It was raining a little in Cortez when we woke up, but by the time we left the motel all was clear. Fearing that we might not find much available in the way of lunch, we decided to skip the motel’s free “toast bar” and eat bacon, eggs, and pancakes at a small local diner named Pippo’s, which we had prudently located the previous night after dinner.
We found the small county road we had decided on, and it proved to be a smooth and pleasant drive through cattle country. There were small mesas and buttes in the distance, but the lower land near the road had enough grass to sustain the cattle that we saw dotting the landscape. At once place a woman on a horse, dressed as you’d expect in a cowboy hat, rough jacket, and jeans, was herding cattle into a corral with the help of a dog. We soon crossed the state line, entering both Utah and the Big Rez — the huge Navajo reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Despite my fears that the route wouldn’t be clearly marked (based mostly on what I had seen using Microsoft Streets & Trips, where the route seemed to get a new number at every intersection), we had no difficulty following it from the state line to Aneth, UT. The many route numbers in the software (“BIA 5066,” etc.) were assigned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and probably the Navajos paid no attention to them; they weren’t shown on any signs. But the main road to Aneth, where we picked up Utah Rte 163 toward the north end of Monument Valley, was clear to see and easy to drive.
Even before we left Colorado, we had noticed the landscape becoming more desert-y and butte-ish, and this development continued as we went along. We could see the Navajos’ small houses and trailers among the dusty buttes, and here and there we passed little oil wells pumping dutifully. Just before Mexican Hat we saw a ridge side eroded in an undulating pattern of three colors (reddish, greenish, and grayish) that looked like a giant snakeskin. We missed a chance to photograph this, although a minute later we stopped to take pictures of the rock Mexican Hat is named for. The “snakeskin” formation is partly visible in those pictures, but a lot of it was out of sight behind rocks in the foreground.
After Mexican Hat, we began to see the big red standing buttes that are typical of Monument Valley. They are the remains of an ancient sea floor that has eroded away, leaving these remnants standing tall above the modern desert. The most spectacular formations are in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which we reached a little after noon.
We decided to have lunch in the restaurant at the park’s visitor center. (So much for the fears that had driven us to eat a big breakfast.) I ate my first Navajo taco, in which the tortilla is replaced by fry bread. (Dorothea tasted this and declared it to be nothing but fried dough — which is true enough, but it’s so authentic! It’s what real Indians eat!) The fry bread was a flat disc the size of the plate, and the chili, cheese, beans, shredded lettuce, tomato, olive slices, and daub of sour cream were heaped on top. One eats this with a knife and fork rather than attempt the impossible task of picking it up. The taco included so many vegetables it was almost a salad, and I found it quite pleasant. I didn’t know how typical this single sample might be, and thought I might enlarge my sample if the chance came up again, but somehow it never did.
After lunch we set out on a self-guided tour, and spent the next three hours driving the loop road through the park and stopping to take great numbers of pictures. Monument Valley is a spectacularly beautiful place — we felt privileged to be there. As Dorothea said, it’s not at all hard to feel that one is on sacred ground. The esthetic effect came not only from the long vistas and the fantastic shapes, but also from the details of cracked and sheared surfaces and heaped boulders. And also from the surrounding desert, which because of recent rains showed much green and the occasional blue tint of wildflowers. Flowers were everywhere we went, yellow, blue, purple, orange — not thick enough or large enough to dominate the scene, but fresh and lovely in their small, quiet way. I don’t know what blue flower was growing out there in such profusion that you could see it from miles away. The camera didn’t quite pick it up, but the blue was unmistakable to our eyes.
Back at the visitor center, where we made a final rest stop, we found three Navajo men sitting around a drum, which two of them played while all three were chanting. Before I could get my camera out, the song ended and one of them went away, but I did catch the remaining two as they began a new song.
After a short drive to Kayenta we reached the Hampton Inn at about half past five. Finding an unexpected washer and dryer there, we did laundry and also charged all of our six sets of camera batteries. Dorothea had had battery problems toward the end of the day, and for the last half hour in the tribal park she hadn’t been able to take pictures at all.
The laundry took a long time — mainly because I failed to press the start button on the dryer, a mistake that cost us three quarters of an hour and an extra dollar — so we didn’t eat until nearly nine. We were waited on in the motel’s dining room by a shy-mannered Navajo girl. She wore a red dress in traditional style with a silver concha belt and lots of matching bracelets. The main course, a special slow-cooked lamb shank, was great, though the supporting mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables were less interesting. Still in quest of authentic Native American experiences, I ordered fry bread with honey, which the menu said was a traditional Navajo dessert. The fry bread (a big disk like the one my taco was served on) was hot, fresh, and delicious with honey, even if the honey did have to be squeezed out of four little cellophane packets — a messy process, as was eating the honey-dripping bread. I’m sure that a Navajo could have managed the business with more finesse, at least if the honey wasn’t in packets.
This section last updated 12-13-2004