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Published: July 29th 2017
The sun is out this morning and I head out early to drop the car off for an oil change. I’m surprised to see that we have already traveled over 3,000 miles despite being less than a third of the way across the country. We have clearly been taking the scenic route. The hotel has free bikes and I cycle the mile back from the Garage to eat breakfast. Antonio and the kids have already begun and we enjoy our third and final buffet at the hotel. After we eat, I walk with the kids back across town to pick up the car, giving Antonio time to pack. He’s bought a bigger and improved tarp but its enormous! We fold it approximately four times and make a suitcase burrito. I threaten to cut it but he holds firm.
We head due East out of Kanab on Highway 89. The highway rolls and curves gently following the contours of red desert. Once again, we crest hills to see immense expanses of desert unfold to the horizon. In the distance are flat mesas which end at vertical cliffs, and the road cuts knife straight through scrub brush, sand, dry grasses
and arroyos. Before long we cross into Arizona, our 7th
State for those of you keeping track. In the distance, we see blue water and the highway crosses a deep canyon where the Glen Canyon dam holds back the enormous waters of Lake Powell. How strange to see all that water in the midst of the parched desert. It feels extravagant somehow. Paige Arizona has a wooden sign listing all the different places of worship and I marvel at how a tiny town can afford so many churches – there must be at least 20. From here we take Highway 98 South East and then make a left on Highway 160 towards our destination of Monument Valley. A sign tells us we are now in the Navajo Nation, a huge tract of land which was given to the Native people supposedly in reparation for all the atrocities that were visited upon them. It is semi-autonomous, but the Federal Government still has the ultimate say. The first thing that strikes me about the Navajo Nation is the poverty. Many of the buildings are shacks, home-built or old mobile homes that are rotting away in the desert heat. There are many abandoned
buildings and businesses, some boarded up, others destroyed by vandals. If reparation was the intention, I’m pretty sure we missed the mark.
We stop to eat in Kayenta, Arizona which is a little on the bleak side. A few gas stations and the same scattering of run down businesses, broken down cars, abandoned buildings and houses. Lunch is at the Blue Coffee Pot which in Native culture represents a vessel where friends and neighbors are invited to share. It’s cash only and I wonder if that is a middle finger to Uncle Sam and his taxes? We both order the meatloaf special for $8 and when the food comes I am immediately transported back to an elementary school cafeteria lunch in England. The gravy, the round scoop of homogenous mashed potato along with the bowl of canned green beans are exactly the same as the school lunches of my youth. It’s quite good and very satisfying. We all share and have some salads as well.
After lunch, we turn right onto Highway 160 and almost immediately spy what we came to see. Over the first rise appear the gigantic red monoliths that make up
Monument Valley. They are magnificent! Some are flat topped mesas, others more rounded buttes and then others still make up thin tall fingers called spires. We can see forever and the barren landscape is dotted with these incredible natural sculptures. Roadside stands begin to appear with Indian Jewelry, hand-made baskets and dream-catchers being sold. I’m confused by their use of the word Indian – I thought it was considered offensive and the more politically correct Native American was to be deployed. Further research shows me that the people are split about 50/50 on what they prefer to be called, although it seems that the overwhelming majority prefer to be identified by their specific tribal origins. Fair enough. The landscape is beautiful but I find the roadside stands to be a little sad. I admit to feeling “white guilt” even though I wasn’t even born in this country. I can’t imagine that the locals would feel much towards tourists except hostility, but everyone we interact with are courteous.
