Prologue: Summer’s coming on and before you know it vacation time will be here and planning for the adventure begins. For those of you headed out West, specifically those interested in seeing the so-called Indian country, this two-part series may whet your appetite to stop by the big valley north of Kayenta, Arizona (which straddles southeastern Utah). Although a previous diary appeared on our community’s site, what I have in mind this time around is to present something more tourist related. Remember: vacation time means tourists and tourism and Monument Valley, which is entirely owned and managed by the Navajo. They also welcome you to their home, at least this part of their sprawling reservation in this sector of the Colorado Plateau.
Note: The following diaries are excerpts from a larger copyrighted work I composed many years, entitled MONUMENT VALLEY––Scenic Sandstone Sculptures of the Southwest! In this work are many chapters, which I call Sketches. The following diary begins with Sketch Number Six with the title “The Desert’s Quid Pro Quo. . .Or?”
A "Geometry Of Geography": This odd description was my first impression of the desert Southwest and the fabled Colorado Plateau province. It still is. The virile backdrop of this excessively large landscape, especially the dramatic geophysical features that embellish the Painted Desert, typically rolls on like a dreamscape, that is, for some people’s taste in landscaping. Others might regard its greater, and ostensibly denuded emptiness, akin to a nightmare. The perspective depends on what one sees and feels about this kind of terrain. However, desert and canyon aficionados identify with the desert-mesa template somewhat as a paradox of emptiness. Yet there is fullness found in the same view in light of how Nature has (thus far) sculpted each landform, just so. For those holding this view there is arguably a strange balance in the bulk forms and the blankness. To add more would be like having too many brush strokes painting the canvass, in which case the picture-perfect tableau is marred. The inverse holds true if too much is taken away. Thus erosion today leaves us with the most perfect setting to feast one’s eyes upon; also, iconic Indian Country tableau and vistas.
I think of the most outstanding memories about my introduction to the American West was the first driving experience across the desert, starting just west of Cortez, Colorado. Since then I have racked up thousands of similar miles, some of them riding in cars or vans where I shared company with some people who were smitten with the scenery; also, a few among the many who could care less. The purpose behind this sketch is to relate something about those excursions, at least what I garnered in the way of personal reaction to those many crossings since 1970. At the time, I lived in Colorado's front range, Denver, the so-called Queen of the Rockies. For the past couple of decades my residences were in New Mexico and Arizona. A good many of my return visits to the desert floor originated from northern Arizona and Cameron was the portal that took me through and into the lavish Painted Desert country. One look at a regional map was not only descriptive (given the names of the the Four Corners highlights) but also luring.
As the road through this sector lays out its black thread in front of the vehicle, the geologic story (for those who have an interest in such things) is told. Certainly, the subjective state of gauging a painting, even a seeming still life impression (and sometimes impressionistic in the lighting and color effect) comes to mind. Fantasy, mystery and reality merge in the mind and each observer is left to his or her own deeper awareness. For me, any portion of the Painted Desert is an acrylic of form; its three-dimensional expansion feeds all the gates of perception. Here is a comprehensive environs to dispatch the mind as eager thoughts fly outward and transcend the limitation of space and time; here there are pagoda-shaped designs created by erosion’s fashioning, tilted landmarks on a monumental scale, attenuated profiles of darker, brooding formations lining the faraway horizon––a fortress and continuum of hardened rock that feigns to mark the very edge of the world. The color scheme anywhere and everywhere brings out the resident artist in all of us, at least those who delight in the changing tinctures: red, purple, blue, buff or brown configurations, with a variety of tinctures for each major color. And then there are those special tucked-away locales––the enticing gargoyle rock shapes created by ultra fine honing (by erosion).
