mid-spring, say the beginning of April. Already the rocks bake and beam in the intemperate sunlight. By the way, wear a hat and sunglasses on this virtual tour. It might make you think you're really here. Oh, remember the sun block ritual too!

Considered the epitome of all similarly created sandstone iconography, Monument Valley's grandeur boasts a large, long and wide perspective of finely fashioned obelisks standing erect on the blond or orange-tinctured desert floor. By some standards, the fetching backdrop is considered the undeclared Eighth Natural Wonder of the world. Perhaps sometime it will be.

Before going any further with the tour there is a famous prayer (whose authorship remains obscure) recited by the Dine is called The Navajo Prayer. One of the verses reads:
May it be beautiful before me. May it be beautiful behind me. May it be beautiful above me. May it be beautiful below me. May I walk in beauty.
In this valley beauty is indeed encompassing. And here's some background to help familiarize you with some of the human history and geology about this marvel of nature.

An Earned Entitlement To A Proud People: In 1884, President Chester Arthur bequeathed Monument Valley to the Dine. It isn'€™t known when these former nomadic warriors first settled here, but the historical record may be somewhere around the early part of the 16th Century, roughly 1510 to 1520. Some anthropologists even think fifty to seventy-five years earlier is more correct. Over the centuries these interloper-Athabaskan people from the far north country (present-day Canada) migrated to this sector of the much warmer and drier Southwest. Eventually ceasing their raids on the Mexicans, and later the New Americans who crossed the famed 100th Meridian and poured into the West. Eventually, the Dine settled down and turned pastoral, mainly by herding sheep and farming. Later, many families supplemented their livelihood in enterprising ways. For instance, by weaving embellished rugs and blankets, as well as designing elegant turquoise and silver jewelry. In time, Monument Valley was established as the first Tribal Park (July 11, 1958).

At 5,564 feet above sea level, Monument Valley's ranging turf encompasses 91,696 acres and extends from Arizona into Utah. The park's buttes, mesas and monoliths vary from 400 to 1,000-feet. (A mesa, which is a Spanish word for table, is an isolated flat-topped hill with steep sides, while the relatively smaller butte is narrower with steep sides and a flat top. Both are erosional remnants of the larger elongate plateaus.) This high desert landscape, where rainfall is a scant 8.5 inches on average, is deemed hallowed ground from the perspective of Native American human history. The prehistoric to historic and contemporary forms a continuum of human linage and adaptive changes recorded through the centuries. Over one hundred Late Archaic Period archeological sites dating well before 1300 CE (Common Era) have been located throughout the valley, including the sibling and adjacent Mystery Valley to the east. While Monument Valley is open to the public (for tourism), Mystery Valley requires special tribal permission to enter its sector and always an escorted tour.

An Overview
A former basin raised to a high plateau, much has changed here over some 50 million years. The result of what is seen today is an extraordinary weathered topography accented by an immense void here and there broken up by gargantuan landmark figures (so described in the preceding paean). The region's biotic and taxa community forms an integral part of the Great Basin Desert, which is sometimes known as purple sage country. There are forty named monuments jutting from the valley floor, most of them given designates by the most famous white-eye who settled here in the early part of the century, Harry Goulding. He was also an exceptional outsider (belagana in Navajo lingo) in that he was well-liked and respected by the tribe. He was even given his own special appellation T'pay-en-nez meaning "Long Sheep" and was responsible for luring John Ford to this locale. Hollywood more or less came with him, starting with the most famous archetypal cowboy, John Wayne (sorry Clint, he made his day long before you came along). Wa-ha, says I. . .

