Monument to nature


Monument to nature

Monument Valley, along the Arizona-Utah border, captures the heart and reinforces the idea that nature is the most accomplished artist

By Charukesi Ramadurai

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Published: Thu 31 Oct 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 Nov 2019, 1:00 AM

Forrest Gump ran and ran and finally came to a stop at this point. Fans of the movie remember the immortal line, "I'm pretty tired. I think I'll go home now" uttered by actor Tom Hanks playing the titular role of Forrest Gump. Some of them also remember the stunning backdrop to the scene, the first sight of Monument Valley, with this vast expanse of the red and rocky Colorado Plateau like arms stretched out in warm welcome. As I watch, tourists get off their cars in the middle of the road to capture this iconic scene for posterity on their cameras, standing where Gump himself did.
Way before Forrest Gump though, in 1939, director John Ford discovered Monument Valley's charm and presented it to the world in his classic Western Stagecoach, starring John Wayne (who famously said, upon first laying eyes on the land, "so this is where God put the West"). The director shot no less than eight films in this landscape, so it comes as no surprise that there is a John Ford's Point inside. It is the precipice deep inside the heart of Monument Valley, where Johnny Depp, playing the lone ranger, stood with his horse in the eponymous movie (2013). Six years later, I stand at the same spot, and next to me, there is a Navajo man on a horse, in classic cowboy costume; for a small fee, eager tourists get themselves photographed on his horse, wearing his hat.
Film historian Scott Eyman once said about Monument Valley, "There are certain places in the world that seem like special effects, they don't seem real. They're too perfect." Of course, if John Ford saw that perfectness, the things a visitor sees today are very different. For instance, the souvenir stalls set up by Navajo women at various points, promising not just an authentic piece of their culture, but also the convenience of paying with a credit card!
Obviously, my trip to Monument Valley was not on horseback, but in a rented car. I was on a road trip with a friend across a few national parks in Utah, ending at this Navajo Nation Reservation spot deep down in the state. Most people drive up from Arizona or Nevada, hiking at the Grand Canyon and a possible pitstop at Antelope Canyon, too. On my route though, Monument Valley is the proverbial off-the-beaten-track stop, located right on the border between Utah and Arizona, in the Four Corners region of America's wild Southwest.
In this stark desert landscape, it is difficult to believe that civilisation existed since 1200 BC, with the ancient Puebloans and then the Navajo people making it home. More than 250,000 of the latter still live on this land, the 16 million acres of what seems like barren space known collectively as Navajo Nation. In a minor nod to their status as an indigenous people, Monument Valley has been named a Tribal Park and left in their care, instead of a National Park under the purview of the federal government.
Even though I have driven and hiked through other red rock parks in the region, Monument Valley still takes my breath away with its fierce barrenness, broken only by the dramatic geological formations known as buttes (pronounced byoot, these are short hillocks with steep sides and flat tops) and mesas (may-sa, similar to buttes but broader). I had various options for exploring this "Valley of the rocks", as it is translated from its original Navajo name of Tsé Bii Ndzisgaii. I could drive through it in my own car in a single day, stay over at the resort inside the park, or take a half day tour with a Navajo guide from a licensed company. I choose the last option with Goulding's, not just since I had limited time in hand, but also since this tour gets me to scenic spots otherwise restricted to tourists.
And so we set off on a partially open four-wheel drive, a motley group of tourists from all over the world, with Don doubling up as driver and guide. When I ask about his westernised name, he explains that Navajo people do not call out their own names, and that formal names are considered precious and sacred, to be used only during ceremonies. Just one of the many things we are superstitious about, he adds with a guffaw. Given how persecuted the tribe has been in the history of the country, I am constantly amazed at how easily Don laughs at himself and his people, smiling gently even when he talks to me later about how relations with the country's political powers remain fragile.
By the time we drive a few hundred metres on the dirt track, all of us are covered in a thick layer of red sand, the swirling dust tickling my nostrils and sending it into a sneezing frenzy. But the landscape is much too spectacular for me to worry about mild annoyances and I decide to just grin and bear it for the next few hours. We start off on the 17-mile loop referred to as the Valley Drive, the only part of the park that visitors can access without a guide.
All the major landmarks here have names, some in simple English, such as the two impressive monoliths - the East and West Mittens, the three tall and oblong red rocks sandwiched together - the Three Sisters, and of course, John Ford's Point with the Mittens visible at a distance. And then there are the more evocative names, likely translated from an indigenous language: Sun's Eye and Ear of the Wind, for instance.
The Mittens are the most recognised vista inside the park and the most easily accessed, but that in no ways means they are not special. Forget me, but even the multigenerational family of Americans from the east coast declares that they had not expected this kind of grandeur. As I stand squinting in the bright midmorning sunlight, I can see these rocks change hues, now a golden russet and two minutes later, a blood red. Ditto for spots like Moccasin's Arch and the Sun's Eye, natural arches created by the erosion of stone over a period of time that is tough to even understand; the sky remains a constant ink blue but the rocks seem shapeshifting, living beings.
Long after I return home, I come across this description of Monument Valley's rocks by renowned 19th century geologist Clarence Dutton - "They are deep, rich and variegated, and so luminous are they, that light seems to glow or shine out of the rock rather than to be reflected from it."
Indeed, if the topography is magnificent to start with, the sanguine desert sunshine adds a patina of mystery to it. Even at first glimpse, it is impossible not to wonder, how many millions of years have these mesas and buttes, arches and abysses stood here, in this exact spot, in these exact shapes. But as I realise quickly, fleeting glimpses and flying visits are just not enough to experience Monument Valley. This is a part of the world that captivates, that captures both the mind and the heart, that reinforces the idea that mother nature is the most accomplished artist there is. And it is easy to understand why the Navajo people prefer to call themselves Diné, meaning "people of the earth".

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