As a Gestalt, or in its sundry parts, such a seeming perpetual terrain (i.e., because of the geologic antiquity) practically shouts at secular travelers driving through the desert portrait. Some voyagers through this neck of the desert country may have other things on their minds, or else are not interested in the passing view. Those who prefer to see things differently therefore feel and think differently. Regardless the heavy heat of spring or summer, there is enjoyment and fascination with the rolling shock waves that creates near and far apparitions suitable to a thirsty-looking landscape. I, myself, prefer rolling down the windows. I also relish the roar and rush of wind that fills the space of my vehicle. It’s like riding inside a wind tunnel, an affect of white noise in my ears–—a kind of wordless music that rises and falls, depending on the velocity. Reclining comfortably in the seat, the draft tussles my hair and sings in my ears. In one sense I am the vehicle's captive driver who can do nothing else, except drive; in another sense my mind wanders free and I am all places at once to the point I, in a four dimensional sense become what I see. Strange, I know, to think and feel this way. Then again, driving on auto pilot (cruise control), and with very little else to disturb me (other than paying attention to traffic and critters or people who might be on or near the road), the open stretch of highway sans traffic and manmade distractions is a good place to set one’s mind to the free mode of non-thinking.
But that's just me and how the peculiarity of my mind is wired. I also suppose I am the kind of idyllic-minded person who refuses to participate in reality's customary dance. Out here, especially cruising across the desert via the Navajo Highway (U.S. 160) , I openly embrace the extraordinary and the anomalies of life. In my eyes, such country is no less aspiring than ten thousand Taj Mahals or Sistine Chapels.
Roads traversing some of America's most spacious scenery are fairly common in the West. The Southwest desert country has many of these stretches of open roads, and some that are downright desolate. But desolation need not be construed as abject and forlorn, as to say or suggest unappealing to the eye. Different people see the view according to their esthetic sensitivity or else the lack thereof. For example, there is a segment of Highway 89 north-northeast of Flagstaff laying its black-tongued pavement toward Page-Lake Powell country. These ramparts begin the outskirts of the Painted Desert, especially nearer to Wupatki National Monument (some twenty miles west of the turnoff to the eastern sector of the Grand Canyon). Once past the turnoff to Cortez, Colorado (the above mentioned Highway 160) the broad avenue of desert pavement is fortified with the Echo Cliffs lining the east, the Marble Platform in the middle, just astride of Highway 89, and the flaming Vermilion Cliffs standing tall on the far side of the Marble Platform. It’s enough of a rousing scenic view to shake drowsiness from fatigued drivers (and definitely not the place for drivers to get too relaxed to the point one might nod off)
The predominant surface covering of the desert floor past the Little Colorado River region (just beyond Cameron) is mudflats created from the colorful Moenkopi and Chinle sedimentary rocks that account for much of the rock strata in this quarter. The Moenkopi Formation is a collection of red beds, siltstones, shales, sandstone and limestones. Quite the mixture. Its range of color goes from pink to brown, the color of a chocolate bar. The deeper rock of its uppermost layers is a result of hematite––iron oxide. In short, the rocks and sands were exposed to the air when initially deposited. By contrast, the Chinle Formation contains liberal doses of bentonite, a clay that forms in volcanic ash, which swells when wet and shrinks when dry. In other words, ideal material for badlands where barely no plants of any kind get a foothold, and therefore not home to many (if any) critters. These formations, among many other Triassic and Jurassic layers make up the bulk of the Painted Desert’s polychromatic formations. Yet to some people these rocks of this so-called badlands stretch may be a sight for sore eyes. Certainly not mine. Beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder. Plainly, subjectivity counts in the assessment in some stretches of these wide-open spaces where relative few roads are cut.
If one heads across the desert at Highway 160, the road takes in a splendorous and changing view to its desert terminus not too far east from the celebrated Four Corners Monument, where the highway continues into Colorado. Much of the road from the intersection of 89 and 160 can be straight as an arrow. The majority of the Painted Desert’s features is also revealed. When the sun is not obscured by clouds, during the late afternoon and well into the evening is certainly deserving of its epithet. Simply glorious!
