“You can’t travel but the first four miles,” says the woman with the soft voice at the entrance to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. “Yesterday’s rain damaged the road.”
“You mean the 13-mile loop road is closed?” I ask in disbelief. “Yes,” came the reply.
Not wanting to miss anything, I feel crestfallen. Driving through Monument Valley was large on my list of travel goals. We buy our tickets committed to seeing what we can. Launching forth we zip over the smooth roadway into the parking lot. Passing the lodge we search for the dirt road that will take us off the mesa and into the valley. We find it, turn right and enter another world.
Our new red Tundra eases over a blend of washed out road and rock as we bounce and weave our way downward into Monument Valley. For a moment I wonder if we made a mistake coming in our own truck. After all, this is a rough dirt road that recently took a pounding from the rain.
Fred points out how much rougher the ride would have been in one of the open-air tour vehicles where the bed of a pickup truck has been adapted with bench seats. Not only do we have comfortable seats but we also have the freedom to stop and go at will. Plus we can get uncrowded photos and we can take our dog Katie.
Once down the hill and into the valley the dirt road improves for a while. It’s about 7:45 in the morning and we rejoice that there are just a few other vehicles on the road. We ride with the windows open much of the time to enjoy the pleasant September morning air.
Everything is red—buttes, mesas, the desert floor. We pass the memorable Mittens, two almost mirror buttes that, well, look like mittens. Scrub brush and rocky terrain cry out for John Wayne or the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
The scene around us is the quintessential western movie set. Not really a valley in the traditional sense, this is a vast desert floor with giant oddities of nature adding intrigue to the distinctly western flavor of the place.
A corral of horses marks the turn to John Ford’s point where native women have set up tables to sell handmade jewelry. According to the woman at the gate, this stop represents the end of the road for us today. Yet we watch as a couple of tour trucks continue onto the loop road we had understood to be closed. Fred chats it up with a local man who is confident that with our high clearance vehicle we will be fine to continue on the loop. Not to be denied, we venture forth.
Yes the road narrows and is at times hard to find amid the ruts but oh what a journey. Moving deeper into the Valley we make a large circle around Rain God Mesa. Memorable places such as the Totem Pole, a very tall but narrow spire, and Elephant Butte that really does look like an elephant, are now forever etched in our minds. Only the road leading to Artist’s Point proved impassable. Yet I’m sure Fred must have earned some sort of merit badge for his flawless driving through muck and rut, over rock, and even through a flooded area.
They say to plan on two hours to travel and view these 17 miles. But two hours fades to three as we soak in the magic of the legendary Monument Valley. Though not allowed to venture far, I trudge through sand and kneel on rock to capture humble photos of scenes made famous by Hollywood.
By the time we leave Valley Drive the traffic has increased notably. Japanese, French, German Dutch and Americans are among those who sit shoulder to shoulder on tour truck benches to venture into the land of the wild, wild, west. Some wear face masks to guard against the red dust. Others sport hats to guard against the sun. All come with cameras and smiles.
Driving up the rough road out of the valley requires a take charge attitude and a little more rattling and jostling than our 11 pound dog finds comfortable. She climbs in my lap and leans close seeking reassurance.
Not surprisingly our adventure left our truck a new shade of red. Fred washed the truck, but I’ve yet to clean the red dust from just inside my window. Silly I know but it makes me smile.
A man on horseback adds the finishing touch to our Monument Valley experience.