The spirit line of Utah
Filmset-familiar Monument Valley is just the beginning of a physical and cultural Utah adventure.
Navajo man Dedrick Cly takes a “Que sera sera” attitude to showing people around Monument Valley, not just through its stark collection of sandstone pillars and mesas but also the village that services this desert spectacle astride the Utah-Arizona border in south-western USA.
“That will be the church,” he says, indicating a building with a shiny asphalted carpark at odds with the scrubby flatness beyond. “That will be the school. Over there, that will be the service station.
“And that,” says Dedrick, indicating a lush green rectangle, “will be the football field. All the stands and equipment are donated by the Washington Redskins.”
Hang on. Isn’t that the team that was fighting a court ruling that it be stripped of trademark protection because its name was offensive to Native Americans?
Capitol Reef scenic drive. Photo: NPS Nathan Gross.
“I’m proud of the name,” Dedrick says. “At least we’re being recognised.” Names, as we discover the more time we spend in this territory, aren’t as important as identity. Whatever will be, for this Navajo man at least, will be.
Monument Valley is one of the great film locations, having shone in countless westerns (Dedrick’s great-grandmother made peach pie for John Wayne), other notables such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider and Forrest Gump, a few episodes of Dr Who and even a Metallica video.
But despite riding around on a trailer in the style of Universal Studios, this is no theme park. As part of the tour run by established local operator Gouldings, Dedrick takes us behind the monuments to where some Navajo still live in domed earth houses called hogans, without electricity or running water. Navajo homes are meant to face east, to greet the morning sun. “But now people live in apartments facing every other way,” says Dedrick. Que sera, my friend.
This spirit line shows that nothing is ever complete or closed off.
Within the hogans, the Navajo manufacture the necessities: moccasins, rugs, even wooden baby carriers tied with leather twine – mountain lion or bear for males, deer for females. Gender lines remain strong in Navajo culture, although a stronger force is the spirit line. Every item from a rug or shawl to a pot will have a line that trails off the design. “This spirit line shows that nothing is ever complete or closed off,” says Dedrick.
The Navajo Nation in which Monument Valley sits is the largest native reserve in the US, covering a swathe of Arizona and New Mexico and a sliver of southern Utah. The Navajo manage their own education, medical and law enforcement, and on any significant site within the nation a Navajo will be opening visitors’ eyes.
So it is that, on a beach south of the fabulous town of Bluff, river guide Greg from Wild Expeditions points out details only someone from this land could detect. Greg had moved away to go to college but a force he can’t explain – a spirit line, perhaps – drew him back. The San Juan River marks the boundary of the Navajo Nation here, and Greg is guiding us down from Bluff to Mexican Hat. The river is running at a low 900 basketballs – it’s how they measure river flow in these parts – which makes for a relaxed trip.
The Navajo haven’t been the only people to feed off this river. There are two stops that touch on the presence of Puebloan Indians.
So we’re able to understand how this river is more than just a journey through spectacular gorges. The grass lining the banks is coyote willow used for baskets. Sumac leaf is ground into a meal for porridge. Carved niches on a cliff are steps going up to a granary, perhaps.
At lunch, a mob of wild donkeys graze in the distance. Later, Greg cuts some willow and starts splitting and folding it to create a donkey figurine. He does it deftly, almost shyly, as if he doesn’t want us to think he might be showing off.
The Navajo haven’t been the only people to feed off this river. On the “government side” are two stops that touch on the presence of Puebloan Indians. The ruins of a sizeable rock house in the lee of a cliff overhang date from the 900s. Further along is a 75-metre-long rock wall of petroglyphs carved up to 2000 years ago. Some are human, some are animals, some are symbols. “It’s kind of like a newspaper,” says Greg.
Escalante - into a slot canyon. Photo: Jeremy Bourke
The Puebloans had tamed the desert to subsist largely on agriculture. Then, some time in the 1400s, they left, eventually turning up in Texas. The migration still has archaeologists and anthropologists puzzled, because what they left behind suggests prosperity and stability.