Apart from the dazzling colors (mostly orange, red or pink) there is to see in this Mesozoic high desert country, the geologic fabrication and downsizing of bulk materials is a delight to see. One can say the scenery is broken, as in fragmented. On either side of the highway a line of elongate plateaus rise up in the distance either side of the highway. Mesas long ago hewed and separated from the main plateau foundation accentuate the mid-view of the picture, with the occasional hulk of impressive buttes slowing down the pace of the scene.
Most times, the seduction of air-conditioning, tinted glass and molded metal or plastic keeps people pretty much stuck in their vehicles, especially when the thermostat outside is cranked. Generally, travelers zip across this desert floor spend a lot of idle time gawking or daydreaming about what's out there in the vacuous sea of sparse vegetation and buildings of any kind. A relative few have no idea what it took for the planetary forces to fabricate such a backdrop. Instead of my painting the descriptive scenery I want to include a brief primer of just a segment of travel in this gorgeous country. The scenery is comely as it is diverting, yet the geophysical facts behind the scene also have much to say to those who desire to know more. In this light, some edification about the leftovers from hundreds of millions of years ago might be of interest to the layman hitching a ride in my vehicle. Buckle up!
In the vicinity of Cameron (Arizona), specifically where the Little Colorado River is traversed by the new bridge (and the much older former bridge still stands, though no longer in use), the view ahead and all around comprises the valley of the Little Colorado River. This usually muddy and fairly shallow river is the principal drainage for the Painted Desert. The surroundings reveal ancient an ancient delta, floodplain and dune platform with thick accumulations from many different material deposits. For those who know how to spot it, there’s abundant petrified wood everywhere to be seen. The clastic sedimentary materials date from the Triassic (250 - 205 million years) and Jurassic Periods (205 - 140 million years). Cretaceous (140 - 65 million years) marine and near-shore deposits are also mixed in with the geologic lot. This is Mesozoic country, the Age of Reptiles. Notably, those often called terrible lizards––dinosaurs. Slopes and benches of soft mudstone and siltstone intersperse with ledges and cliff palisades of more resistant sandstone and conglomerate material. Coral and deep brick red exchange their bright colors with the softer hues of blue, green, and mustard tincture. The color scheme is a surrogate rainbow of rock formation just about everywhere one looks.
Some twenty miles down the highway, and steering toward Page, Highway 89 continues straight ahead and before long Highway 160 shows up. It's an abrupt right turn to the east. Another few miles the roadbed begins a long curving climb to a higher level of desert country. The valley of the Little Colorado is in the rear and before long the broad platform is scaled. The rock strata has also changed. The desert pavement here is capped with resistant sandstone of the Glen Canyon Group, or part of the group’s formations. The overall geology includes the red ledges of Wingate Sandstone, bright orange-red Moenave (pronounced "mo-e-nave") Formation, rufus-tinctured Kayenta Formation, which denotes stream-deposited materials on ancient floodplains, and Navajo Sandstone, here a grayish white or pale pink. Its cross-bedded, cliff-forming dune sandstone is predominant throughout this sector of the Painted Desert.
200-million-year-old dinosaur prints abound. This territory was once one of their prime hunting grounds. Most of them left telltale three-toed impressions.
A new addition to the geologic floor plan are signs of volcanic activity from long ago. Notably, basaltic dikes cutting through the sedimentary formations. Some of these intrusive dikes stretch many miles. As the drive continues, Morrison Formation lay overtop a cliff zone formed by the shallow-water Dakota Sandstone, a dark gray shale marking the incursion and retreat of a Cretaceous Sea. This sedimentary deposit is the Mancos Shale. A mixture of Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils are embedded in its formation: oysters and ammonites, skeletons of fishes, including sharks, turtles, crocodiles, and a rather large marine reptile called a plesiosaur. Above the shale shoreline later deposits document a fluctuating retreat of a primal sea. East of Tonalea the dark outline of Black Mesa appears on the right side of the highway. Its rich lagoon deposits near the surface is a hefty reserve of coal now being strip-mined on top of the mesa. Near the turnoff to the Navajo National Monument (on the left side of the road) the utterly conspicuous synthetic contraption steals the scene. This metal structure starts at the top of the mesa and bends down toward the highway, like a gargantuan slide with a roof. But it’s more than a slide; it’s a conveyer system that used to transport the crushed coal (from Black Mesa). The coal was then transported by belt line, railroad and a slurry pipeline to the Navajo Generation Station, at Page. The train was also operated by a computer with an engineer on board, as a backup. These days, the coal comes from another source (still mined on the Navajo Reservation).