So, What's In A Name?
Some of the amazing features throughout Monument Valley are descriptive by way of their individual and singular designates. These are the most notable among the the inventory:

Elephant Butte, Totem Pole (400 feet high and claimed to be the thinnest, tallest poles known as a hoodoo (40 feet thick at its diameter and 14 feet across the top), the Yei Bi Chei Rocks (275 feet high, which are the fire dancers who appear on the ninth and last night of the tribal winter religious ceremony known as the Night Way); Cly Butte (named after a venerable Navajo chief); Wetherhill Mesa (named after John Wetherhill who set up the first trading post), Hoskinninni Mesa (the Navajo chief who led his people into Canyon de Chelly during the Long March episode); El Capitan (a/k/a Agathla Peak, a volcanic neck (a/k/a diatreme) 1,300 feet high and considered one of four sacred places where the Dine believe the sky is held up); Chaistla Butte (400-foot-high volcanic structure; the name means "Burt Foot", John Ford's Point; Camel Butte; The Hub; Big Thumb; the Bear and Rabbit; Castle Rock; Big Indian; Sentinel Mesa (a/k/a Watchtower); Mitchell Butte (500 feet high and named after a silver prospector who was killed by Paiute Indians who dragged himself three miles and croaked at this point); Mitchell Mesa (700 feet high); The Mittens (according to legend, they are two dormant hands left behind by the gods as signs some day the holy beings will return and rule with power from Monument Valley); Merrick Butte (Mitchell's partner, who was also killed); The Three Sisters (3 holy people turned to stone; south sister 600 feet high; middle sister 325 feet and northern sister 575 feet; also known as Faith, Hope and Charity); Artist's Point; North Window; Spearhead, Thunderbird and Rain God Mesas; The Sun's Eye (an elliptical window, as opposed to a natural arch) and Ear of the Wind (both located in Mystery Valley).

These catchy monikers represent only a part of Monument Valley's holdings (the monuments) that sometimes appears like a mirage in the desert sands when the sun cranks up its fusion thermostat. As previously intimated, the valley's nearly 75 square kilometers is not government-owned land. Instead, and for many centuries, its tract of land is the sovereign homeland of the Dine who occupy this dry quadrant of the reservation. The name means the People and they have yet another name for this locale: Tse' Bii' Ndzisgaii (the Valley of the Rocks). And, yes, some Navajo families do live inside the valley, though there is no electricity, plumbing on phone (land line) service; not even water. Those amenities are taken care of by a variety of means, such as outhouses, portable generators, hauling water in tank-trucks (but forget about cellphone, Internet and cable TV coverage, dude). In some cases, more traditional Navajos shy away from modernity's comforts, preferring, instead, a more outback and traditional way of life and living. (Think early 19th Century and earlier and what human resources were vogue in those years. Now consider what some of the valley residents contend with on a daily basis.)

Long before other tribes of American Indians in the more recent past, other native people from various archaic periods have lived here and throughout the Four Corners region for thousands of years. However, it is thought only the Dine have held on to this particular sector for so long. Not bad, considering this terrain is akin to a place of dry water. (Thus qualifying the earlier remark about there being no mythical river coursing through the valley as depicted in equally mythical Western movies, not even so much as a stream or a deeply dug well.)

The Wonder, Awe, & All Of Erosion
If one were pressed to say what is the most conspicuous characteristic expressed by Monument Valley's layout, it would likely be the perpetual honing of landmark features by erosion in tandem with the detritus of what once covered this entire region. In short, imagine an integrated, (solid) sandstone foundation similar to an extensive plateau before it was downsized into a variety of individual segments. These statuesque remains presently decorate Monument Valley's€™ exhibit (yep, it's those aforementioned buttes and mesas).

Next to the Grand Canyon, many people believe this so-called tribal park is the most renowned geologic endowment in the world. For this reason alone, and like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is conceivably among the most visually arresting sights on the planet.

The two main highways penetrating this region are US 160, the so-called Navajo Highway, crossing nearly straight as an arrow to the south (this stretch extending west from Cortez, Colorado to Tuba City, Arizona and beyond) and US 163 (from Kayenta and curving north toward Moab, Utah and western Colorado, though the route changes to US 191 around Bluff). From a distance the sheer-walled megaliths of reddish-brown and bronze-colored sedimentary features commands one's attention. A usual cognitive reaction from people who, for the first time, notice the serrated and widely spaced outline on the horizon might declare unbelievable. (Or is it OMG! in this Tweet and Twitter cyber generation's shorter jargon?) What a magnetic spectacle the valley's tableau represents to beguiled minds! There is majesty and mystery enveloped in the sweeping panorama adorned with its tall-standing adornments, like ginormous chess-set pieces. Nature's artifice here is indeed expressive as it is mind-bending.

