Monument Valley: Heaven and Earth

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John Ford’s Point, Monument Valley. The famous director would spend hours in his director’s chair here, developing scenes to shoot later.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to visit Monument Valley. I’ve long been familiar with it, because it serves as the jaw-dropping backdrop for some of director John Ford’s most iconic westerns – Stagecoach, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande etc. And it’s a photographer’s dream, especially if you don’t mind early mornings, chilly sunsets and gusty winds blowing fine orange grit into your eyes and mouth. (What’s so bad about that?)

When I decided to go to Arizona for Spring Training in February, I thought I should finally check it out.

The six-hour drive from Scottsdale is straight but hilly, and traffic in the off-season is light. Sparse, in fact. I used cruise control on the highways – a delightful thing for someone from the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic is always stop-and-start.

Before my trip, I hadn’t realized that Monument Valley Tribal Park is the property of the Navajo Nation. I was shocked to see tribe members’ homes sprinkled at the base of the massive rock formations. I can’t imagine having such stunning views from my kitchen window.

The Valley is a quiet place, with few restaurants, no bars and only a handful of hotels. I stayed at Goulding’s Lodge on the Arizona/Utah border, just a five-minute drive from the Park. It’s surrounded by big rocks that take your breath away, but otherwise looks like a standard motel. It’s clean, and has laundry, a pool, one restaurant (no booze) and even a tiny gym.

thumb_IMG_6017_1024Goulding’s also offers guided tours led by Navajo tribe members. I chose the half-day tour that takes in sections of the Park visitors can’t access on their own. I returned the next day to revisit my favorite, publicly-accessible areas, at my own leisurely pace.

There are two things that really set Goulding’s apart. First is the history of the place, reflected in its Trading Post Museum. It is chock full of Hollywood memorabilia, including hotel registers signed by Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Ward Bond and others. It also celebrates the lives of its founders, Harry and Leone “Mike” Goulding. In the 1930’s they pitched Monument Valley to John Ford as the perfect western movie location… and the rest is Hollywood history.

Even better, Goulding’s shows John Wayne movies shot in Monument Valley every night of the week! Stop by the screening room at 8 p.m., and you’ll be treated to Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers. It’s the perfect place to geek out among like-minded travelers bitten by the Monument Valley bug, who whisper the names of rock formations whenever they make an appearance.

“West Mitten!”

“Elephant Butte!”

“Three Sisters!”

It’s hard to choose favorite photos from my two amazing days in Monument Valley – especially day two, when the light and clouds changed minute to minute.

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I’m also surprisingly fond of these two. They aren’t pretty but they remind me that I nearly didn’t get any photos at all! I somehow, unknowingly shattered my UV filter the night I arrived. The next morning, my first photo was wonky – like the filter was smudged. I pulled out my lens cloth, looked down and…

It took me a few light-headed, heart-pounding minutes to realize my Canon lens – which I pamper like a newborn – was unharmed. Apropos of my environment, I was reminded of old westerns, when a Bible a cowboy is carrying in his pocket stops a bullet from a bad guy’s gun.

Call it frontier luck. Yee-haw.

The next day, on the way to the Grand Canyon, I drove 150 miles out of my way to the only camera store around (in Sedona) to pick up a new filter.

I will NEVER be without a UV filter going forward. EVER. That one saved beloved “Big Barbara” (my lens) — as well as the best photography vacation I’ve ever taken.

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