The edge of Black Mesa is continually undermined by erosion of the softer Morrison Formation and Mancos Shale. As a consequence, the facade of the mesa wears back. At the mesas most northern face the highway snakes through a narrow defile, and a new landmark (further east of the Navajo National Monument turnoff) crops up on the left, the Shonto Plateau. Here the rocks of Triassic and Jurassic that are beneath Black Mesa are forced to the surface, a pavement that tilts up rather steeply. The abrupt change in the roadbed level is due to the Organ Rock monocline. (A monocline is step-like fold consisting of a zone of steeper dip within an otherwise horizontal or gently-dipping sequence. Like any monocline, they can be lengthy and seldom short. They also form in different ways, and faulting has a great deal to do with it.) The road continues climbing until it levels out to form the high crown. The raised landmark directly to the northeast is called Skeleton Mesa (7,631 feet above sea level). This is also the neighborhood where the marvel of Tsegi Canyon’s southern flank cuts through the big barricade of stunningly beautiful rocks. It almost feels like driving through a canyon passing through here due to the formations on either side squeezing the roadway between Black Mesa’s ramparts and the sloping face of Tsegi. On the left side, especially, the wall of rock rises at a sheer angle. If the lighting is right the view is nothing less than sensational. The location is ten miles west of Kayenta.
The gleaming tint of the landscape all around is, well, one could say it’s pink and one might also say an orangish tincture (depending on the light and time of day). Perhaps a bit of both in other eyes. One thing for sure, the flair of this cross-bedded profile is the remarkable Navajo Sandstone. These rocks edge the mesa landscape east of Kayenta, albeit the tincture is not as brilliant as displayed around Tsegi Canyon’s southern flank.
The road begins to drop and soon levels off. Kayenta’s valley floor is just ahead. Kayenta is a thriving oasis and one of the more populated Indian settlements in the region. The steep slopes of Navajo Sandstone rise north and northeast of the town. The raised topography also turns up along the edge of the famed Monument upwarp. There is another adjacent upwarp in this region, to the south––the Defiance upwarp. Indeed, the landscape is riddled with a series of gentle anticlines (a fold of rock that is convex upward and has its oldest beds at its core) and synclines (a downward-curving fold, with layers that dip toward the center of the structure. Volcanic dikes and necks the color of spent ash are also present and bear testimony to the violence of volcanism that once was common throughout this rough territory in its making. Comb Ridge, perhaps the most remarkable landmark feature on the east side of Monument Valley, begins northeast of Kayenta. It parallels (to a degree) Highway 160 as far as Dinnehotso. At this point, however, the ridge extends its teeth toward Utah. The Comb Monocline denotes the bending over of rock layers at the southern edge of the Monument upwarp and overlies a Precambrian fault deep below the surface. The major formation in the Comb Monocline is none other than the Navajo Sandstone, which in this locale is a pale salmon tincture.
Just think: a relatively brief stretch of road and learning a little about the big geology prevalent in this region transcends the pictorial representation, and thus makes the viewing more interesting for some tastes. Personally, to visit Monument Valley and not learn something about the geologic primer, as basic knowledge, is a pity. The roadside layman’s geology tour just presented spruces up the scenery with such basic facts of what took place to create this sector of the Colorado Plateau.
The next segment of the traveling diary is from Sketch Number Four entitled “Motoring Scenic Routes.” I think it dovetails nicely with the opening of this diary and provides more driving directions and points out more regional sites along the way. Hope you’re wearing your seat belt, because some of this scenery tends to jolt you right out of your seat!
