Arizona: Navajo Nation – Monument Valley

The recognizable vistas of a film set for classic Westerns.

Last night we arrived late at Gouldings RV park on the border of Monument Valley, and were escorted to our spot by a very surly security guard. I had wanted to come here ever since I started planning this road trip.

Monument Valley’s instantly recognisable buttes, mesa and wide open vistas has become the quintessential landscape of the Western movie, ever since John Ford made “Stagecoach” with a very young John Wayne. After this Ford,and other film makers, made numerous Western films in and around the valley including such classics as “Fort Apache”, “The Searchers” and more recently “Back to the Future”. For me, having being bought up on a diet of John Wayne movies, this was somewhat of a pilgrimage.

It was extremely apt that we were staying on the Goulding’s RV park. Harry Goulding had moved to Monument with his new wife Leone, he called her “Mike” because, when he wrote her love letters before they were married, he had difficulty spelling her name. They set-up a trading post and began their long relationship with the local Navajo. Then the Great Depression hit and forced a lot of Goulding’s suppliers out of business. He heard that film director John Ford was looking for a location for a new Western movie, and was looking at Flagstaff. With his last $60 Goulding set off to Hollywood with “Mike”to regale John Ford about the suitability of Monument Valley for his new film. Miraculously, by taking out his sleeping bag and threatening to sleep outside the Director’s door until he was let in, he got a meeting with Ford. 10 days later they were on set in Monument Valley making the film “Stagecoach”. The rest is history!

Monument Valley is located on the Utah / Arizona State borders and is set in the Navajo land. Whilst there is a loop road that goes around the valley, it is a dirt track and we decided not to risk our old lady of a Jeep on it. Instead we booked ourselves on a 3 ½ hour escorted tour. Our chariot was an open backed 4 wheel drive truck; we were sitting in the back of the truck bed on some very uncomfortable seats. As we were boarding the skies looked very threatening and there were even a couple of claps of thunder. Undeterred we head for our first stop, a Hogan, along with our fellow travellers; two grandparents and their grandchild from the Netherlands, a German couple and two couples from the US. The Hogan is the traditional dwelling of the Navajo Indians. They are round buildings with a wooden frame structure and covered in mud. This works in the dry deserts of Arizona but would not be suitable for damper climates like the Northwest of the USA or the UK. Waiting inside the Hogan was a Navajo lady who was demonstrating weaving and other crafts, which we watched for several minutes. She demonstrates the traditional method of tying the Navajo ladies long hair in bun on a young lady from New York with greasy hair!

A hogan

It was then time for the main event, a tour of Monument Valley. It’s one of those all so familiar places, with its’ buttes, mesas and open plains. We soon left the paved highway and headed onto the loop around the valley, stopping frequently for photo opportunities. Luckily, the weather had brightened up and the sun poked out its head; the combination of sun and dark clouds set up some dramatic scenes for the camera. One of our favourite places was called John Ford Lookout, which is up high on the rocks with a classic view down into the valley. A local Navajo kindly rode his horse onto an outcrop which gave us yet another photo opportunity.

Storm clouds gathering

Jack in front of one of the mittens

A scene straight from a John Wayne movie

Shortly after this our driver took us off the loop road into areas where special permission is required to visit. Here we were up in the spectacular canyons of the back country.  Among these canyons are wonderfully sculptured arches carved out of the Navajo sandstone by the rain, ice and wind, ruins of buildings constructed hundreds of years ago by the Anasazi and examples of rock art. Jack and Emily particularly liked the huge sand dunes which they enthusiastically climbed and rolled and run down. The route was not as well trodden as the main loop road so there were more bumps, which just added to the experience. As the truck was open to the elements we were soon coated with a fine layer of sand and dust. Finally, the weather began to co-operate and we were treated to the wonderful spectacle of the Monument Valley’s back country illuminated by the soft, early evening sun.

Our transport

Rock paintings

As with all good things our tour came to an end and we returned to the Goulding’s campsite. Several evenings during the week they show John Wayne movies – and that night it was the classic film “The Searchers”, where Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) spend years hunting down the Comanche Chief Chief Cicatrice (Scar) who killed their family and abducted Edwards’ niece. As with many such westerns the plot was questionable and the several scenes were politically incorrect, but it was a good old story and it was wonderful to see many of the areas of Monument Valley we had visited earlier today.

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