The surrounding desert is ablaze in shades of ochre, red and gold as only a desert can be at sunset. Mammoth sandstone icons, named the East and West Mitten Buttes, dominate my field of vision. They are Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park's signature.
In my mind, I see covered wagons circling. Soon campfires begin to flicker, and I hear the clanking of pots and pans as the pioneers settle in for the night.
A cold gust of wind interrupts my reverie. I am once again in the moment. It's hard to believe I am only a few hundred feet from the park's visitors' center. I expected to drive miles off the highway into the desert before glimpsing these legendary monoliths.
Not. They are right before my eyes, lined up in a jagged row just like they are in old west movies. It's surreal and I am truly humbled.
Today my husband and I drove from Moab, Utah, 98 miles south to Mexican Hat, where we will spend the next three nights venturing 22 miles each day to the park. Mexican Hat, named after the rock on its perimeter that looks like a Mexican sombrero, is not a town or a village. It is a settlement with a handful of accommodations and eateries. Only one small cafe stays open year-round.
We're here the last week of October and many places are closing for the season on Nov. 1. Currently we are the only guests at our hotel and personally I like it that way. I don't have to fight the summer crowds.
It's been a long day, but I just couldn't resist coming to the park for sunset. Tomorrow we will be here the entire day and drive the park's 17-mile dirt road, which circles through the sandstone rock formations.
Monument Valley has been on my bucket list for years. Its location on the southern border of Utah with Arizona on Navajo Indian Reservation lands isn't convenient. That is probably why I haven't been here before. Unless you are visiting Utah's canyon lands such as we are, or you have several days to venture northeast of the Grand Canyon, it's not on any major tourist route.
It's this remoteness that also lures me to the area. The area's population is sparse and spread out as are accommodations. Recently the park constructed a beautiful new hotel, The View, inside Monument Valley adjacent to the visitors' center. The hotel recently opened and I envy those staying there.
Every room has its own private balcony with a view of the Mittens. It is sure to be sold out like most other hotels and motels during the high season, April through September. Today, however, we could have nabbed one of its 90 reasonably priced rooms. Had I been aware of its existence, I would have gladly paid a few extra dollars to stay at The View.
When we return to our 80-room hotel, we find another couple checked into the room directly below us. Go figure. The paper-thin walls and floor are no match for the occupants' blasting television and hacking coughs.
Despite a restless sleep, we are up before sunrise and driving back to the valley. On Route 163 a few miles from the park entrance, we see silhouettes of the Mitten Buttes and surrounding mesas. I know I've seen this landscape with a ribbon of road in the foreground featured in many magazines.
The dirt road through the park is uncomfortably rutted and dust choking. We have to be careful with our car and camera equipment, but the excitement of being close to the buttes and mesas is exhilarating. Being the photo hounds that we are, the trip takes us several hours.
We stop to view. We stop to contemplate and we stop to photograph. It's still hard to imagine that these sandstone formations have been standing for eons slowly changed over time by wind and water erosion. Geologists say that the base of all monuments is organ rock shale, which is topped with De Chelley and Navajo sandstone both of which are easily eroded sculpting thin spires and stratified towers. The valley floor is comprised of siltstone, sand deposited by meandering rivers that once flowed through. This area like Utah's canyon lands to the north is part of the Colorado Plateau.
When we return to the visitors' center, we find a young Navajo man in traditional dress. He is waiting for someone to take his picture and he has just found the perfect couple, us. We chat with him first finding out that he is also here to represent his culture. He is a proud, delightful young man who is willing to share with us his dance and Navajo knowledge.
His wife made his costume and he explains what the beading, wristbands and leggings represent. He is a dancer and competes nationally in competitions conducted by different tribal groups throughout the U.S. He shows us a dear hunting dance and we snap away.
He makes a living in this area where jobs are few through winning and placing in dance competitions, and posing for tourists and professional photographers. He hopes by doing this that his children will grow up proud of their heritage and culture, and maybe one day follow in his footsteps.
Only a small area of Monument Valley is open to the public so the following day we arrange for a Navajo guide to show us adjacent Mystery Valley. He comes highly recommended from a fellow photographer we met in Arches National Park near Moab. My husband books to go with him in the morning while I catch up on my writing. The two of us will join him in the afternoon.
The morning trip is moderately successful and I'm wondering if it is worth the hunk of change we will pay for the afternoon, but we decide to go anyway. The gentleman that guides us doesn't seem to be the same one that was recommended, but he is. He is reticent and doesn't answer a lot of our questions. From time to time his humor surfaces, but I long for more information and insights into his culture.
Many of the places he takes us to photograph are either in the shade or direct sunlight resulting in dark and flat photography.
When we return to the visitors' center where he picked us up earlier, the sun has just set in a spectacular, photographer's dream fashion, but the clouds are losing their vibrancy.
Dang. We have been in the wrong place at the wrong time all day long.
But, hey, that's the way it goes when you travel. We have had an incredible visit to Monument Valley and the only way it could have been better would be to stay longer for more photographic opportunities and to stay at the View Hotel.