The “Indian Country Map” Says It All: This popular road map and somewhat cheeky designate delineates the vast holdings of Native Americans, notably regarding reservation land. The Southwest, particularly Arizona and a good slice of New Mexico harbors the lion’s share. To Anglo writers, like Tony Hillerman, this stunning territory is not real estate to sell or buy, but by means of books, his in particular, written about the Indian country lets readers buy into the landscape for the price of a novel. He has written most of the many popular books written about these people and the land they occupy. Tourism by any means, even that which is promoted by such literature, is a boon to the American Indian culture. It seems hardly anyone outside their culture goes without something purchased that is native made: fine and expensive wool blankets and rugs; baskets; pottery; beads and bracelets; sand paintings; Kachinas; Kokopelli icons; turquoise and silver jewelry of all kinds; whimsical howling coyotes wearing decorative scarfs; storytellers; or the ever popular dream catchers dangling from rearview mirrors inside vehicles. The best place and prices to procure such items are always found on the reservations. And, of course, the best way to experience the culture is to drive on any road that takes you into the heart of the American Indian culture. That’s the intent behind this sketch. . .a driving excursion to familiarize visitors with the overall perspective of the passing scenery.
Driving provides a way to experience the desert, although it’s not the same as hiking or walking anywhere in this terrain. Still, this segment of the narrative provides the wheels, so to speak, just to indoctrinate one to such traveling and means. To me, this particular facet of the ranging desert country communicates in many ways: visually, audibly, and for those who are ultra sensitive by their nature, a telepathic sixth sense. All of these gates of perception works for me. I sit back in the seat and feast my eyes on the palatable scenery, then let it all happen. For me, there is a peaceful dialogue that commences, though not quite an analytical process, but more related to an aesthetic exegesis of what my senses relay. I am also never in a hurry to make any desert crossing. Besides, what am I going to do with those twenty or thirty minutes of time-savings if I do exceed the posted speed limit? Why not utilize the precious moment in passing and enjoy the here and now? Wherever I go, that’s where I am. And that pretty much sums up my state of mind doing anything and being anywhere.
The other reason my driving routine is so circumspect while driving across the desert floor has to do with the potential of lurking danger, especially at night. Roving livestock or people walking along the roadway is not uncommon. For that reason, alone, I pay heed to everything going on around me, especially passing or oncoming traffic. The critters and occasional individual(s) (usually a Native Indian in these parts) is subject to appear alongside the road at any time of day or night. The burnished sight and sad memory of driving by a dead horse and rider, a young Indian boy, reminds me of how fast incidents like this can occur, especially inane and inattentive drivers who insist on a pedal-to-the-metal driving habit, simply to try and save time. But it's the living that must oust the dead and so I look for riders on horses going places, such as I often see inside the big valley a few hours ahead.
What inspires me most about the desert’s display of this or that landmark and form? It’s Nature’s descriptive template authored in artistry. In this creative respect there is an intricate loom that weaves many eye-catching strands and scenes common to the Arizona desert. Remarkable scenes are so common here that it’s difficult to find a tedious view. Monument Valley and it’s region is especially wondrous to behold. From a distance or up close, its turf is just one of those picture-perfect idols, not quite an idyll in the more classical sense and meaning. The Valley’s broken palisades, as a collection of diverse rock fortresses, isolated or otherwise, is an engaging frontier that empties the mind when gazing at its boundless space and silence. Here indeed is a topographical tapestry that hangs its weathered, parched and gaping vista for eyes to behold. It’s as though an unseen bridge across forever leads to another world or dimension somewhere off in the great blue distance.
