Few places live up to their promotional photographs, and even fewer exceed them. I arrived in Monument Valley expecting to be impressed by the famous landscape, not to be deeply affected by it. But there’s something else going on here – something spiritual.
The buttes and mesas of Monument Valley have a kind of resonance – a bit like the distant hum of calm that I feel when I’m near Table Mountain. That much ancient rock in such an uncanny configuration, affects me in a way I can’t describe.
This was the view from our hotel room:
I’m an atheist and generally a sceptic of all things superstitious, but looking out over that red plain I felt like those three buttes were drawing my eye magnetically. The day we arrived was brilliantly clear and still, with no glare, so you could just stare out at them. And stare I did. No photograph – professional or otherwise – can do this landscape justice.
A couple of days later I took a sunrise walk near one of the buttes (West Mitten butte to be precise) and I was struck again by the deep tranquility and majesty of the place.
Monument Valley is on Navajo land, inside their tribal trust lands (aka the “reservation”). They consider this a sacred place, and after visiting I do too. I don’t exactly know what “sacred” means – but like Table Mountain, I know there’s something indefinable and special about the energy of this valley.
I was secretly excited to meet some Navajo people. The hotel (appropriately named The View) is owned and run by Navajo, and so I met plenty. I wasn’t disappointed so much as unexpectedly saddened. A display in the little museum explained that 40% of Navajo live below the poverty line, and that the average family income is around $23,000 – less than a third of the US average.
I’ve wrestled with my feelings about this. On the one hand I don’t want to be patronising and paternalistic. I wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a seven-foot-tall Big Chief Mighty Claw or any other variation on the noble savage schtick. On the other hand, I just couldn’t shake a feeling of deep sadness.
The people I met were mostly ordinary American kids with braces and acne who just happen to be Navajo as well. But everywhere there’s a sense of defeat in the air, of resignation and fatalism. That made all the pictures and statues of a noble Navajo past more tragic than heroic for me.
I doubt the folks at The View would agree with my white man’s angst. They’re getting on with running a decent hotel and making a better life for themselves. It’s no Ritz, but it’s comfortable, clean and the food is plentiful and hearty.
And yet, staring out across that red plain, I couldn’t help but ache. I’m glad I could visit their sacred lands, but I feel like an intruder, and a member of the race that betrayed and smashed their ancestors. Clearly white guilt follows you wherever you go, particularly if you over-think everything.
When I went on my early morning hike around West Mitten butte, I was joined by a stray dog. I felt a bit like Homer Simpson in the episode where he eats a psychedelic chilli pepper and a spirit guide in the shape of a coyote (voiced by Johnny Cash) arrives to help him through the spirit world.
As you would expect from my spirit guide, he was excitable, easily distracted and fond of urinating on everything. He followed me the whole way around the butte, leaping about one minute, chasing a lizard the next and resting under a bush the next.
When we reached the end of the walk I found a old fast food container and fed him the rest of my water. As I walked back to the hotel we reached an invisible line where he stopped, watched me for a moment, and then turned back into the valley.
Normally I would worry about the silly mutt out there in the desert. But somehow I know he’s going to be ok. Like the Navajo he comes from that red land. And like them, he doesn’t need my help or my pity. Just my respect.