Nearly one week has passed since I came home from Monument Valley and I’m still struggling to put my experience into words.
I can describe the nearly five-hour drive and the landscape I saw as I drove to the Arizona/Utah border. I can describe my cabin and my food and the people I talked to and where all within the park I ventured. I can describe the Valley itself: the mesas and the buttes and the spires and how they looked during the afternoon and at sunset and at night and at sunrise and late morning.
I cannot – simply cannot – describe just how the place reached deep into the corners of my tightly folded soul and blew it wide open.
I cannot describe the awe. I cannot describe how awe doesn’t even cover it. I cannot describe it.
But for the sake of remembering this trip and recording my memories and reliving the experience, I made a blog post anyway. And I also plan on making a video, because one does not simply drive within the heart of Monument Valley without recording something.
I arranged to have a week of vacation from work through May 9 to May 15. Because I wanted a break without work or school, I chose the one week I had between my spring semester and summer semester.
After I’d cleared the dates with my boss, I booked a cabin at Monument Valley for the night of Monday, May 9. I’d wanted to visit forever. Last December, when I made my spur-of-the-moment trip to the Grand Canyon, I’d contemplated driving up to Monument Valley instead, but ultimately decided against it since it was a bit too far for a day trip. I’m so glad I did. Monument Valley is a two-day trip at the very least. It took close to five hours to get there and once I was there, I didn’t want to leave.
Originally, I’d intended for my boyfriend to come with me, although if I’m being totally honest I kindasorta booked the cabin then told him about it afterwards. I was going whether or not he could get out of work to come with me. And as it turns out, he had a job interview in Los Angeles that Wednesday, and since he flew out on Tuesday and I wasn’t sure what time we’d be back, we agreed it’d be better if he stayed home.
So on Monday morning I drove up to the border solo. About 80% of the drive was awesome. The other 20% was slightly nerve wracking.
Getting to Monument Valley from the Phoenix area means taking the I17 up to Flagstaff then getting onto the 89 for a couple hours. Then I got on the 160 East towards Tuba City. By then I was in Navajo country, and while the landscape was beautiful, the land around Tuba City was also somewhat unsettling. It’s primarily flat, red, and empty except the occasional scattering of odd hills that looked like someone had taken a giant spoon, scooped up the earth, then placed it back onto the ground.
Then I got to Kayenta, where the road to take becomes the 163, straight north. By that time, I could see some of the buttes and mesas in the distance and was getting excited.
Once I got to the entrance of the park, I paid my $20 to get in then kept driving, watching the famous scenery get closer and closer. There is really only one building in the entire area, and it’s a combination of The View hotel, the restaurant, the coolest gift shop/trading post ever, and a small little Navajo museum. The cabins – where I’d be staying – were about a half mile down the road on the edge of the cliff.
A lookout point is between the Monuments and the building, which is where I walked to take this picture.
I once read a quote about travel that reads something like: “One time seen is better than a thousand times heard about.” With all my heart, I agree. There is nothing like seeing something so beautiful with your own eyes.
It was nearly 2pm my time, 3pm Monument Valley time, so I went inside the hotel/shop/restaurant/museum and got some food. As I ate, I looked down at the map I’d been given at the park entrance. In typical friendly but clearly tired fashion, the attendant had briskly flipped open the map, pointed to the middle, and said, “The-loop-takes-about-an-hour-and-a-half-to-two-hours-so-please-allow-yourself-enough-time-to-make-the-scenic-drive-thank-you-for-coming-and-please-enjoy-your-stay.” I’d barely grasped the concept of the existence of some kind of loop, so when I flipped open the map again I was blissfully excited to see that I could actually take my car down into the wilderness. I happily drove five hours just to look at Monument Valley. I honestly hadn’t given any consideration to exploring it.
But with that option available, I drove down to the cabin office to check in and unpacked and got ready to drive.
Unfortunately, the second I lay down on my bed I realized how tired I was. So I sat and colored for 45 minutes or so. And gazed out the window at the view.
The restaurant opened back up at 5 for dinner, so I figured I’d leave for the drive around 4 then get back at 5 to go eat. With this plan I got in my car and started driving, ready to take lots of pictures and explore the beautiful area, looking forward to eating later (I’m always looking forward to food, no matter what time of day) then relaxing in my cabin and and and…
and then I entered the wilderness.
and everything changed.
I stopped thinking coherently, in terms of words and structured sentences. I stopped planning. I stopped just about everything.
and felt and realized and understood and questioned and watched and wondered and lived and just…breathed.
My eyes just could not soak up enough. The mesas. The buttes. The spires. The sky. To call them beautiful is the understatement of the century. I quite honestly can’t find the right words. Mind-blowing, perhaps. Wild. Untamed. Compelling. Stirring. Changing.
The Navajo live within the Valley and know some of its secrets, its nooks and dips and crevasses. Upon this land they heal their sick and make offerings and have celebrations and say prayers. The land is sacred and while I cannot ever presume to understand how they feel in their own sacred land I could, in all my touristy enthusiasm, feel something. It swept through me there in that wild land as I drove, windows down, gazing all around me in complete and total awe, and it was there when I left and it is with me still and it will be there forever.
I’d planned to stay for an hour. I drove for two.
I parked and got out of my car at some places to walk around a bit. Alone I might have been most of the time, but there were other cars and other tourists making the same loop as I and they all did the same thing.