Given this diary's main theme I think if Monument Valley was not already a tribal park and homeland governed by the Diné, its setting would easily have become a designated National Monument or National Park set aside by the Federal Government. Ah, but this is Indian land; this is the land and landscape of the splendid plateau and mesa country, where scenery shouts or whispers for one’s attention; where towns, small or large, and homes and homebodies are relatively few. Most of what's out here in the way of industry centers around tourism throughout tribal, sovereign lands. The Federal and State Governments, military operations, electric power and gas utility coalitions, and mining and ranching interests accounts for the majority of most other enterprises. Beyond that, Indian reservation land is a big chunk of the Southwest real estate, mostly desert and inscribed, sinuous-tracking canyons. Much of the acreage is sand or dirt, with a rock-strewn beguiling carpet delineating its characteristic scenery. If one likes and appreciates this kind of topography and its environmental features seldom will a parallel sight be encountered anywhere on the planet. This declaration (and not quite bragging rights) especially finds its locus in the Monument Valley region.
Unless travelers happen to drive beneath the Zodiac, with a billion starry gemstones for extraterrestrial company overhead, most people plan a daytime trek across the desert, even during May, June, and July, which are the hottest months. The inconvenience of the heat notwithstanding, there’s simply more to look at even if one is disinterested in the passing view. Of course, to altogether avoid this territory adds hundreds of extra miles. Thus, and for some drivers who aren’t particularly infatuated with the desert and its far-reaching view, it really comes down to tolerance and shaving off miles.
Closer to Monument Valley, and located at the most popular Indian and tourista fair-sized towns in this vicinity, Kayenta (Arizona), some of Monument Valley’s outlying fanfare appears on the horizon 22 miles north of the intersection of Highways 160 and 163. If it’s the hot, dry season such a tableau is vaguely remembered through heat waves of distortion, where a few soaring profiles appear to move in the opacity of desert light. This sort of vision’s tease especially happens during dawn’s or twilight’s crepuscular lighting effect.
One might ask the tripartite Zen-based question––Is it only the mind that moves; is this the madness of a mirage? Or is it a geologic paradise beckoning to temporal sojourners seeking a special kind of solitude in the secular-turned-incredible? I suppose the truer answer depends on how idyllic or even how spiritual one feels. The answers are best found within the greater depths of one’s consciousness.
For whatever reason people choose to come this way, from that teasing long distance the first outline of Monument Valley’s profile seems to be just another strange or desolate place in the Southwest. First appearances, of course, can be misleading. But it’s true that this big valley is devoid of vegetation and running water. Other than tribal tourism, wanton commercialization never quite gets a toehold anywhere in this vicinity. Thus, if Monument Valley wasn’t an intended destination, then its environs is just another place that’s on the way to somewhere else.
Ah so deska, but another ten or so miles farther and closer to the spatial and compelling scenery tells another story. The yawning vista and its prominent landmarks finally begins to relax the lassitude or ennui of road-weary driving. The crenellated features in sectors and sheer size of the rock formations reveal much of the creation story beyond the view. Surely, the scenery all around this territory has already whet the driver’s (or passengers) appetite, and possibly induced persistent interest. Notably, frequently seen recumbent mesas, square-topped buttes (like raised, proportional altars), and the bent horizon formed from the unbroken line of plateaus tinctured in blue, red or purpose (the color depending on the light of day). But here, and just ahead, is an altogether different sight––the bright side of the moon, as it were.
Eventually, some travelers who intended to bypass the setting may get curious as to the commanding name, Monument Valley appearing on the road map. Before long the place and its designate begins to make more rational sense and appeal. And once people set their eyes on the closer view of such commanding horizontal and vertical shapes so widespread throughout the valley, they transform into tourists and their plans have obviously changed for the better.
Once beyond the entry point the lower and far-reaching backdrop of Monument Valley is herculean. It's as though visitors are approaching the world’s biggest outdoor park and chess pieces of plumb-standing rocks, some well over 1,000 feet above the desert pavement. Had Shakespeare written something about the lore of the Old West, here would be the Bard's ideal outdoor stage for the performance, complete with manifest imagery. "To film or not to film — that is the question!" Of course, since the mid-20th century many producers and directors came out here to do just that, though if memory serves me no one has yet produced a Shakespearean play.
The following introduction is intended as the pitch and here follows the driving directions to come see for one’s self. . .
