“The Earth is my sister; I love her daily grace, her silent daring, and how loved I am how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget what she is to me, what I am to her.” ~ Susan Griffin
Last week I made it my personal mission to get out of the Valley for a few days after surviving an extremely busy month.
My destination of choice? Monument Valley again.
I’ll never soak in the beautiful land enough, from its sweeping canyons to the stillness of the rocks that tower to the heavens yet free the observer.
I drove to Monument Valley for the first time last May, and it absolutely blew me away. This time, I wanted to go back to experience the irreplaceable awe of the Canyonlands and also to do a little more exploring than I had the last time I drove north.
So I booked a hotel for two nights, packed up my RAV4, and started my journey on Wednesday around noon after I was done with work.
The destination of a road trip – or any trip, really – is never the most important. It’s the journey that really counts. And the five hour drive between Phoenix and Monument Valley is an incredible one. I am forever astonished at the differences in terrain that exist in Arizona. Our state literally has everything from the iconic Sonoran Desert to red, painted canyons, from dipping valleys to grasslands that span to the horizon, from towering mountains to tall, thick forests.
Every time. Exploring this state amazes me every time.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 30TH.
The MapQuest, Google Maps, tourist-approved way of getting to Monument Valley is to take the I17 north until it ends at Flagstaff, then the 89 north up to the 160 which veers northeast through Tuba City and a few other smaller towns. Then, around Kayenta, you take the famous Monument Valley road – the 163 – due north.
The Sonoran Desert fades away on the first leg of the trip as you rise in elevation on the way to Sedona and even more on the way to Flagstaff. Once I was past Flagstaff and onto the 89, the forest thinned and the changes in scenery were more drastic.
Before I knew it, I was turning onto the 160. And here’s something weird, but noteworthy:
I’ve traveled a decent amount. A few months ago I went to London solo. I’ve done a lot of driving all over Arizona: to Sedona, to Flagstaff, Tucson, Tombstone, Williams, Kingsman, literally every suburb of Phoenix… but never have I felt as genuinely scared in any area – no matter how remote or new or unfamiliar – than I have in this ten or fifteen mile stretch of land leading into Tuba City where you turn onto the 160 off the 89.
It is unwelcoming, bright red, stark, and – to me – terrifying.
That stretch of land gives me a precarious, bone-chilling, unsettled feeling that I can’t describe or justify. I felt it last year on my way up to Monument Valley for the first time and Wednesday was no different. The moment I turned on that freeway, for ten miles or so onward… I didn’t like it one bit.
It sounds crazy, I know. All I knew is that I couldn’t drive past that stretch of land fast enough. At one point I drove past a sign that read, “Home of the WWII Navajo Code talkers.” I still plan to Google that, and read about it.
I was glad to see grass again.
More driving. At one point my car asked me if I wanted to take a rest. Rest I did not, because by the time I was on the 160 it was late afternoon, and I wanted to reach my hotel before dark.
I passed Kayenta and merged onto the 163 that would take me due north. And finally, as the golden hour began to settle over the plains of grass and high buttes and rocks, I saw the blissfully familiar landscape.
At one point in this area I stopped in the visitor center just outside the official entrance to the park to pee and get a sandwich out of my cooler. I had to laugh because when I pulled in, I was one of maybe two or three cars, one of which could have passed for a legit kidnapper van. I got out of the car, but took my knife – blade out – with me. Far better to be paranoid than sorry! Girls, if you travel alone, carry a weapon at all times.
The 163 is the well known Monument Valley road, and the famous view of Monument Valley is looking south on the 163, from the Utah border looking in. Luckily my destination of Mexican Hat (20 miles north of Monument Valley, population 34) meant I got to drive way out past the monument to take some killer pictures. There were a couple of other tourists parked in the scenic pullouts taking pictures too.
Then, as the sun officially began to set, I headed even further north into Utah to my hotel, the Hat Rock Inn located in the tiny town of Mexican Hat. When I said population 34, I meant it. The town has one gas station, something like four restaurants, two motels and a hotel. And a handful of small houses for the Navajo residents that run the town.
I checked in, unloaded my car, then sat on my bed looking at the Utah brochure on my bedside, wondering if there were any other cool things I’d be able to fit in the next day. I came across Gooseneck, the Rainbow Bridge, then one park called Hovenweep National Monument I’d never heard of before but sparked my interest.