It follows how the first attractive glimpse of Monument Valley is unequivocally a realm of striking variance and unprecedented appearance. If travelers are only driving past the inviting view, it's usually the case most are curious enough to at least pull over to the side of the road and take pictures or shoot a video at select vantage points. Still others go farther (literally), by driving into the seeming still-life mural for a closer view via a straight road leading into the tribal park, then taking an approximate 17-mile dirt loop road accessing the valley, that is, for those who really want to go the distance. And, yes, there's a fee for entering, so give it up and help out the Navajo Nation support its economy.

The Geographical Setting
Monument Valley bestrides the borders of two big states where Utah shares its southeastern border with northeastern Arizona. The valley's fair share of the Southwest's most sensational scenery is in proximity to the equally famed and aforementioned Four Corners axis point. Not too far west of Cortez, Colorado (about 40 miles) all four neighboring states (which includes Colorado and New Mexico) meld their corner estates at the Four Corners National Monument, which is the only sector in the contiguous United States where four states merge their respective borders.

Although today's climate is what it is, especially the prevailing dryness of Monument Valley's appearance, over the eons this landscape alternately has been wet and dry, floodplain and sand-swept desert. Mostly, it is a desert (though not a sterile badlands). There is also a fairly predictable climate, meaning occasional precipitation is likely. Then again, weather patterns, as seasonal storms, never last very long, although such tempests in varying degrees can be intense as long as they occur.

A Veritable Rock Gallery On Display
Monument Valley is part of the larger Colorado Plateau sprawling landscape (measuring some 130,000 square miles). Here in the valley the Mesozoic Era geology (roughly, 250 to 65 million years ago) is mostly siltstone laid down by the Cutler Formation (or the sand derived from its deposition). The source material came from meandering rivers that initially carved this terrain. The vivid red tincture comes from the rich iron oxide exposed in the erosional siltstone (a sedimentary rock). The blue-gray darker rock features obtain their color and tone from manganese oxide.

Monument Valley's buttes are stratified structures posing three principal layers. The lowest is the Organ Rock shale (forming a talus slope or "apron"), the middle de Chelly (pronounced "de shay") sandstone, and the top is Moenkopi shale capped by the harder Shinarump siltstone.

Other than the buttes and mesas spread across the valley, fastidiously shaped lesser blocks of rocks in variable shapes, sizes and dimensions abound here. Amongst the gallery are also delicate spirals called hoodoos––bizarre and riveting pillars of rock honed by finer erosion. In time, there will be nothing left of their slim structures and each will take a bow (as in toppling). These distinctive attractions, among other skyscraper-sized highlights near and far are also favored by tourists, for their profiles tend to enhance one's perception and equally perplex the charmed and tantalizing view.

On a more metaphysical note, how easy is it to find one's self lulled into an esoteric or spiritual state of mind when peering through this primal window of time? (Easy!) One might even agree these rectangular and perpendicular figures spaced throughout the valley model well-practiced meditation (if only you or I could stand still and quiet for such a lengthy period).

An Artist's Choice Of Hues
Regarding the color scheme of Monument Valley's backdrop, the opulence of the elevated features actually changes color before your eyes (no kidding): maroon, lavender, amethyst, yellow-green, sienna, vermilion, ocher and slate gray––a mutable palette of decorative tincture. Such varied shades and tones depends on the time of the day's light, but also migrating shadows that wash over the monuments. At times, the smooth-faced monoliths appear to advance or withdraw because of the phenomenon of changing light and shadow. Some landmarks may even appear to grow taller, while others smaller, especially during the heavy heat of a sweltering summer day, not rare. The perspective is really never quite the same from any view point or hour of the day. Clouds, sun and shadows most assuredly conspire to arrange and orchestrate a spectacle of manifold temperaments.