If driving on Highway 163 and coming down from the north, say, starting south from
I-70 (near Green River, Utah), the road further south parallels Monument Valley’s territorial tract. From select places along this high vantage point the warped and wavy appearance of the startling formations pose in an aura of light and utter tranquility. The sandy, off-white tinctured floor scrubbed clean of telltale vegetation appears like a becalmed ocean with a somewhat prominent bow. (It is, after all, a dished valley, though not a typical valley most people are used to seeing.) The lofty, smooth-faced rock temples, like Merrick Butte and the adjacent Twin Mittens, form the most famed trinity of rock battlements inside the tribal park. They are like reddish cathedrals rising from the orange-colored water, a place of dry water to be sure. The larger fortresses of rock, like Thunderbird Mesa, flank and close in the valley’s rock display gallery from the south and east. In time, they, too, will fracture and downsize into winsome buttes; smaller remains, yet still mammoth in size.
Highway 163 leads to this formidable tribal park. It’s the only way to get there by road. Unequivocally, Monument Valley is the most popular tourist attraction and display. Like the last summit of a roller-coaster ride, this scenic roadway and its idiosyncratic perspective offers one of the best views in the American Southwest. This popular tourist’s route (and somewhat like a conveyor belt of passing scenery) easily spellbinds drivers and passengers. Wow! Gee! Wooooo-eee! are more than likely common noun responses at most turns where the undulating road slices through the overall view. And on this note, assuming the driver and his or her passengers, if any are aboard, at least stops and get out of the vehicle to stretch cramped legs, it’s a good reason or excuse to do just that––stop! It’s also the perfect opportunity to take a few to a hundred photos or else push the button on the video camera (or cellphone) and take a few or more minutes to pan the scenery.
Dissecting some of the more interesting National Parks and Monuments to the north, chiefly, Moab, Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Deadhorse Point, and a famous place where the mythical Ed Abbey was once a park ranger, Arches National Park (then a National Monument), 163’s rambling black tongue and white stripes down the middle slips by the western boundary of Monument Valley for a reason: engineers could find no other way and place to plane the landscape and blacktop its pavement. Look at any roadmap and see how the terrain west and east of the Valley easily thwarts engineering plans to consider building a road in those vicinities. The Monument Upwarp and its connecting Comb Ridge represent terra terrible, as in no way, no highway, would be road builders! South and north of the valley poses similar terrain, as obstacles.
Abutting to Monument Valley's cosmic geography, and after dropping somewhat appreciably in elevation, driving parallel to the tribal park’s main features provides more than a mere passing window of delectable scenery. (Most would say an inexhaustible and prismatic panorama.) One cannot escape the compulsory magnetism of this roadside attraction when driving so close to its final frontier (meaning one gets the feeling the fabled end of the earth, for sailors, might be somewhere over the far horizon). In fact, one is trapped! That is, the eyes are filled with the picture view, senses are blown away, and mostly one is at a loss for words. Silence finally takes over as the mind is forced to shut down. That's good. There is simply too much sensory data pouring in and too much to see and keep track of. The mind simply tries to get away from the viewer. An agog tourist from France might say it’s de trop, who then might add, “Bon Dieu!” But too much and good God is just about right to describe the stirring visual circumstance; and of course it is almost too much of a view for most people to behold.
Depending on which direction the driver is headed, either south or north of Monument Valley, really does generate a different view of one’s perspective. Driving down from Moab (Utah) is one way to get to Monument Valley (from the north). There are a few decent-sized towns along the way (notably, Bluff, Monticello and Mexican Hat). Kayenta is across the border. Otherwise, it’s a long stretch of roads where natural scenery, not manmade, dominates the view.