Eventually I slept. I never sleep well away from home, but sleep is overrated anyway.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 31ST.
I started my morning with English breakfast tea, courtesy of my room’s Keurig, which made me think of my many mornings in London while I got ready to drive into the Valley. I have to be at work so early that I am always in a rush to get out the door, so while I had the option of taking my time I was wired to just get outside!
I filled up Adelaide’s (my RAV4) tank at the only gas station in the town before leaving Mexican Hat in the early morning.
And then, that view.
Paddington Bear naturally partook in some of the picture taking.
Later, when I was driving away from Monument Valley in the early afternoon, I pulled over, opened up the hatchback of my car, sat in the back, and just gazed at this view for a long time.
It’s such an iconic American area and I think despite who gazes upon it we all feel the same thing. We feel a sense of adventure; a curiosity to explore what is within the rocks and beyond; the spirit of the American west that was won but not completely tamed. This Navajo tribal park draws people from all over the world – as evidenced by the many languages I heard while out in about within the park’s visitor center – and yet we are all the same in exploration.
Finally, I made it to inside the park. After a quick stop in the gift shop, I turned my car onto the red, dusty road and ventured into the wilderness. And just like last time, I was transformed.
There are little tourist “stations” that follow a map they give you at the toll booth. The Mittens. The Three Sisters. Artist Point Overlook. It’s almost insulting. To cast labels upon such magnificence, such sacredness, seemed otherworldly to me out there.
At the famous John Ford Point, I saw a sign that said for $5 you could get your picture taken on a horse. Uh, sign me up.
It was exhilarating to be on a horse in the middle on Monument Valley and it took a great deal of self control to not just squeeze my heels into Spirit’s sides and gallop off – not that he would have, as the poor boy looked totally bored. Because they had brought Spirit out specifically for me (I had to ask as he was in his nice little stall), a crowd of tourists gathered around us, seemingly interested in getting their pictures taken after me. When I dismounted, one woman clapped her hands and called out in Italian, “Bellissimo!”
What few amazing moments in time.
Before long I came to my absolute favorite part of Monument Valley: the Totem Poles.
Last year, a Navajo man and his wife were selling jewelry at this particular stopping point on the map (Navajo sales are very common up there) and he told me about the Yei-Bi-Chei, a sacred dance performed at the foot of these incredible spires to heal the sick.
On Thursday, I stood out on the edge of the risen rock that overlooked the valley leading to the Totem Poles, just gazing at them and imagining such a dance. Such wildness, such undauntedness.
As my thoughts intertwined and roamed freely I thought of my Sonora, who I lost four months ago and for whom my heart aches each and every day. I thought of her galloping through that land – red mane flying, legs kicking out against the ground, tossing her head in eagerness to run free of pain – and smiled.
I made my way through the rest of the loop, drinking in every moment.
At one point I was so acutely taken by the dry, thirsty cracks within the ground.
Finally I found myself making the final stretch and leaving the stillness of the Valley behind me as I joined other tourists on the road.
Then, after a few last looks, it was time to journey onward. As I left, I found myself so grateful for the chance to see such an incredible place again.
And as I turned my car north again towards the open road – full of possibility – I was determined to see even more.
Hovenweep National Monument
I’d decided after Monument Valley, I’d make my way northeast towards the Colorado border to see a monument called Hovenweep.
Honestly, I could have never reached Hovenweep National Monument and I would have still had an amazing time on the road. Just like Arizona’s scenery seems to change with each turn of the road, so did southern Utah’s.
About an hour and a half into the journey I came across what is perhaps the best thing I’ve ever seen so close to my car: a herd of wild horses.
They took my breath away. The far left bay stared me down while the rest of the herd kept grazing, looking up to glance at me every so often.
Finally, I continued onward, only to promptly discover a herd of cattle on the side of the road, too!
It couldn’t have been a more incredible drive. I almost never wanted to reach my destination. I wanted to stay on those roads, under that huge sky, roaming forever until there was no horizon left for me to chase.
Hovenweep was a prehistoric village of Ancient Puebloans – a Native American civilization also called the Anasazi – who lived somewhere less than 1,000 years ago: between 1,200 AD and 1,300 AD. In the brochure I’d read the night before, I’d been so fascinated by the still-standing structures and couldn’t believe I was about to see them with my own eyes.