What Is Your Outlook?
Perhaps only a visual wasteland to some, where nothing gainful to humankind ever seems to germinate, others see the monuments of Monument Valley as a world within a world of patent beauty: vast, primordial, haunting. Although this part of the Southwest is predominately a desert landscape, this valley of telling diversity need not be construed as a sterile locale scoured by gritty sand and priding itself with a ranging matte-like painting of distinctly-shaped rock formations. Not in the least. Even the word desert is a misnomer, for these common sectors of the Southwest are not reminiscent of an uncultivated landscape without inhabitants or a stark wilderness; and not so much as a barren backcountry that's largely treeless and sandy. That classic dictionary description may describe places like the Sahara or Gobi deserts, yet the people who live here see things quite differently. Many even consider the valley's spacious view unduly sacrosanct; and some who view it as wholly mystical. Let me just add how the desert has much to say if you listen. Yet its atmosphere is quiet and austere in a profound way and so you have to concentrate in a meditative frame of mind.

Hot & Cold, But Mostly Hot & Dry
As far as being one of the most esteemed scenic wonders decorating the Colorado Plateau, Monument Valley is the typically desert-Southwest, where the sun usually rules like an absolute monarch, and the land is quintessentially dry as a dinosaur's bone. Oh, there is plenty of those fossil specimens around here, too, since the time span given the geologic constituency of Mesozoic Era formations is right for it. But for the most part flora and fauna that manage a slim foothold here are drought resistant plants, trees and critters that have learned a trick or two by maintaining a sustainable existence.

Because of its elevation average some 5,000 feet above sea level, the Great Basin Desert that blankets this region is known as a cold desert terrain. A comparison to the neighboring Sonoran Desert far south of Monument Valley is hotter, and seldom does it receive snowfall or freeze. Nonetheless, here in the northern latitudes ample sunshine prevails. Unlike the Sonoran or Nevada's Mohave Desert, there is also a fairly generous allotment of rain and snow during the winter. Thus the meaning behind a cold desert.

What Happens When The Weather Turns Inclement?
During the summer season visitors coming to Monument Valley are apt to see telltale curling fingers of congealed moisture that trickle down from a low tier of clouds laden with moisture. Lovely and intriguing to behold such seemingly innocent looking billows are also potentially dangerous: they're the product of monsoonal moisture brewed by the Gulf of Mexico. People are therefore advised to take caution: cloud bursts on an enormous scale are probable and the desiccated ground cannot absorb too much water during such deluges. Flash flooding is always imminent and a threat. Even the circuitous road through the valley becomes impassable in places when sheets of rain burst from the cloud canopy. Better to wait forty-five or so minutes and let the returning sunlight dry out the muddy and rutted route, while gushing arroyos return to normal––and dry conduits once more.

On A More Personal Note––At First Sight Utterly Engaging
Since I first set eyes on Monument Valley I immediately sensed an uncanny rapport with its inviting macrocosm. Something inside told me I had been here many times before. Thus the strangeness of previous lifetimes without proof (of course). However, in that re-cognized sense of seeing again I felt I had come back home. Then again, this geologic estate and its fanciful citadels from near to far happens to be a popular and mercantile backdrop for any number of cinematic productions that I have watched over the years, mainly the aforementioned Western genre. In this light, and by way of movies and television, I was vicariously familiar with the roster of tall-standing statuettes of monster-sized rock facades decorating the altar floor of the valley. Yet the deeper feeling I drew on was not based on such artificiality or perceptible entertainment. Rather, it was the locus of those ineffable sensations drawn from the far side of the metaphysical veil that separates banal reality from the supra mundane, the profane from the sacred. I therefore didn't need a proven rationale for my notions about such matters. Those feelings were plainly rooted in ethereal soil. In short, I was indeed turned into a time traveler; at least my mind and spirit that wasn't trapped inside a fluid and skeletal physique.

