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America’s natural wonders: Monument Valley

We zoom in on another of America's great natural wonders from our June cover story

America’s natural wonders: Monument Valley

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In Navajo legend, the giant red rock mesas of Monument Valley are the carcasses of defeated monsters, slain by the holy people and buried in the sand. I’m riding out on horseback into the back country, passing Elephant Butte, its long trunk frozen in ochre stone; Rain God Mesa, where medicine men come to pray and stave off drought; and in the centre of it all, the great Mittens — sandstone monoliths rising 1,000ft from the ground, like fists punching up from the earth. The Navajo believe they belong to spiritual beings watching over their people.

Monument Valley is neither a national park nor, officially, part of the US, but something much more interesting. Located on the border of Arizona and Utah, in the Navajo Nation — a 27,425sq mile sovereign state, spread out across these high desert plains — it’s the heart and soul of the Navajo people themselves.

But although the park is on ‘Indian’ land, it was the cowboys who made it famous. Legend has it, when John Wayne first set eyes on Monument Valley, he said: “So this is where God put the West”. Classics like Stagecoach and How the West Was Won were filmed here, as well as more recent movies such as Johnny Depp’s The Lone Ranger. The great national parks of Utah — Canyonlands and Arches — are rightly famous, colossal landscapes stripped of all but their bare rock forms, like peering into the sinews of the Earth. But if you want to feel the dirt on your spurs and the wind on your Stetson, to look into hills and see the ghosts of bandits and gunslingers looking back, then it’s to Monument Valley you must come.

But I’m here for the Navajo. As I explore deeper into the park, I find ruins and stone-carved petroglyphs belonging to the Anasazi — ancestors of the Navajo who lived here over 1,000 years ago. There are also families here, far from the crowds, still living the old ways, without running water or electricity, tending flocks of paper-thin sheep and meagre plots of corn.

That night, I visit a Navajo family in the far depths of the valley, where only the faint trace of gravel roads can be seen. I watch two sisters lead a young sheep to a wooden block, see a knife put to its throat, every part of him butchered and put onto a fire. Later, we sit on the dirt and chew on the fatty ribs, accompanied by blue corn mush, fried bread and dried-blood sausage. Three generations sit around me: elders who speak no English in moccasins and robes of dazzling green and indigo; turquoise necklaces contrasting with their darkened and weathered faces.

That’s the magic of Monument Valley. It’s a whirlwind of stark primary colours, a landscape closer to the surface of Mars, or the bottom of a dried-out ocean than anywhere on Earth. But that’s just the start. There’s another world here too, woven between the fabric of modern America; a land imbibed with myth, where every rock is alive and tells a story, where behind the veil of cowboy movies and tourist trains, people still live the way they always have, shunning progress for tradition and the deep roots of the land itself. As we ride home, my guide, a young Navajo wrangler, sees me looking at the distant mesas and smiles. “It’s good medicine out here,” he says. The towering wind-sculpted stones of Monument Valley may be defeated monsters, but the Navajo still live on.