I didn’t necessarily feel completely safe some of the time. But by god I didn’t feel scared either. And to turn back around would have been unthinkable.
The other people I came across were the natives themselves. I passed a father and young son while driving, who were walking down the dusty trail, a few more on bikes, and several Navajos were selling jewelry at some of the stops on the map. I learned later that many Navajos actually made a living by selling their work to tourists, something that both infuriated me and impressed me for obvious reasons.
I approached the jewelry table by the Totem Poles, which quickly turned into my favorite location within the Valley.
The man and his wife were selling absolutely gorgeous pieces of jewelry off tables by their truck – necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, anklets, you name it. They were handmade and completely one of a kind.
I loved talking to the man selling them. He joked around how his wife had made most of them since he had no patience for tiny beads. At one point, I asked him what a figure on one of the beads meant, and he told me about Yei Bi Chei. The Navajo Yei Bi Chei (Yébîchai) is a ceremony that lasts nine days of performance and dancing. It is used to heal the sick and has both medical and spiritual meaning to the Navajo peoples.
I bought two necklaces, including the one with the Yei Bi Chei bead, thanked the man profusely, then started to walk back to my car.
Before I got back in, I stood out at the edge of the cliff and just looked at those spires. Had I had the option, I would have driven right to the bases of those Totem Poles and never left.
There are paths down which tourists are not allowed to go unless they’re accompanied by a guide, and so as I drove I stayed in the real world just enough to pay close attention to the signs. Knowing me, I would have accidentally gone down the wrong one, but I kept to the loop. Not that I needed more to look at.
It was past six o’clock by the time I emerged.
After dinner I went back to my cabin to look at my pictures and wait for the sun to go down. And eat frybread.
Then I bundled up and went outside to watch the sun set on Monument Valley.
Watching the sunset was amazing.
And then it was dark.
This was really the only time during my stay I felt nervous. I didn’t mind being by myself in a cabin the middle of the wilderness – loved it, actually – but that all changed once it got dark.
I didn’t sleep that well. Every little sound woke me up. In fact, the only time I was sleeping soundly – ironically – was when my alarm went off at 5:30am (4:30am my time).
I’d set it so I could get up and watch the sunrise.
In case you couldn’t tell by the pictures, the view from the lookout point near the
only main building in the park faces the east. That meant that when the sun rose, it would rise through the Mittens and Merrick Butte. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another chance to see something like that again.
So, somewhat begrudgingly, I forced myself to get up, get my peanut butter crackers I wouldn’t last five minutes without (thanks, hypoglycemia), and get in my car.
I drove to the lookout point by the hotel/restaurant/gift shop/museum and waited.
After the first break of sunrise I looked down onto the path that began the loop I’d driven yesterday. I wasn’t sure what time it ‘opened’, but after I saw another car drive down, I decided to take the risk and venture in. I couldn’t not do it. Watching the sunrise from the lookout point was intoxicating. Once I’d seen that, I wanted more.
I cannot describe what it was like to drive around that loop at sunrise, this time totally by myself (I passed perhaps three cars during the hour I was in there). Words don’t sum up the beauty.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
It was otherworldly. As I finally drove back out, I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to go back into the real world. Everything else seemed pale in comparison to the beauty of the Valley.
Somehow I did go back into, though, and actually interact with human beings and function as a normal adult. I got a slightly heartier breakfast (during which I got to look out at the Mittens and Merrick Butte), then picked up a few things at the trading post/gift shop and explored the museum for a bit.
Back in my hotel, I uploaded all my video and pictures to my computer while I ate the last of my frybread from the day before (absolutely amazing, by the way) and stalled as long as I could before I had to go check out.
I looked out at the Valley for ten, fifteen minutes before I finally drove away and out of the park. I was being pulled, drawn to the wild land and it took everything I had to tear myself away.
It did not occur to me until later that even though I’d been driving by myself within the Valley that morning, with no signs of people around me other than the few cars I passed, I had been far from alone.
I did one last crazy thing before heading home.
You know how in the really famous pictures of Monument Valley, there’s a road leading to the mesas? For example, the Forrest Gump scene we all know about?
Yeah, that one. I wanted to drive down it.
And since I hadn’t been driving in that direction on that road when I was headed north, logically, the only thing to do was to drive waaaay north, past Monument Valley, then turn around and drive back down the road.
I’m not saying I put another 45 minutes on my trip to do this, but….okay, I totally did.
Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure I had the right road until I Googled pictures that night and realized I’d had it. Either way, it was a gorgeous drive.
My only regret is that I didn’t drive farther north before I turned around. It would have made for a cooler picture. Still – it was pretty incredible.
Five hours later, I was home.
Late last year, when I drove to the Grand Canyon, I wanted to find a single word that summed it up and came up with vast. I did the same thing for Monument Valley – just tried to find one word that could perhaps, just perhaps, sum up the place in its entirety.
I came up with still.
Still because save for the occasional bunny running by or cry of a bird or cloud of dust kicked up by a passing car, the Valley is quiet and motionless and rich with the low hum of energy.
Still because in the heart of the Valley, nothing surrounds you but the wilderness. Nothing is there to distract you from the beating of your heart, the rhythm of your pulse beating against your skin, the slow inhale and exhale of each and every breath you take.
Still because in observing the towering rocks and earth, you in turn are forced to be still and reflect and observe.
And as I finish this blogpost, I’m still in a daze.