The alternative route to drive to Monument Valley is from the south, starting from Kayenta. There is found the main east-west axis crossing the desert from the south (of Monument Valley). Highway 160, also popularly known as the Navajo Road, routes through the Four Corners junction outside of Cortez, Colorado and makes a bee line, almost perfectly straight, to the golden West where it ends at Highway 89 (connecting Page and Flagstaff). But the wide, two-lane tarmac cuts through the Indian reservation, where frequent small ranches show up. Indians, mostly women in colorful dress, walk or ride horses and herd flocks of sheep. Such a sight is not rare. The route the engineers were given permission (by the tribe) to build decades ago is also not the kind of thoroughfare that's familiar to popular fast food joints (regardless how decorative some of these commercial establishments appear). Such food and beverage outlets are few and far between, except these enterprises are cropping up in locales, like Kayenta and Tuba City. And don’t even think there is the occasional bar or tavern to be seen, because it’s all Indian reservation land. Ergo, no booze allowed! One either gets used to the rare and ostensibly lonely-looking inhabited places that parallel the highway––which are either developments for Indian housing or schools––or one doesn’t. Gas stations are also few and far between and strip malls are almost nonexistent. Even a Denny's, or similar places to sit down and eat, are as uncommon as traffic lights outside any significant township.
For the absence of such commercial development, however, the remote communities, as mini municipalities along Highway 160, do offer some semblance that there really are people who live in this high desert country, that is besides the occasional sheep herders and cow ranchers. For instance, fascinating names where smaller communities exist, and some with names sightseers might try to pronounce: Teec Nos Pos, Mexican Water, Tonolea, Dinnehotso, Shonto, and Moenkopi. At first, the noticeable absence of towns and associated commercial amenities common to other locales outside the region seems a pity for those who are more used to seeing civilization in the guise of a glut of enterprises, including larger metropolises and clusters of people, even street lighting or the imposing billboards. Then again, maybe that’s a blessing for this part of the desert, because by now travelers are forced to acknowledge the true immensity of open space that’s everywhere to be seen and experience, like it or not.
And for some personal views, including my own, this country has that special look and feel and is complete without having to build all kinds of structures serving the purpose for all kinds of things humans find a need to shop and buy. There is (hooray!) nothing homey or comfy about the view in this huge tract of territory, all of it reservation land. There is, in fact, no way to try and tame the desert, because there’s hardly any spare water to supply the needs of too many people and too many enterprises vying for this precious elixir of the Southwest. Again, hooray!
Incidentally, on this wide open Arizona tarmac, Highway 160, drivers need to keep a sharp eye peeled for open range cattle and horses. These common and quintessential range rovers are either brazen, bold or else oblivious when it comes to traffic, especially at night. Some of the locales are also prone to walking along the road at night, so watch out for the bipedal traffic, too.
One might ask, “Why do animals loiter alongside roads?” Open range in the West simply means livestock are apt to roam beyond fence lines. As the caption in the above photo states and swears is true, if a driver hits an animal, then he or she will pay a fine that covers the cost of the animal. Just because there’s a fence and critters behind it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to try and find a way on the other side (in case it has a mind to do it). As to the question why do animals, small and large, domestic or feral, tend to forage on the side of the road, it’s because of the way the road is planed. In short, more moisture, as precipitation, will collect on either side of the road, and therefore more growth, as plants, weeds, flowers or bushes. The animals come to eat what, otherwise, is harder to scrounge for further away from the road. And on this note it should also be mentioned people who toss garbage (food, napkins, plastic, cans, and God knows just about everything else) is a temptation for some animals to investigate, and possibly eat such junk. Skunks, dogs, cats, coyotes, possums (and the like) are prone to rummage around alongside roads for that very purpose. If people would be more thoughtful and properly dispose of their garbage, then less animals will end up as the proverbial road kill. Signs should be posted to this effect, but then again it is another distraction for drivers to try and read the information. Best thing to do is save the garbage for another time (when it’s feasible to dispose of it) and save an animal from an untimely death.
Hope you enjoyed the road tour. Here's some parting shots meant to lure you to come see this country for yourself, either for the first time, or the 100th. Indian Country is that engaging (and the folks who live here do welcome you, not just your tourist dollars).
Stay tuned for part two in this mini series: a hike and a night's watch on Merrick Butte (my own story).
And so, DKos community, we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour (part 1).
As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.
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