A Navajo Gem: Photographic Mining at Monument Valley

I visited a spot last year in the U.S. Southwest that filled my imagination as a child. This was a place I’d seen only in drawings and animated in cartoons by Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble, until I realized at some point, I’m not sure exactly when, that the red rock buttes and mesas really existed. Unfortunately, there was no Road Runner speeding across the landscape thwarting elaborate traps designed by Wile E. Coyote in hopes of capturing that fast, fast fowl using products and supplies mail ordered from the fictitious, but vastly stocked, Acme, Co. Of course, I am describing Monument Valley situated along the Utah and Arizona borders, one of the most recognizable spots in the Southwest.

Years ago I passed through the area while part of a team of 10 supporting a cyclist competing in Race Across America, but it was dusk as our caravan of three vehicles arrived and there was no time for touring. As I recall, I spent the night awake editing video segments in an RV, largely unaware of the beauty surrounding me. I promised myself I would return.

The photographic epicenter of this area, if it’s possible to pick one, is the East and West Mittens located in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, as well as the now equally iconic landmark 15 minutes away on the way to Mexican Hat commonly referred to as Forrest Gump Point, where the Tom Hanks’ character stopped his coast-to-coast-to-coast run along US Highway 163 in front of a line of iconic buttes and spires.

To be as close as possible to the formations, I chose to stay at The View Hotel, perched perfectly atop a plateau overlooking the famous buttes that resemble a left and right mitten jutting out from the ground.  From this vantage the two buttes are flanked on the right by Merrick Butte, each seemingly perfectly spaced from the other, but at different depths.  I couldn’t help but attempt a nighttime shot from the balcony (each room has good view) because we arrived late and the sky is so dark the buttes are lost in the blackness.  I knew they were out there.

We visited in early March so the air was still cold. The overall area has been experiencing greater precipitation and flooding in the last few years. There is a 28 mile gravel road looping the buttes for cars to explore the area, but many venture out on foot, as well. Group and private tours are also offered by Navajo approved groups and some will take you beyond the standard loop to see deeper into the Navajo countryside. I’ve never visited in the summer months, so I can’t speak to how hot it must get here during that time.

I scheduled a guide with Phillips Photography Tours for sunrise. Tule (pronounced like the Swedish car box brand) met me in the lobby of the hotel and within minutes we were headed down the dirt and gravel road beyond where tourist are allowed to venture on their own. The mittens were starting to emerge from the darkness. The tour owner had been thorough enough to send me an email the night before to let me know the weather was likely to be very cloudy at our original meeting time, so we pushed the start time to a little later. Tule took me out to the Totem Pole, a red rock spire once, and probably last, climbed by Clint Eastwood as he filmed the movie Eiger Sanction in 1974. The film industry has had a long love affair with Monument Valley ever since John Ford started featuring the area in John Wayne Westerns back in the 1930’s. It was indeed a cloudy morning, so sunrise wasn’t much to brag about, but it didn’t matter. I spent several hours moving from spot to spot taking photos of the landscape and other details I found interesting.

After lunch, Tule took me out for a second tour of a different area within Monument Valley.  Slowly and carefully we made our way up to a higher vantage point.  Somehow he maneuvered the vehicle to the top of a mound that I wouldn’t have thought possible.  What had started as a cloudy day had evolved into a John Ford Western worthy sky—sunny with patches of puffy clouds drifting between the vastness and the buttes providing a greater sense of drama and depth to my photos.

Totem Pole (Nikon750, 24-70mm, ISO 100, f 9.0, 1/125)

Driving around we passed several homesteads where Navajo families live within the shadows of these red rock buttes and mesas familiar to the world.  Often these homes have no electricity or plumbing but they’ve lived in these locations for years and years with no desire to leave even though conditions can be severe, especially as the residents advance in age and the roads become impassable at times during the winter.  Tule spoke of these elder residents with great respect.  There is a strong effort within the Navajo community to preserve their culture for younger generations to witness and practice.  Tourism and patronage of places such as The View Hotel and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park are ways to support the greater Navajo community.

Nikon D750, 24 -70mm, ISO 100, f16, HDR 1/30, 1/60, 1/125
Tule and Peter

We retreated back to The View Hotel restaurant and enjoyed a comforting meal which was perfect—not fancy but filling and very good.  I had a soup and could barely stay awake from a very full day of photography.  I was up before dawn the next morning heading to Page, AZ to run the Antelope Half Marathon the following day.  I wished I had another day there. I timed it so I arrived before dawn at Horseshoe Bend part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (https://pawpromedia.com/2019/09/22/ledges-laces/), and then headed for an adventure in White Pocket, atop of Paria Plateau (http://pawpromedia.com/2019/03/31/lunar-like-landing-at-white-pocket-and-south-coyote-buttes/).

My next post will address whether to keep or cancel future travel plans amid the national quarantine related to COVID-19. I’ve got some decisions to make, too. Look for it soon. Goodness knows I have plenty of time to write it!

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Phillips Photography Tours: https://monumentvalleyview.com/navajo-guided-tours/

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