Although much has changed since those exploratory days when I was first smitten by Monument Valley's tacit incantation, the scooped out setting is still the same. There's just a lot more people coming here––the ubiquitous tourists––who, like me, want to feel a part of the Mother Earth and Father Sky in a special way.

Why People Revere This Place
To mention the subjective aspects about this diary, the fountainhead of my thoughts flows from frequent hiking and backpacking treks inside Monument Valley, as well as its contiguous backcountry. Other than the charisma of the visceral backdrop, what grounded my being was the solitude, silence and solemnity of this sandstone mecca (implied in a non sectarian sense). As an emotional, indeed a transcendental, morphing peculiar to some imaginative or romantic types, I just get this place in all its aspects. Call it an innate understanding at some level. Call it a mystical awareness. Call it. . . something.

To all the above explanation I add how there are special times, just like there are special places, where forever and for all time is seemingly captured in mere passing moments. The representation of Monument Valley's wondrous view (by words and imagery) presented in this effusive diary is simply what it is: only the mind witnesses the changes, although I am cautioned by the Sutras, that I am not my mind. Nor is there any distinction in anything––no opposites––and therefore no duality. All of which is strictly mind stuff that opposes the no mind concept endorsed by the more abstruse teachings (Ch'an Buddhism's credo, for instance). Still, one can and should enjoy Monument Valley any way one prefers. It's just that sometimes an empty mind free of its analytical thinking helps generate renewed passion and awareness given a fresh perspective of life. (And how silly of me to say all this with such blasphemy of written description. . . mea culpa and pardon me for living.)

Let me put it this way: Seeing in the valley what rises before you without having expectations and being spontaneous in the moment abets the mind in tuning out the extraneous while the heart tunes in what is ultimately real and meaningful.

The Tour's About Over
I would like to share with you these two thoughts from Nancy Wood's book, Many Winters. She also knows the Mother Earth in a similar way that some of us know and respect, except she sums much of what I feel about life and the environment in this concise statement:
The Earth is all that lasts.
The Earth is what I speak to when
I do not understand my life
Nor why I am not heard.
The Earth answers me with the same song
That it sang for my fathers when
Their tears covered up the sun.
The Earth sings a song of gladness.
The Earth sings a song of praise.
The Earth rises up and laughs at me
Each time that I forget
How spring begins with winter
And death begins with birth.
The land here is peaceful.
It is bathed in golden light which smoothes out
The edges of harshness so that everything is right.
With the sun always in our eyes
We have a lazy vision which
Finds fault only on cloudy days
Even in winter the land is soothing.
It rises and falls so gently that
Our eyes grow heavy following it to the horizon.
Here and there the sleeping trees
Reach out to the sky.
Here and there are our fields and horses,
sleeping, sleeping.
Is it any wonder
That we love the land the way we do?
We dance to the beat of it
And perceive its rhythm as our own.

Her eloquent praise is a rich and deserving representation. What follows is my personal dedication. To me, Monument Valley is another kind of OZ, a place that's both beyond and within the scope of imagination. Here the yellow brick road is not paved and about the only greenery is what's in your wallet (if there is any cash). Rocks grow here; not trees and verdure. And there is no great and powerful wizard that lives here, though some people claim spirits or ghosts (in Navajo, Tliz'zih) are occasionally seen or sensed wandering about (some of whom are said to lurk inside dust devils, which are whirling dervishes of fierce wind and sand aimlessly dancing across the desert).

Still, I have found this idiosyncratic place on this side of the rainbow. It is real and not imaginary. I hope you enjoyed the tour.

As always, intelligent and thoughtful commentary is most welcomed!

Happy Trails!

Rich Holtzin


P. S.
Speaking of that above mentioned mythical river and the equally mythical valley's backdrop, where do you think directors and producers chose to film those scenes? Here's a hint: the next time you watch one of the Duke's many movies that was filmed here take a closer look at the geologic setting on both sides of the river. The contrast compared to Monument Valley's geology should give you a clue. I'll post the answer in a future diary. (Until then see if you can guess the movie title from this scene.)