Historians of the American West have faced difficulties dealing with the effects of popular culture. Movies and television shows, while increasing interest in the West, have perpetuated the myths of the region and affected the perceptions of the Western genre’s fans. Obviously, this has affected the public’s view of historical figures, but it has also affected its view of the landscape. For example, early movies were made around Los Angeles. Therefore, if a plot was set in Texas, audiences thought Texas looked like southern California. When directors looked for more scenic settings, this phenomenon was passed to those locations. Why do I bring this up? Because, as we entered Utah, Kristi and I made our way to one of the most iconic movie locations in the West. It sits in the Navajo Nation and is known as Monument Valley.
Monument Valley is one of my favorite places. Not because of some great historic event, but because one of my favorite movies, The Searchers, was filmed there. It was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne. I got into a heated discussion once with a professor. She could not believe that a student of the American West could like Westerns in general and John Wayne in particular. Neither one of us left happy.
Kristi decided that we should stop worrying about getting a room ahead of time and just go with the flow. Being in the middle of the desert in the Navajo Nation did not seem like the place to do this, but I agreed anyway. We drove through Kayenta, Arizona and headed straight to the Valley. There we found The View, a hotel that overlooks the Valley. It is owned by a Navajo woman whose father had a trading post at the site, and each room has a balcony facing the scenic buttes. I know this because we got the LAST room.
Before exploring, we took our bags to the room and rested a while. That sounds simple but took a dark turn. It started when I took out my iPod. In a spiritual moment, I gazed across Monument Valley and listened to the opening song of The Searchers. When it ended I turned around, and Kristi was gazing across the room at me. While I was imagining John Wayne riding into the sunset, Kristi was noticing that the air conditioner was not working. I said it would cool off eventually, and she said it would not. After an argument, she called for maintenance. Unfortunately, Kristi was right because the climate control was on the winter setting.
The room was hot, but the hotel was cool. The lobby had statues, paintings and Native American rugs. There was a museum with artifacts from Navajo history. The gift shop had pottery, artwork and John Wayne memorabilia. A fantastic restaurant had windows overlooking the Valley. We got reservations for dinner and attempted to book a tour. The woman at the desk said tours were booked at the lower end of the parking lot. We looked. There was nothing there. Then, we noticed the shacks. There was a very nice hotel, and the tour guides were relegated to playing gin in little shacks. We got a tour for the next morning.
At dinner, I ordered a bison steak. It came out as a bison medallion with some artistic looking greenery around it. I left hungry but with the satisfaction that I was going to see a great movie. Earlier, Kristi found out that on one of the patios they have a nightly showing of a movie filmed in Monument Valley, and the list to choose from is almost limitless. I was fired up to watch a John Wayne movie where it was filmed but ended up being disappointed with that as well. They showed Cheyenne Autumn starring Richard Widmark. It is a great movie but not one I wanted to see.
The next day was a lot better. Things could not have gotten any worse after the air conditioner, the medallion and the movie; but the tour was awesome. We rode on seats in the back of a pickup truck, but the guide was great. He told us about the people who live in the Valley and the impact that the movie industry made on the area. He also told about life on the reservation and asked us about our life in Tennessee. The most interesting part was the story of his son. He attends a boarding school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The guide talked about how much he missed him but also how he did not want him to end up being a tour guide in Monument Valley.
Our first tour stop was my favorite. It is called John Ford Point and played a prominent role in The Searchers. John Wayne drops Jeffrey Hunter from the rock, and Hunter sneaks into the Comanche camp to rescue Natalie Wood.
The people who lived at John Ford Point offered photos on a horse for $2. Japanese tourists were lined up with their money and their cameras. I may have gotten in a few of their shots.
After John Ford Point we saw another iconic image of Monument Valley, the Three Sisters.
As the tour continued, we saw other formations and petroglyphs, but the highlight was a stop with a view through a formation. As we rested on the rocks and relaxed in the world of the Navajo, our guide played a flute. The sounds echoed through the cavern, and we could almost understand the world around us.
