I once drove across the whole of South Dakota, east to west. The sun bore down like a lamp in a police interrogation room, and this land of corn, soybeans and wheat was so flat it seemed more a state of mind than a landscape. Here are the vast beige and green rectangles most Americans see only from the air.
At the Missouri River, the land and atmosphere changed, growing rounder and softer. The grass was a mint green, so subtle it seemed like mist. Battered pick-up trucks rolled along the roads with dogs or grandfathers in armchairs propped up in back. The harsh geometry of American industrial agriculture had given way to the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation. It had a spring-water sweetness that made you feel well and to like to stay.
Something similar happened on a long drive from Las Vegas up to the southeast corner of Utah, when the endless pine forest and unassimilable grandeur of the Grand Canyon opened onto the Painted Desert, a mineral land of rose and beige and violet, huge, silent, pared to the skeletal, timeless and, surprisingly, delicate. It was like coming out of a tunneled chute and into an evening sky.
We drove on through the light-flooded air of this desert along the Utah-Arizona state line, sometimes passing little wooden stalls where Navajo women sitting under canopies sold their jewelry of silver and turquoise. The tortured Marsden Hartley, a painter from Maine who came to the Southwest in 1919, wrote of it: “It is the only place in America where true color exists. It is not a country of light on things—it is a country of things in light.” It is also the part of America where you can experience the road in a way that lives up to its myth—the skies and the vistas thrillingly vast, the silence and emptiness preternatural. You feel both freedom and anonymity, the colossal and the intimate. The shapes are so strange and compelling it seems you are driving through the Collective Unconscious as imagined by Carl Jung.
We got to Monument Valley at dusk. This is a spectacle of nature unlike any other I have experienced. It could only have the name that it has—the russet sandstone buttes and pinnacles rising to heights of up to a thousand feet from rounded earth plinths as though on exhibit. The low-lying light turned the desert floor and the air above it into bands of red and blue, with a green hue because of the spring vegetation. I got out of the car and sunk a little into the soft, powdery earth under a butte, let the almost imperceptible currents of air play over my face and listened to the birdsong. I felt I could have stayed that way for hours and still been entertained.
Huge natural spectacles, particularly those involving stone, can thrill you or diminish you to the microscopic in the face of their scale and great age. Monument Valley, grand and inert though it is, felt unaccountably different—receptive, actively alive and with something of the sweetness I experienced in South Dakota when I crossed the Missouri River. Here you do not watch, you connect. Or so it seemed that spring dusk. Was it thus because it is Indian land?
If You Go …
The San Juan River Kitchen in Bluff, Utah.
Although Monument Valley is as iconic as the Empire State Building or the Golden Gate Bridge, it lacks tourists in volume because it is far from an interstate and is not on a direct route between large population centers. In its immediate vicinity, however, I experienced the spectacular twists of the meandering San Juan River (six miles of river for every mile advanced westward) at Goosenecks State Reserve; the slalom course of the Moki Dugway, which leads on to the Natural Bridge National Monument, the 800-year-old towers at Hovenweep and the otherworldly red towers of the Valley of the Gods. You can now stay right beside Monument Valley at a new and efficient hotel called The View (435-727-5555), or 20 miles to the north at Mexican Hat, Utah, population 35. One of the 35 grills excellent steaks on an iron hammock at the Mexican Hat Lodge, where he can tell you, as he did me, the tale of how his father and mother married and divorced 11 times. The best hotel here is the San Juan Inn (800-447-2220).
We stayed a little farther on at Bluff, listed by travel writer Patricia Schultz as among The Thousand Places to See Before You Die (Workman Publishing Co., 2003). This is a fine place to go river rafting, to look at petroglyphs or to eat in the San Juan River Kitchen (435-672-9956), the best restaurant in the area. It has a greater density of painters than Los Angeles or New York, with galleries along the length of the town, such as Cow Canyon or the old gas station where the extraordinary J.R. Lancaster works on and exhibits his photographs and ingeniously textured paintings. A fine place for breakfast is Comb Ridge Coffee (435-672-9931), fully organic and replete with books and paintings, most of which are by the Navajo activist/intellectual Gloria Emerson, who walked in just as I was reading about her. A very pleasant hotel with cabins is the all-wood Desert Rose Inn (888-475-7673); more individualistic, intriguing and intimate is the Decker House Inn (435-672-2304), an old Mormon pioneer house converted into a bed and breakfast and now run by two women brought together by the marriage of their children.