I left Arizona on Sunday, half-safe after my first Covid shot, and headed east to Monument Valley in Southern Utah. If you haven’t been to Monument Valley, you’ve probably seen it in films. It was first featured in “Stagecoach,” 1939, with John Wayne. Since then, the Valley’s spectacular sandstone formations have been the setting for more than a dozen classics, including “Thelma and Louise” and “Forest Gump.”
The best way to see Monument Valley is to visit a park that belongs to the Navajo Nation, now closed because of the pandemic. But I learned that Goulding’s Lodge provides tours outside the park about what’s inside, so I booked a room there and reserved a spot on the tour. Goulding’s has been in the Monument Valley for almost 100 years. The view from my hotel room was timeless.
I chose the sunset tour to avoid riding on the back of a flat bed truck the next morning, when the temperatures would be in the mid-30s. Our tour guide, Leon, took us to some out-of-the-way places and shared stories about the history of the Valley, like how Metallica filmed “I Disappear” on top of a sandstone butte that’s barely big enough for a drum set. Leon is Navajo and talked about how his community has struggled to retain its religion, language, and relationship with the earth. He worked in the Texas oil fields for many years because there are so few jobs on the reservation. During those years, Leon didn’t see his children very often, but he wouldn’t move them from the reservation to Texas because he wanted them to know their Navajo traditions. When the children became adults, they left for Salt Lake City and Denver, but Leon is proud that they took their Navajo culture with them.
After my tour of Monument Valley, I drove 20 miles to Mexican Hat, a much-loved rock formation near the San Juan River. Locals say the rock is what’s left of a young Mexican who was courting the wife of a Navajo medicine man. I joined a couple of people staring at the rock in silence, which was enough.
The Navajo reservation is the only place I’ve visited in Arizona or Utah (or California for that matter) with a very obvious campaign to promote public health. Masks are never optional. Posters and billboards describe safety rules in English and Navajo. A greeter aims a thermometer gun at you at the door of the grocery store. I assume this vigilance reflects the community’s strong cultural identity and the losses the community has so far suffered. Medical care is not taken for granted on the reservation, where services may be dozens or hundreds of miles away. Making matters more urgent, many are skeptical about the vaccine. The Navajo have plenty of reasons to distrust the US government. https://www.npr.org/2020/12/21/948873771/native-americans-express-skepticism-over-covid-19-vaccine
I left Monument Valley sooner than I might have, hoping to beat the storm moving into the Southwest. On my way back to Arizona, I saw a few of the dozens of reservation murals depicting some aspect of Navajo culture….
…And reminding us that the struggle isn’t over.
Driving across the vast expanse of the Navajo reservation’s Painted Desert reminded me how I am alone on this journey. The feeling was different from the one I got driving through California’s Mohave Desert, which, if it were a noise, would be an echo. The desert of the Navajo Nation is a bird song. It’s not a place of loneliness but of solitude, full of the Navajo spirit. Every rock and hill has a name and a story. As Leon says, it’s all connected and a part of something bigger.