We left Monument Valley amazed by the landscape and by the stories of our guide. Kristi saw more petroglyphs, and I left with my love/hate relationship with the myths of the West still intact.
Kristi and I skirted the Utah/Arizona border until we arrived in Page, Arizona. We felt a strangeness in Page. It was founded in the 1950s, and every vehicle was pulling a boat. Soon, we discovered that it was created as a recreation point for Lake Powell. The really strange aspect of our visit to Page was our decision to get back to familiarity. We ate at Sonic and went to Wal-Mart. With this experience, we made an astounding discovery. The people who go to Wal-Mart in Page, Arizona look exactly like the people who go to Wal-Mart in Lebanon, Tennessee.
We crossed back into Utah and headed into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was a desolate area, and neither of us knew what was there or why it was preserved. We stopped at a small visitor center, and the two men inside seemed thrilled to see us. Maybe they do not get many visitors. They showed us fossils and dinosaur bones found in the area and explained its importance in the field of paleontology.
As we left, one of them mentioned an old town that was once a movie set. Driving through the desert, I passed Old Paria, but it did not look like much. I kept going. I regretted that decision when I got to a computer. I googled Old Paria and discovered that one of my other favorite movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales, was filmed there. I should have recognized the landscape, but the movie is set in Texas. Another example of how movies alter our perceptions of the West.
Leaving the national monument, we found ourselves in a drastically different landscape. Driving through lush valleys, we passed through towns called Kanab, Orderville, Glendale, and Hatch. They were quaint villages, and signs of their histories were everywhere. The founding dates were almost identical, and the churches advertised the same religion. Kristi and I had entered Deseret, the settlements of early Mormons. As a historian of the West, I must deal with the Mormons, but they do not fascinate me. The same cannot be said of Kristi. She reads about the Mormons and watches Big Love. She could not have been happier.
We finally reached Ruby’s Inn, our lodging for the night. It sits at the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park and is quite a large hotel. I do not mean that in the downtown skyscraper kind of hotel. I mean a super sized log cabin type of hotel. In fact, I am not sure the term hotel does it justice. Obviously, it had rooms and the typical indoor swimming pool, but it also had much more. There was a grocery store, liquor store, hair salon, Old Time photography studio, and Native American art store. The art store displayed pottery made by Maria Martinez. The pieces were too rare to sell, but I encourage you to ask Dr. Heifner about her work. Ruby’s also had a buffet that can be described with one word – disgusting.
Across the street, the resort continued with an “authentic” Western town. There was an ice cream shop, doll store, t-shirt shop and rock store. That’s right. They sold genuine rocks. They also had a nightly rodeo. We almost went, but Kristi thought that a rodeo that happens every night must not be very good. She was probably right.
The next morning we entered Bryce Canyon, the reason Ruby’s stays packed. I had never been but was told numerous times that I had to see it. The people who told me were absolutely correct. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is filled with “hoodoos”, rock formations that are almost indescribable. In fact, I will let the photographs to the talking for me.
A Native American legend says that “hoodoos” are bad people who were turned to stone.
For example, if you do not handle your dog, then you need to watch out for the “hoodoo” maker.
There are also other formations.
Kristi and I left Bryce Canyon satisfied that we had seen one of the most beautiful spots in the West. Kristi drove us out of the canyon, and, after a stop for hotdogs, we headed back toward Kanab. Upon arrival, we stopped at a roadside park to rest and change drivers. It was a small area with a walking path, flowers and a waterfall. There were small markers remembering Kanab’s history as a movie location. However, the park was dominated by a statue of Levi Stewart, founder of Kanab. A plaque told of his life and how a tragic fire killed five of his children and a wife. After we read it Kristi asked if I noticed anything strange. The plaque did not say HIS wife. It said A wife. For small words, it is a big difference. We truly were in Mormon territory.
If that did not prove it, then a sign we passed further down the road did.
Colorado City, Arizona was the location of the Warren Jeffs compound.
Next we will venture further into Arizona. I assure you that the next travelogue post will not take as long. As John Wayne says in The Searchers, it is “as sure as the turnin’ of the earth”.