I checked out the visitor center first, which was a good thing as I got to it ten minutes to 5 and it closed at 5. After picking up a book and some postcards, I set off on the trail, which was open until the sun went down.
There were a few different trail options, but as eager as I was to see everything, I opted for the fifteen minute walk, the shortest one.
Laid out in front of me were the remains of a people who survived almost 1,000 years ago.
I was so deep into the wilderness that the silence was overpowering. It was different from the profound stillness of Monument Valley. There was simply no sound, as though the land itself was remembering those who had once thrived upon it and was waiting forlornly for them to return.
At one point, I thought I heard a woman talking somewhere in the distance. Turned out, it was a bee.
At another, I thought I heard the wind rustling all around me.
It was my breathing.
I was so moved, seeing the little cracks in the stone sealed with clay. Whose hands had built those walls? What people lived within them?
Eventually, after gazing out at what remained of a settlement for what seemed like hours (but was perhaps only ten minutes), I turned to leave.
What greatness it was, to stand on the grounds once walked upon by the Anasazi.
Then, snacking on food from my cooler, I slowly made the two hour drive back to my hotel.
I was tired, but so, so happy I’d gone. Earlier, as I was deciding whether or not I wanted to make the drive to Hovenweep, I wondered if I’d simply be exhausted trying to cram in too much in one day. In the end, I thought of the famous saying:
“It’s better do regret the things you’ve done rather than the things you didn’t do.”
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1ST.
Going home is always the hardest part of traveling, but I was determined to make it fun nonetheless.
So on Friday morning, I woke up early, loaded up my car, dropped my hotel keys off at the office, and headed north into Utah up the 163, which curved towards the 191 south that would bring me down into Arizona a different way than how I entered it.
At point point on the 163, the elevation is high enough that you can look behind you and see Monument Valley in the far distance. I kept trying to look, knowing it’d be a long time before I could see it again.
And as I strained to catch every final glimpse I could, I had a realization wash over me.
I’m always going to want to look behind at the amazing experiences I’ve had in life. Why shouldn’t I? I’m lucky to have lived them.
But what I ultimately have to remember is that I’m in a car driving down a windy road and if I’m going to make it to the final destination in one piece, I have to keep my eyes on the path.
What’s ahead – unknown though it may be – must be met.
And it might be better than what I’ve left behind, or I might find myself wishing for what I had before. Both are okay, because they are different. And different experiences mean different opportunities to grow.
So I took one last look at Monument Valley and turned my eyes to the road ahead of me, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what I’d see, but knowing one thing: it was time to keep driving.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I drove through the Utah/Arizona border into my home state down the 191, but looking back, I should have known I’d be going through Navajo country and that I’d be seeing some very eye-opening things.
There’s no way I would have ever known what the small villages I passed through were called unless they’d shown up on my phone as I took pictures. But each of these little towns – some a handful of small shacks, farms, and abandoned cars and a few boasting a population of 1,000 or more – is populated by the Navajo people.
I found myself wondering a great deal about the communities in each of these little places.
Was everyone friendly with one another? Do the residents help out at one another’s farms? Did the kids all visit each other’s houses after school?
Did the townsfolk see white tourists every often, and if they did, what do they think of us?
Did they want for anything? Envy the world beyond their borders? Or were they grateful that they could keep to themselves?
Further south I drove, eventually leaving Apache county, watching the trees become visible then grow.
As I neared Payson, I got the briefest of looks at the greatness of the Mogollon Rim (though I didn’t get that great of a picture!).
Finally, I made it back to the Sonoran Desert. As I entered familiar territory, I knew my trip was over.
After I finally made it home, I sat in memories of sweeping canyons, grasslands that stretched to the horizon, different kinds of trees and ancient ruins and towering red rocks and an enormous sky up above. It’s easy to look back on where you’ve traveled and long to experience it again. I’m certainly guilty of that.
But nothing is ever experienced the same way twice. Nothing remains the same, which is neither good nor bad. It is simply the way of life. And we are never meant to spend our lives traveling the same road.
Around the bend, across the valley, beyond the horizon… there’s always the next one.
Beauty before me, with it I wander
Beauty behind me, with it I wander
Beauty before me, with it I wander
Beauty below me, with it I wander
Beauty above me, with it I wander
Beauty all around me, with it I wander
In old age traveling, with it I wander
On the beautiful trail I am, with it I wander
~ First Song of Dawn Boy, a Navajo prayer