Cinema critic Keith Phipps said that, because of John Ford's films, Monument Valley's five square miles:
...have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West
I am a Western fan. I admit it. Why shouldn't I? It's only marginally less fashionable than believing in individual freedom and I am quite open about that.
As I drove with the roof down in the bright morning sunshine through that iconic landscape this morning (with Johnny Cash belting out "I won't back down" on Speranza's sound system) I was in very heaven. I did my best to focus on the road ahead as my eyes were drawn in every which direction. The truth is, Ford could have made other bits of America just as famous if he had chosen. Monument Valley is cool in its rugged way, despite the best efforts of the Navajo Nation on whose lands it stands, to make it tawdry and scruffy. But much of that region of America is every bit as beautiful.
This is something I am often trying to communicate in these posts; badly I fear. The joy of this tour is being in places that have been backdrops to my imagination since I was a boy. Other bits of the American West simply don't jog memories of Sunday afternoons as a little boy watching John Wayne movies with my family. That's why I loved being there so much. I seem to have invented nostalgia for things that are - in reality at least - new to me.
Monument Valley, which straddles Arizona and Utah was, alas, my only taste of the latter. I felt rather guilty as I drove out of Utah to read the "Thanks for visiting, come back soon" sign. This trip is just too short. I must select what to see so ruthlessly that I regularly disappoint people I chat to on the tour when they ask what I saw in their home state. America is big - what else can I tell you? I can only achieve a brief taste of each state.
I did no journey planning last night. The bandwidth at the Navajo-owned hotel where I was staying was derisory so my online activities were much curtailed. This had the advantage of destroying my usual routine of reading blogs and online newspapers so I was out and about bright and early. I had "done" Monument Valley by 11am - especially as the 17 mile self-guided "scenic drive" was on a dirt track so rough it was recommended only for SUVs. So on the car park of the Tribal Park Visitor Center I simply entered the address of the Ferrari dealer in San Antonio in the satnav and did as I was told.
The first thing it told me was that I was 1,050 miles away. At my normal rate of progress, I would arrive on Saturday. So I resolved to drive far enough today to get my Wednesday and Thursday drives to a normal, comfortable length. Hence the epic journey.
I expected it to be tough but enjoyed every second. I saw some of the most beautiful countryside and some of the least prosperous towns of America. My lunch stop was in the town of Chinle, near the Canyon de Chelly National Monument. It's a Navajo name for a 91% Navajo town and it looked dreadful. These posts are touristic, not political, and you probably think me very uncritical. I am, and it's not just politeness. I am open about my affection for America. Q even suggested it was unseemly, given that Americans threw off the British yoke to build the nation I feel so at home in. I do have a pretty serious bias (one reason I chose my blogging nom de guerre) but I am not blind. Aspects of Native American life here, in particular, disturb me.
I plan a serious "summing-up" post when the trip is over and will save critical comments for that. For now just let me tell of my one personal interaction in Chinle. I had eaten my lunch quietly, undisturbed by the usual attention to Speranza - for there was none. The Navajos seemd entirely unimpressed by her. Only one schoolboy stopped to take a picture with his camera phone and the lady at the next table mistook her for a Ford Mustang.
I, however, did attract interest. I guess I was discernibly foreign. The lady taking my lunch order struggled with my accent until I Yanked it up a bit. As I was leaving a man of my own age came up to me and asked where I was from. After a couple of attempts, I managed to communicate that I came from "London, England". He smiled broadly and offered his hand, which I shook politely. "It is a good day for me", he said, "I have shaken the hand of someone from another country for the first time". I was very touched and really didn't know what to say. I am as ordinary to me as I am exotic to him, and - I suppose - vice versa. If the organiser of my photography course in New York is reading this, she will be saying I should have asked him to let me take his photo. And she is right. If it were possible to kick oneself while driving a supercar at speed I would have done so when that thought occurred to me, fifty or sixty miles later.
About a third of the drive was in Arizona. I took great delight again in its landscapes. I could never live there as the climate would be unbearable to me but - to look at and to drive in - it's one of my favourite states. And there were more childish delights in driving through drifting sand and clouds of red dust, as well as dodging a dogie and (oh the delight!) tumbleweed rolling across the road. I picked a bit out of Speranza's teeth at the last refuelling stop and found it surprisingly brittle. Maybe she had toasted it? The dogie did not end up in her radiator grille, you will be glad to hear. That no cowboy showed up to lassoo him was the only disappointment of the day. I also successfully dodged a deer and two - count them - donkeys (or were they mules?). Some locals seem remarkably careless with their livestock.
During the years since I brought my family to America on holiday I have often said that my favourite landscape in the world is that of New Mexico. On this tour I have wondered, as I praised the beauty of this state or that, if I would be disappointed to return here. I wasn't. Artists rave about the light and I am not enough of a scientist to account for why they are right (altitude, lack of pollution, the colour of the local rock and soil?). The colours range from pastels to deep reds, the sky is just the same colour as Speranza and there's something "just so" about the light. The landscape looks fresh, clean and beautiful as though God had just downed tools and walked away. I had the highway almost to myself for the last 75 miles of my journey and thoroughly enjoyed the views of sunset in my rear view mirrors.
Roswell, NM is my stop for tonight simply because it's at the point on the journey to San Antonio where the remaining mileage divides neatly into 260 for Wednesday and Thursday. I didn't, I promise, come for the UFO connections. Now that I am here, it would be churlish not to visit the UFO museum, though. More of that tomorrow.