Wind whips up dust devils in mesmerising red whirls as we approach Monument Valley. The sacred place seems to summon the rust-coloured powder to coat our once-white car in tribal markings. We pull over to get out and perch at the rim of the rocky canyon, almost waiting for a message from the valley to let us enter. The dust clouds disperse slowly, letting us witness a mysterious, alien landscape emerge from below – so we move in, and fin it seems the two of us are alone.
Though we’re in one of the most recognisable landscapes on the planet (Monday, 8th March) , it feels like we might as well be on Mars, or the set of a sci-fi film. Confusingly, seeing – in this case – is un-believing: none of what we’re witnessing seems real.
Red and proud of it
Mountains of Mars - or Monument Valley?
For a start, absolutely everything is red – a deep, intense umber that shifts shades as the sun arcs. And then there are those weird shapes that the valley is famous for.
Wise, flat-topped mountains – stratified buttes – rise out of the rust-coloured, rocky ground. Proud monoliths stand firm throughout the arid canyon. Yet there’s something beyond the sheer geological marvel – there’s an aura here.
It’s not just a place where you can literally see millions of years of Earth’s history written into the rock face; this place, sacred to the aboriginal people, has countless secrets, myths and legends bound into its dna. We keep stopping the car and, between bouts of picture taking, imagine what those stories might be.
"Get off your horse and drink your milk" - the backdrop for so many Westerns
Though it looks and feels like science fiction to us, it’s another movie genre that made the place a tourist hot spot – the Western. The vast park gave so many spur-janglin’ cowboy movies an iconic backdrop – of course most of the heroics were at the expense of the native Americans. Dues have since, of course, been paid – more than two thirds of Arizona is now native-owned – and the Navajo Nation manages this particular park.
Risking being stranded in our puny poseur-mobile – due to heavy snows and rains, the track that doubles as the road around the park has become barely usable in places – we turn down the offer of a full-on tour for budget reasons.
We’re doing so many miles that car gas bills are mounting up! So we lose out on access to spots that are out of bounds to independent travelling, as well as Navajo insights passed down from one generation to the next. However, we have done our own homework, and decide to revel in the park at our own pace.
Through the wormhole
It being winter, we practically have the place to ourselves which is the best of all possible worlds. It adds to the feeling of other-worldliness. Indeed, since we strongly suspect that we have somehow driven our car through a wormhole to another dimension, when do we do spot another car (after two hours) I almost flag them down and ask them to breed in order to populate this new, red planet of ours.
As we near the end of our trip in Monument Valley, I recall an old native American ritual. They say that native men made a pilgrimage to this sacred valley in winter, just as we are doing. Only, they would climb these ancient mountains in order to excavate the unique red clay with which to fashion their own pipe for the impor
tant smoking ritual. After making the three hour route around this arid, practically uninhabited park, I would love nothing more than to smoke a pipe with an ancient who could reveal even some of its many secrets of its fascinating past. For now, I’ll have to make do with my own, unforgettable experience and imagine what that conversation could be like.
Find out more:
Monument Valley Tribal Park
Monument Valley View Hotel
Monument Valley Geology