Ambush in Monument Valley
A backroad adventure turns sour . . . but not really
“And the roads that take you into [Monument Valley] are your personal call to high and unequalled adventure.” – Land of Room Enough and Time Enough, Richard E. Klinck
Monument Valley is a desert place where several old cowboy movies were staged; it’s also a place where real shoot-out history happened. Mitchell Butte, for instance, is named for a man who died in the shadow of the formation while battling with Indians. And today the Valley contains a web of back roads on red powdery dust that lead into tall sandstone canyons and wide valleys of scrub and sand: a perfect setting for bandito history, and modern off-highway travel.
This was my first trip with a new friend, KC. He had been on the road for six weeks between his home in Wyoming and Arizona when my wife, Brooke, and I agreed to meet him in Kayenta. KC’s first appearance went like this: his Toyota T100 and Four Wheel Pop-Up camper were coated in a layer of dead insects and mud from the thousands of miles he traveled; and his person was coated in something to hide an odor he’d taken on while traveling. He shook my hand and said, “Nice to finally meet you. Sorry about the smell, but the good news is that it makes me feel like I’m in that Willie Nelson song Poncho and Lefty.” They say first impressions are everything.
At Monument Valley, we discussed the backcountry possibilities with a few Navajo guides. “If you have four wheel drive, you can spend many days off the tourist road,” they told us, “Just be mindful of people’s property out there. Be respectful, and stay on the trails.” With these easy rules, we set out into the heart of Monument Valley.
In the first half-mile a view of the famous Mittens and Merrick Butte strikes the eyes of every visitor. Each of these three massive monoliths rise almost 1000 feet from the desert floor and appear in nearly every photograph collection of Monument Valley. Since this scene gets itself over with first, a less curious visitor might believe that the good stuff is over and return to the hotel. But I like to think the view of the Mittens and Merrick Butte is more like a gatekeeper who says, “Look at what we have here. Come on in, you’re going to love this.”
Three miles down the road we found a track that split southward from the tourist route. “Take this one,” KC encouraged. “Get me off this tourist track.”
Our trail began as a two-track of red dust through a field of ankle-high brush. Crossing a wash several times, the trail then brought us within an arm’s length of Thunderbird Mesa’s 400-foot-tall walls. Besides the mesas, the land is so flat here that the only obstacles in the trail were the random washes we crossed: narrow, rocky, but little challenge. This was perfectly fine, as the view of the Three Sisters spires, Thunderbird Mesa’s walls, and Tsay-Begi Valley had our attention. Our timing was perfect; the late afternoon sun made a soft red glow upon these rocks.
Things were very quiet out there. The rocks and canyon walls felt inviting: a quiet warm wind, and soft light upon the stone. But, still, something made me feel like we were trespassing. For instance, we turned into a spacious canyon and observed, far off against a backdrop of monstrous sandstone mesas, a flock of sheep roaming over sand dunes, like something out of a painting. We learned this: Monument Valley is more than a National Park, it’s also a place where some Navajo people farm and live.
“I like this road,” I radioed. “Let’s keep going.” But since we hadn’t seen a single vehicle or person, I felt a mixture of guilt and thrill. Like somebody was going to have to pay one day. . .
“Okay,” Brooke responded, and then immediately the back end of her truck leaped upward and halted with the rear driver side tire dangling nearly a foot from the ground. She stopped.
“I can’t tell, but it’s huge. We might have to pull her out.” I responded.
To our surprise, Brooke continued to drive forward, dropping the 32-inch tall rear passenger tire into the hole, which was obviously much larger than the tires. The back bumper scraped the ground, and she just kept on driving.
“Good news,” she shouted over the radio, “I scraped the front chrome bumper. Looks like we need a bull bar now.”
KC turned to me, “Dude, is she always this aggressive of a driver? That was impressive.”
Only a half-mile more and the road just ended at a swell of wind-rippled sand dunes. We got out to inspect and were standing at the base of the dunes when we felt a warm and forceful burst of wind. We’d been joking about Willie’s song Poncho and Lefty, a story about cowboy criminals evading Mexican police, so was this wind a sign? Were we some place we shouldn’t have been? As if the wind was pursuing us like banditos on the run, it sprung from the valley like an ambush, the very direction from which we came, from what could have been that yelling Navajo man . . .
“Hey!” He was waving with both arms in the air, and looking right at us from about 200 yards away. We couldn’t tell where he’d come from, but he was definitely trying to get our attention. When the wind stopped, he cupped his hands around his mouth and then shouted again.
“What’s he saying?” KC asked.
“He’s not singing a Willie Nelson song, that’s for sure,” I told him.
I walked toward the man and suddenly heard his advice, “Watch out for that hole, it’s a big one…”What else was there to do? We laughed to ourselves, and yelled “Thanks” to the man. I was still puzzled as to where he came from, but strange things happen when you’re on the road. We simply turned around to explore some more canyons, crossed over the hole, and found that a dust storm was rushing in from the northwest.