Graham Reid | | 4 min read
Kayenta is little more than a wide spot on the highway through north east Arizona. There’s not much worth reporting: a chainstore outlet, a small and somewhat pitiful town which shimmers in the dry heat, a few motels and a Holiday Inn.
Kayenta -- not far from Four Corners where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet -- offers no reason to stop, unless you are looking for a place to stay before the short drive into nearby Monument Valley where John Ford filmed such classic westerns as Stagecoach and The Searchers with John Wayne.
So we pull in to the Holiday Inn. This was where Chevy Chase, here to film National Lampoon’s Vacation, stepped out of his red convertible and made a great LA-style to-do about not signing autographs. When the locals showed no interest in him anyway -- hell, some had lunched with “The Duke” John Wayne when he was here -- he sloped off to his room and sulked.
Or so the guy at the desk tells us with great delight.
Monument Valley is cowboy country, the land where iconic figures like Wayne roamed. It is the imagined West, defined through the filter of Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties.
In reality Monument Valley is not that at all.
It is Indian land, part of the Navajo Nation, and its history is written on the canyon walls where ancient petroglyphs were carved by unknown hands.
It is easy to romanticise Monument Valley -- the photogenic landscape with its distinctive wind-shaped rocks -- but that would be to ignore the blunt truth that the Navajo struggle for survival here in thrilling scenery which offers little arable land, and even less in the way of a viable future.
Alcohol is banned on the Navajo Nation but without thinking, while chatting in the Walmart queue one afternoon, I ask a hometown schoolteacher where a good bar might be, somewhere I could sit and chat with locals.
He reminds me of the ban -- noting when he lived off the rez he used to have maybe a bottle or two in the house, now he stocks up and has close to two dozen hidden.
But if I want a drink, he says, I might try Page down the road.
Page is at least two hours away. Quite a round trip for a few beers, and which probably explains why the highway between is littered with wrecks and cars overturned in the culverts.
That night at dinner I agree to try the restaurant's non-alcoholic chardonnay. It is so artlessly foul it could drive a man to drink.
We have an early night, tomorrow we are taking on Monument Valley in the company of a Navajo woman we are to meet at first light.
Under bright morning sun Barbara offers a firm handshake. She is a handsome woman with long black hair pulled back from her high forehead, dudded up in well-worn denims and leather boots, and has a smile which reveals broken teeth.
She is Navajo, but one with an unusual history. She has only been back from New York these past couple of years, came home after her marriage broke up, and has brought her two children here so they can all be close to her mother who has cancer.
Her city-raised kids found it hard to adapt, she admits, and while she’s had her problems settling in at least she’s found a job. She takes people through the Valley, and on this day we are heading away from the self-drive trails and across dry riverbeds into territory which looks desolate and deserted.
For a few hours we bounce across the arid landscape, stopping to admire a towering mesa, an oddly familiar view from a movie, or the traces of former inhabitants.
I have my photo taken at the tree where John Wayne did an advertisement for Aspirin just months before his death. We see where The Eiger Sanction was filmed, are touched by the ancient petroglyphs, and beyond a parched creek is a small homestead belonging to a local woman who is renown as a sculptor. And over here is where they shot that sequence from an Indiana Jones movie where our hero descends into a pit of snakes.
Monument Valley is a movie buff's mecca. John Ford made Wayne and the towering monoliths, buttes and mesas into stars. Although the broad river Wayne crosses at the end of The Searchers is but a dry bed these days.
Sequences for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider and Back to the Future 3 were filmed around here. Charlton Heston as Moses wandered through this wilderness near the distinctive Mitten Buttes.
But this is also the land where the mysterious Anasazi peoples walked, long before the Navajo even dreamed.
As others go off to take yet another perfect picture of the landscape with fingers of rock reaching skyward Barbara tells me of problems on the reservation.
Alcohol -- despite the ban -- is decimating the young and old alike. The Indian has no gene to process alcohol, she says, so they become alcoholics and kill themselves through drink or in driving accidents.
As someone who sees her people with the eyes of an outsider she is also suspicious of the tribal councils which seem to take in plenty of government money or income from tourism, yet somehow it doesn’t trickle down to those most in need. The schools are under-resourced, the young people have nothing to do in this remote land, the old people have given up hope.
There is an educated middle generation keen to make progress without sacrificing tradition, but the tribal hierarchy must be respected and so . . .
Her voice trails off and we stand in silence amidst a landscape best measured in millions of years and Navajo myth.
Barbara is facing the sun which is setting golden-red behind a mesa, her hair blowing back in the breeze. She appears to be looking at something invisible in the distance.
Possibly the past, possibly the future.