Popular tourist spots can suffer from Yogi Berra Syndrome. “Nobody goes there anymore,” the Yankee catcher once said. “It’s too crowded.” Attractions like the Mona Lisa, Rome’s Trevi Fountain, or the Taj Mahal act like bug lights, drawing swarms that make appreciation of the site impossible. Even some dubious roadside attractions turn into motorist magnets thanks to well-placed billboards and plenty of ice cream.
Then there’s Monument Valley. It had been a long-time dream of mine to drive through this awe-inspiring area near the Utah-Arizona border. Starting with Stagecoach, a number of John Ford Westerns were filmed there, most notably his classic The Searchers. If you got your history solely from Hollywood you’d think most of the pioneers who made the arduous trek across the American frontier ended up homesteading in this arid landscape. It would be an odd choice unless you were farming postcards. Beautiful as it is with its solitary rock formations rising from the desert like wizards’ castles, Monument Valley will never be anybody’s grain belt.
My day’s drive had been as striking as I can remember, starting in Williams, Arizona with stops along the south rim of the Grand Canyon (also worth a photo or two) and its less famous cousin, the Little Colorado River Gorge. I arrived at Monument Valley around 6:00 p.m.—the perfect time, as the evening light turned the ochre towers and scalloped hills into a sunset made of rock. Just as striking was the silence. Aside from the occasional passing car, I stood amid this grandeur all alone.
Why aren’t there more tourists? It could simply be the isolation—the closest population centre is Kayenta, Arizona (population 5,189 as of 2010). Maybe tourists aiming for this general region get sucked into the gravitational pull of the Grand Canyon. Maybe creating a Thelma & Louise canyon crash ride was just considered too dangerous. Whatever the reason, Monument Valley can be appreciated in a way that so many other of the world’s treasures should be—in glorious solitude. If you’re going, check your water supplies. It could be awhile before you meet another covered wagon.
Photos by Steve Burgess.