Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Monument Valley

Last night we returned from a four day trip to Monument Valley.

We began early Thursday, heading south on 101 before cutting across the Central Valley on a busy two-lane truckers road. Then from Bakersfield we shot to Barstow where we joined I-40, bypassing Route 66 to make time for our ultimate destination: Flagstaff. That's right, we planned for about 12 hours on the first leg of the trip. The highlight of the day was a stop at Kelcy's Cafe in Tehachapi. "What can I getcha Babies?" introduced us to a goofy, pleasant vibe. And the cherry pie was pretty good too.

We pulled into Flagstaff around dinnertime but focused first on photographing and videotaping some cool Route 66 signage. I hear that the Saga Motel is not an ideal choice for lodging, but the blinking green sign is a must-see. We also delighted to find that the animated wagon of the Western Hills Motel still lights up at night. Dinner brought us to the Route 66 Dog Haus, a drive-thru that serves some of the tastiest franks I've tried.

We expected a four-hour trip on Friday north to Monument Valley, and were happy to learn that we overestimated the time. About 2 1/2 hours later, we joined my beloved Highway 163 and began to thread our way through the weird and awe-inspiring red buttes. Overhead, the clouds advanced with the promise of adventuresome weather, but we found enough time to grab one of my favorite shots of a walk along the road (first picture of this post) that leads back to the Mittens.

We stayed at The View, which is located inside the Navajo property nearest the grand structures. We splurged on a third-floor "Starview" room, though I don't think I'd spend the money for that particular indulgence again. The stars are just as "viewable" from the second and first floor balconies. That said, the room was large, clean, and comfortable.

By the early afternoon the winds were picking up and a dust storm threw the monuments into a gray haze. Undaunted, we drove the 17 mile loop road through the towering rocks, bouncing and jostling with every rut and gully. The storm pounded the car with flying sand, and while I'd normally be pretty upset at this turn, I had to enjoy the adventure of it all. I could tell that Jenny was more concerned though, since she's really come to love the light and color of the Valley. We both hoped to take lots of pictures, but we couldn't be confident about the weather.

Finishing our drive, we got into our room and decided on a nap, hoping that the dust would diminish in early evening. Sure enough, the blue sky began to smile upon us by about six and the haze started to abate. We took another tour of the loop road, gazing upon the sunburnt rocks. At Artist's Point, we surveyed the entire valley with its green scrub and orange towers. To me, it looked like a landing zone for alien spacecraft, something kind of eerie but unmistakably cool. Nightfall brought out bands of stars, but no UFOs.

Sunday welcomed us with blue skies and plenty of time to explore. We started with a gorgeous sunrise, waking around 6 to catch first light. The sky was blue and purple as the light crept across the sky. Jenny and I shuttled from stop to stop, looking for the perfect vantage point. Then nearly as we made our final decision the morning spilled over the horizon. The sun rose between the buttes and we smiled at our good fortune of just being here.

Jenny had longed to hike around the Mittens, so we began our day with Wildcat Trail, a moderate hike that gets somewhat strenuous toward the end. Together, we circled West Mitten Butte in a 3+ mile loop, catching sight of horses that shaded themselves from the sun. The breeze was cool and the trail was deserted, other than one fellow who crossed our path in the opposite direction. While we were never too far from the hotel, we marveled at the prospect of being out on the valley floor with nothing but looming rocks and a vast horizon to orient our way.

In early afternoon headed north to a spot I'd only seen on the map: Valley of the Gods. Once again we faced a bumpy road that traced through a land of red giants. The road was, if anything, rougher on our car. But Jenny was happy to note that we seemed to get even closer to the formations. At one point, we even spotted a dirt road that seemed to reach all the way back to monuments that brought us here, now distant and tiny. Along the way, we enjoyed seeing the changing shadows that crawled around the outcroppings, a story in light and color told by the shifting wheels of our car.

Later, we returned south to visit Goulding's Museum, where we particularly enjoyed an exhibit dedicated to all the movies that have been shot in Monument Valley. I then committed us to a Western double-feature night: Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, with roadrunner cartoons during the intermission. As usual, Jenny smiled that wan "how did I marry this guy" smile of hers that I love so much. A pleasant lunch and a visit to the gift shop completed our stay. I bought a panorama postcard and stuck it on the back seat, so as we departed the valley we had a double-view of the experience and the image.

We returned to Flagstaff and grabbed dinner at Bigfoot BBQ, the third in a trifecta of odd and delightful meals. Bigfoot is located amidst a funky collection of vintage clothes and artifacts in an old town mall. The ribs were Kansas City-inspired, dry rubbed and spicy. The sweet tea was forgettable, but the peach cobbler made Jenny's night.

Monday returned us to the road, another twelve hours (which turned into about fourteen). This time we took the Route 66 alignment through Amboy. I had to see how the ghost town is livening up thanks to the preservation efforts of Albert Okura. The gas station is open, and now a cafe serves authentic tacos. I asked about the cabins as was told to wait a couple more years for lodging to open in Amboy. We'll be back, that's for sure. The rest of the day was dedicated to chatting, sleeping, and reminiscing on highlights from our happy time spent together among the red rocks.

(Photos by Andy and Jenny Wood)

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