Coming of Age at Monument Valley

December 29th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Hanging out in Monument Valley.

John was getting more than a little frustrated at my map-reading skills as he steered us onward. Frustration won out, and he pulled off to the side of the highway not only to get a final view of magnificent Grand Canyon, but also to turn the wheel over to me. It was about time; I took the reins, and he headed to the kids’ zone at the rear of the RV.

In the driver’s seat, I noticed something was remiss. Music. I popped in the Indigo Girls, then barreled onward to Monument Valley. It was a perfect choice. I’ve always felt connected to this genre of music: reflective, yearning, insightful. And just fun. It reminded me of my desire for more out of life, while savoring what I already have. One such refrain from “Closer to Fine”:

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in a crooked line

And the less I seek my source for some definitive 

The closer I am to fine.

I hit replay. This sort of lyrical connection transcended to other artists like Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman, and emerging, equally dynamic ones (which my husband and 12-year-old son play over and over) such as Chris Pureka and Danielle Ate the Sandwich. For now, the Indigo Girls were just the right fit as we traversed through more incredible landscape.

Monument Valley is, coincidentally, the name of the middle school that my son is attending. It’s his first year there, sixth grade, and the challenges and promises and dreams of the future are just emerging in his psyche. It’s quite different than where he had been attending classes, at an elementary school down the street in a village within the Berkshires, with one class per grade, and with peers who were quite respectful but not connecting with him. They seem preoccupied with hunting, guns, going out with dad, tracking game, and, just to mix it up a bit, daggers, knives and other instruments to prey. That is very much a part of reality among quite a few individuals in this area, but my reality lies elsewhere.

It was a tough decision, this changing schools, with inspirationals such as the larger-than-life 5th grade teacher Mr. Keller, and the talented, somewhat (lovingly) scattered and tremendously supportive music teacher Ms. Petty pulling us back. (When I was in 5th grade, teachers like Mr. Hostetler at Farmingville Elementary School in Ridgefield, Conn., nurtured my love for writing and for learning, two important elements in my trade as a journalist.) Despite the exceptional teachers and the school’s close proximity, I knew that Richard had to move on and we had to mix it up a bit, introducing him to kids from all over and a jazz band program that was unequal in the region. He was at the edge of entering adult reality, trying to figure out and explore life, and we wanted to open the door a bit wider for him before he stepped in.

My thoughts veer back to the road. This remote corner in northeastern Arizona is staggering in its beauty. I have also never seen so many mobile homes peppering the stark landscape, which, although breathtaking, seems as inhabitable as the lunar landscape. The mobile homes look pristine next to the few rundown wooden structures barely able to stand up. It’s a harsh life here: little work, land where farming is futile, and a sense of utter remoteness. The juxtaposition of these box homes seemed out of place against the scale of beauty where they inhabited, with natural temples borne out of sand, and where desert life in any form or species has got to have it rough.

I have read about the mesas in Lonely Planet Guide to Southwest USA, and have come across that term and another one that is not so dreamy — butte — in other readings. If I were to write a guide book and came to this section of the journey that lies along Highway 163 on the Arizona-Utah border, I would put aside my more descriptive inclinations and put down the following: Go to Monument Valley! You have to make the stop and stay overnight. Your life will be completely changed and you will realize the grandeur of this universe. It’s indescribable.

A magnificent mesa within Monument Valley.

As I watch John photograph the monoliths that night, shifting from one spot to another with his lens on his tripod, I am struck with the thought that even he won’t capture the essence that surrounded us. It’s too huge. It’s too overwhelming, and the magnitude is too awesome to encapsulate in a single image. Or two. Or more. And I sit outside our RV at the edge of several buttes, with a glass of wine in one hand, my head up to the sheet of stars covering the sky, and a group of people sitting by a campfire talking about their day in the near distance, it suddenly strikes me. The enormity of the sky, the stars, the moon, have found their balance in the largess of the mesas that lay before me. And the Grand Canyon that I experienced for the first time just a few days ago has now found a balance. My concept of dimension and size have been blown out of the water. The vast ocean, the endless sky, the moon and the sun have found companions on earth with these natural wonders.

I took a three-hour tour the next day with a Navajo woman named Hope, who was barely voting age, and we climbed into a beat-up jeep that took us across the sand dunes and into the land of the gods. Her slight physique and gentle talk was transformed into this focused, almost possessed guide who took control of some of the roughest terrain that I have ever driven through. As I careened from left to right, trying with all my might to keep from being jettisoned into the landscape, I was struck by the revelation that I was actually not in a foreign country.

I was mildly impressed when Hope spouted off butte trivia. John Wayne made films out here, she said as she pulled into a makeshift tourist stop. And there he was: A life-sized photo cutout of the Duke in all of his cowboy regalia was looking out from a glassless window within a makeshift plywood cluster of buildings where Navajo-made silver and turquoise jewelry was sold. I was aching for a cold Diet Coke and eyed an oasis of a cooler in front of one of these structures. A handwritten sign in front of it said, “Cold Drinks.” Here was my chance. I questioned its validity, though, when I was within a meter of it and a half-sleeping man sat nearby, his chair pitched on its two back legs. “Not cold, only water,” he said. I had to see for myself. I opened the lid and there they were, two bottles of water at the bottom of a bone-dry cooler. Bummer.

The Duke makes a reappearance.

I had some time to talk to Hope as our children tumbled again and again down the sand dunes. She graduated early from high school and needed to make money to go to business school. At first she wanted to be a veterinarian, but channeled that desire into helping stray dogs and other animals in her Navajo community by one day opening up a business. There are plenty of stray dogs roaming these tourist points and campgrounds, scavenging food. It was reminiscent of our days traveling around the Yukatan Peninsula in Mexico, where dogs were left to fend for themselves. My sister, our travel partner at the time, befriended a dog and named it Celestune, which we still talk about.

Hope continued on her tour-guide rhetoric, noting that Metallica made a music video atop one of the mesas, on a restricted area only accessible by helicopter and adventurers driven to scale the steep inclines. Tom Cruise filmed a piece of his Mission Impossible 2 over there. And Clint Eastwood even scaled one of the tall fingers for one of his flicks.

Now it was my children’s turn at stunt making. They tumbled down again and again the steep sand dunes, rolling out of control with the fine crimson dust splaying from their tiny bodies and long hair. They scaled the base of these monuments and looked even more diminutive than they already were, but just as fearless as Tom or Clint. To do all this in the playground of the gods was something I hope they keep with them for a lifetime. We stopped at different sandstone formations with names such as Sun’s Eye and Ear to the Wind, and for each of them I had to throw my head back and look up to the sky to take in the massiveness.

And the small details are just as inspiring: a small creek running through the sandy terrain, a smattering of greenish of green bushes and flowers, their colors vibrant despite their diminutive size against the massive backdrop. Wholly cow.

I was transported back 20 years ago  — was it that long ago?  — when I stood at the precipice of a valley in the chilly early morning hours in Nepal, struck by the emerging beauty of the Himalayas. Another wholly cow. Here we are at Monument Valley, with just a third of a tank of water left in the RV tank, no water source to hook up to, and all of us caked in red sandy dust. The plan was to strip naked outside the van in the darkness, brush off as much of the earth as possible and then shower in the closet-sized bathroom by turning the water on and off between sudsing. The boys’ faces were thickly painted with the red sand, and they quite possibly swallowed a good handful during their tumbling escapades.  When all was said and done, when everyone was washed, I fried up homemade burgers and baked beans for dinner, we ate outside under velvet black sky punctured by incredibly bright stars and called it a night.

Wandering through the land of the gods.