We pop back into Utah for the briefest of moments, and then make a right onto Monument Valley road and are back in Arizona again. We pay the entrance fee
and stop at the Visitors Center which is on a bluff above the valley proper and walk over to see the valley. My God! I have never seen anything like it I’m all out of superlatives – just enter a few of your own. The deep red of the formations is set against the lighter, almost pink sand and desert flora and then these monstrous bare rock monoliths rise up seemingly randomly across the valley. It really is breathtaking. We’ve all seen this before in various Westerns, but the reality of it is something else indeed. There is a 17-mile dirt road that tours the valley, no problem for seasoned off-roaders such as ourselves! Besides I just saw a Ford Mustang heading down so I like our chances. The road twists and turns among the monuments and provides an excellent view of many of the main features. It is however, quite rough, and on several occasions, we wonder if the passenger cars haven’t bitten off a bit more than they can chew. We bottom out the luggage carrier in a few spots ourselves. Even here in the valley proper there are a few homesteads – hand built shacks or old
trailers that put a new meaning to the term “roughing it”. Still, I imagine one could put up with a few hardships in exchange for this view. Reluctantly we come to the end of the loop and head back up towards the visitor’s center. I know as we leave that this will be a memory forever burned into my grey matter.
Our destination for the night is Bluff, Utah which is only 45 minutes away. It’s about 3pm so we head East on 160 and enjoy the everchanging desert vista. The desert, as I have learned, is somewhere between a chameleon and magician. As we drive along it changes imperceptibly, yet dramatically. Over each rise you realize you are seeing something completely unique and so different from before, but you could never mark the place where the change occurred. To our left is a sign reading “Valley of the Gods” and from what we can see it is aptly named. Anxious to get out of the car we press on and pass through the hamlet of Mexican Hat. Out the other side and we see the rock formation that lends the town its name. Another of these
incredible balanced rocks, although in my humble opinion this one looks more like an eagle than a Sombrero!
Bluff, Utah is another hamlet with a population of 300. It is set against the bluffs along which meanders the San Juan river (another muddy affair). It’s quite beautiful and we pull in to the Kokopelli Inn, our home for the night. It’s a no-frills motel, but the rooms are clean, the air-conditioner cold, and it includes a free continental breakfast. I ask the clerk for dinner recommendations and am warned we should go to the Cottonwood Steakhouse early as there is drinking there and apparently things get rowdy later in the evening. In Utah?? “What about this place”? I ask holding up a flyer for Duke’s restaurant. “That’s a bit expensive so I don’t recommend it” she says, “unless you want to be rich and fancy”. After we settle in we head for Duke’s preferring rich and fancy to Old West saloon brawl and debauchery. It’s a beautiful restaurant attached to the Desert Rose Inn which is equally lovely. “Your server’s name is Bucket, and this is a dry restaurant, no alcohol” the hostess informs us as we
are seated. I’m much more concerned about the latter statement! The server is from Kyrgystan and is quite nice, the restaurant is indeed dry, but the food is excellent. We have shrimp ceviche, followed by Mahi Mahi and an Anasazi burger. Enjoying our sober status, we head 15 miles back to the Valley of the Gods, figuring we should be in for a good show with the sunset. Once again, a dirt road and almost immediately it goes through a muddy wash. My reward for advice on how to traverse it is to be handed the keys. We cross without incident and the road smooths into graded gravel. The valley is magnificent! More spires, mesas, and buttes haphazardly reach for the sky but this time from a more layered kind of sandstone. We pass an RV and tent setup for the night and are quite jealous. Other than that, we are completely alone. The sun lowers, the light and view are spectacular and a distant thunderstorm flickers lightning. A large wash suddenly appears in the road and it’s clear that the recent rains have taken a toll. The road is completely washed out but it looks passable. We remove the
luggage carrier and tiptoe across with everyone holding their breath. Up the other side and the road becomes more and more washed out. We cross a muddy creek bed that we wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting a week ago, and decide to turn around as the light is fading. I spin out once on the way back, more by curiosity than design, wanting to know just how good the AWD is, but the Acura holds its own through the muddy washes and delivers us safely back to the highway. Antonio is snapping pictures of the distant storm and by luck catches a lightning streak. We keep the windows down and the warm desert night wraps us like a blanket as we head back to the hotel. We pass the Cottonwood Steakhouse and see families with small children seated outside quite sedately. Perhaps all the debauchery happens on the inside? Enough excitement for us already and off to bed we go.
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