Friday, July 22, 2011

Sand, Stone, and Ice Cream

Today was another transition day but unfortunately I don’t have anything nearly as profound to say as I did on Monday.

This morning, after learning that the hotel laundry room was finally operational again, I managed to do all my laundry before the 11am checkout time, before hitting the road and getting myself out of Utah. The goal was to get myself to Page, AZ, which would be my launching point for my day at the Grand Canyon, but of course I had to take the scenic route. This time it was US 191 to US 163 through the Navajo Nation and Monument Valley. You’ve heard of Monument Valley, even if you think you haven’t. When you think of images of the Southwest, you think of Monument Valley. If you watch Doctor Who, or any number of other shows and movies, you’ve seen Monument Valley. And if you haven’t done any of that, take a look at this picture and you’ll have seen Monument Valley:

See? I knew you’ve heard of it before.

As a Tribal Park, Monument Valley is administered by the Navajo Nation, not the US government. So there are some noticeable differences between it and a national park. The infrastructure and educational offerings don’t really measure up, but that’s completely understandable since the Navajo aren’t nearly as well-funded as even the most anemic federal agency, let alone the National Park Service.

One of the most striking aspects of the approach to Monument Valley is the poverty that is very evident in the surrounding areas. In Mexican Hat, the last town before the valley, even the largest houses are little more than double-wide trailers set on foundations. On top of that, the town (and the rest of the reservation, as well) is in the middle of the desert. Today it was 96 degrees at midday and no one thought it was anything unusual. The only source of water that I could discern was the San Juan river. Since the entire area is comprised mainly of sandstone and shale, the water can’t seem into the surrounding ground to be used for drinking or irrigation. Instead, it has eroded a canyon around itself, depressing the water level far below the surrounding towns. In short, the Navajo people’s commitment to its ancestral homeland is rather impressive.

That commitment made me a little nervous about what I would encounter in Monument Valley – a sacred site to the Navajo. I was half expecting all the park employees and officials to be very defensive over use of their people’s land by those who don’t hold it up in the same reverence that they do. I was also half expecting to find people looking to try to climb out of the area’s poverty by taking advantage of us dumb tourists (I mean the “dumb” thing literally. I don’t have a clue about this area and if someone had wanted, they could have convinced me I needed to pay way more than necessary for everything).

Instead, at the clean, modern, well-equipped visitor center, I found friendly inviting young ladies working behind the counters (clearly a summer job) and a very impressive gift shop, stocked with the best variety of quality reasonably-priced stuff I’ve seen anywhere on this trip (including some great refrigerator magnets and classroom posters). I bought more stuff than in most of my stops so far, which I was glad to do, given the conditions of the surrounding towns and knowing that the proceeds go directly to the Navajo nation, but I didn’t feel like I was giving them more money than normal just to be nice. There was really just that much good stuff there.

So now that I’ve gone on ad nauseam about the gift shop, my next stop – the main attraction of the park as far as I was concerned – was the park loop road. I thought that this scenic drive, which is 17 miles long, unpaved at best, and made up of loose boulders at worst, would cost extra on top of admission to the park, but I was wrong, and just drove out from the visitor center.

It’s strange that, from the outside, the area doesn’t really look like a valley, but once you’re inside the mesa walls towering around you make it clear how the region got its name.

Aside from the extreme eastern part of Utah on I-70, this was the most desert-y place I’ve experienced so far. The ground is just sand and dust, with the occasional tumbleweed (yes, real tumbleweed!) rolling by. More than once, I stopped so that a dust devil could cross the road in front of me without showing me what it was capable of doing to a Hyundai.

Dust Devil
Speaking of the car, I feel like I owe it a big thank-you prize for putting up with this road today. It was clearly unhappy with the idea of driving around Colorado Springs, and it has voiced its displeasure at the whole desert thing by allowing its windshield to crack in the heat. On top of that, today its driver put it through the bumpiest road it’s ever seen (and hopefully ever will), covering it with a fine layer of orange dust in the process. Next time I fill up, I think it’s earned itself a tank of premium gas.

So the car and I made it out of Monument Valley, crossed the border into Arizona, and continued on the road to Page.

Well, at least for the first 3 miles into the Grand Canyon State. After that, US 163, the only north-south road within a dozen miles, was blocked in both directions by a Coke truck that somehow managed to slip off the road and into the desert sand, rendering itself unable to move. It required a winch truck to yank the thing back onto the road in a process that took the better part of 45 minutes. About halfway into this endeavor, which wasn’t even all that interesting to watch, people from the van behind me started getting out onto the road to see what was happening. I just assumed that they were more of the European tourists who seem to be everywhere around here this month, gawking at the American-ness of the situation. As I grumbled about them under my breath behind my closed windows, they stopped 2 cars up from me to talk to the driver of what looked to be a refrigerated supermarket truck. A few moments later, they emerged carrying a crate of ice cream bars and proceeded to hand one out to every person in every car waiting in line behind the Coke guy. Just like that, a traffic nightmare of cursing and frustration became a communal bonding experience that everyone could drive away from happy. When we finally did get moving again, I stayed behind the California Chevy in front of me, even though the guy driving was, at some points, doing 15 miles below the speed limit. How could I pass him? That would be rude, since we were ice cream buddies now.

I stayed behind the California car all the 120 miles into Page, until he kept going and I turned into the Safeway parking lot to stock up for tomorrow (I can now happily report that my 3-pound supply of cold cuts has been replenished. I did forget to buy more bread, though.) By the time I got out of the supermarket, it was almost 7pm, so I decided to head to Horseshoe Bend to see how the sunset looked from there.

Horseshoe Bend is a 270-degree meander in the Colorado River just outside of Page (as in 3 miles from my hotel), accessible via a quarter mile hike (which was a bit more strenuous than I expected, since there was a hill of sand halfway through the trail). For almost the entire trail, it looks like you’re just walking through sand and gravel towards nothing.

Then, when you finally reach the end, you look straight down and see that the river has carved 1,000-foot sheer cliffs in the surrounding rock.

The only way to get a picture of Horseshoe Bend in its entirety is to teeter right out to the very edge of the cliff and look down. It didn’t help that it was windy tonight, so for me it involved finding a rock just before the cliff that jutted up, so that I could lean against it and have some assurance that I might not plummet to my death (I have no idea how I’m going to handle Taft Point at Yosemite, where there’s a similar situation by the drop is over 5,000 feet). As it turned out, even at its widest setting, my lens wasn’t really able to capture the entirety of the bend. But the thing is so huge you can’t really blame the camera. For perspective, at the bottom near the center, on the inside bank of the river is a small boat. You’re going to have to blow this one up to full size to see what I mean.

The scenery continues to impress as I approach one of the Big 3 destinations (along with Pikes Peak and Yosemite), the Grand Canyon.

1 comment:

  1. If that car picture isn't a candidate for an ad, I don't know what is!