The south of the state is a huge museum of landscape.
At Hovenweep National Monument 60 kilometres east of Bluff, a collection of Puebloan ruins around the rim of a canyon has long intrigued the experts. The structures were not only houses but also towers. Were they for defence, rituals or what? Judging by all the guano on one tower, it’s a haunt for the local ravens. Yet Hovenweep’s symbol is a bird not from around here; macaw feathers found on the site suggest the Puebloans had traded as far away as central America.
Other anachronistic treasures are found at the excellent Edge Of The Cedars State Park Museum in nearby Blanding. There are 1600-year-old sandals, the yucca-cord skeleton of a blanket that would have needed around 11,000 turkey feathers to make a one-metre-square segment, and stone dart points that could be 13,000 years old. But curator Jonathan Till’s favourite is another foreign relic, a delicate necklace made from beetle legs. “It didn’t come from this area so it was obviously traded here,” he says.
So much in a small corner of Utah, but the south of the state is a huge museum of landscape, and so rugged that one area, now established as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, was the last part of the continental US to be mapped. It has about two roads and only a few barely discernible landmarks, but to guide Jim Clery, a former land surveyor, that’s no problem. Out of the millions of rocks we tramp over, Jim spots a flint which is part of a stone tool “maybe 1000 years old”. A rock with a reddish stain is a heat stone, while a nondescript shrub is Mormon tea – boil the stems for a caffeine-like high.
Water has carved narrow, wavy pathways in the sandstone, and to get through is like doing pilates in a maze.
Jim picks up a round stone and cracks it open, revealing a black layer (iron oxide) around a red and yellow sandstone core. He says they’re called moqui marbles, moqui being an old term for Indian. “They’re possibly millions of years old. NASA has studied them because similar iron deposits have been found on Mars.”
Zion Zion Canyon in Autumn. Photo: NPS
Jim calls his company Utah Canyon Outdoors because the focus of today’s jaunt is slot-canyoning. Water has carved narrow, wavy pathways in the sandstone, and to get through is like doing pilates in a maze. No two slots require the same technique. Through some you arch your back, through others you turn sideways and breathe in. In one we’re crawling crab-like; in another the bum does most of the work.
After half a dozen of these, we emerge, on a high that no amount of Mormon tea could create. Well, that’s what the slogan on the website promised: “Utah. Life elevated.”
Park yourself here
Southern Utah boasts national and state parks with scenic drives almost without parallel. Here’s the pick of them.
Zion: Here you look up, from the valley floor carved by the Virgin River to wonderful rock faces and formations.
Bryce Canyon: Here you look down from the rim to a bizarre set of sandstone columns called hoodoos.
Canyonlands: Here you look out over an endless panorama through which the Colorado and Green Rivers have forged snake-like canyons.
Arches: Here you look through some 3000 natural rock arches of all sizes.
Capitol Reef: Here you look astounded at how nature has formed rock walls that change shape and character around every bend.
On a smaller scale, Snow Canyon (near St George), Goblin Valley (via Green River) and Natural Bridges (near Bluff) are fun half-day adventures.
And while not an official park, the Four Corners Monument in the south-east corner of the state, 75 kilometres from Bluff, is a geopolitical quirk: it’s the only spot in the US where the boundaries of four states – Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona – meet, and your feet don’t have to be that big to stand in all four at once.
For touring information, suggested itineraries, trip planners plus links to national parks, towns and activities, go to visitutah.com.
If planning to visit several parks, annual passes for national parks ($US80/$A110) and Utah state parks ($US75/$A103) may be the best value.
Jeremy Bourke travelled in Utah as a guest of the Utah Office of Tourism and the operators mentioned in the story. In Bluff, he stayed at the western-styled Desert Rose Resort and Cabins.