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Navajo Nation

Making the scene in Monument Valley.

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At the end of the day, Monument Valley is a sight worth seeing.
Driving east from the Grand Canyon, it's easy to believe the land has never changed. It doesn't need any alterations, and people wouldn't want to bother, other than building some roads. The views are forever, from sagebrush at your feet to mountains on the horizon, with canyons cutting and buttes looming. Perhaps it's a sad commentary, but it's country which always makes me think of car commercials -- the "open road" winding through hilly desert to far-off peaks -- and it always makes me drive just a little faster.

There are people who live out here, though. The Navajo live here. Their presence seems to have a little of the eternal quality as well. They were here, after all, when the collective, mostly-white "we" arrived a few hundred years ago. But to the land, a few hundred years is like a week or two. Granted, it's been a hectic and action-packed couple of weeks, but measured by the scale on which, say, canyons are formed, we are small and short-lived.

But we sure can make a mess, can't we? Coming downhill from the east end of the Grand Canyon, the first signs of human habitation read "Welcome to Navajo Lands" and "Indian Shopping Next Right." A small part of me, either the ignorant or the naive, wanted to say, "Surely the natives haven't gone all commercial too!" But, looking around at the reservation, I wondered what else people would do for money, if not sell stuff to tourists.

We waited for a convergence of two desirables: natural wonder and shopping. We stopped at a viewpoint of the Canyon of the Little Colorado, which, after a day at the Grand Canyon, looked like a parking-lot fair after a day at Six Flags. But it's also telling of the landscape: Every now and then you come across something like a 200-foot-deep canyon. We stopped and shopped.

In the windswept parking lot there stood a long row of booths, most of them empty. A few had tables covered with what we would soon call "the usual": turquoise and silver jewelry, dream-catchers, bracelets, and pottery. It was all handmade and beautiful. Behind each table there were those constants of small-town America: young kids and old people. Everybody else seemed to have left.

Back on the road, I saw a sign for the next shopping area. It advertised a place with "nice Indians." Perhaps some people need to be reassured of this on occasion.

We went through towns of cinder-block houses and falling-down lean-tos. In the yards were old cars, bathtubs, 50-gallon drums, basketball hoops, and kids. One yard hosted a collection of lawn mowers, another a starting gate from a horse track. We went through Red Lake, where there was no lake of any color, Moenkopi, Tuba City, Tsegi, Chilchinbito, The Gap, Mexican Hat, Bitter Springs, Mexican Water, and Sweetwater.

We had Navajo on the radio and a copy of The Navajo Times. In that day's news, the Navajo Nation was struggling with the casino question (government wants it, people don't), a local kid signed a basketball scholarship with Stanford, and a panel studying relations with the state decided that "the root of the problem is the separation or removal of the Navajo people from their culture and language." From such commissions generally come such helpful specifics.

In every one of these towns, at every restaurant, museum, post office, and gas station, they offered tours. Tours of Navajo National Monument, one of many places where there were cliff dwellings. Tours to see rock formations like the Elephant's Feet and dinosaur tracks. Tours of ghost towns. But most of all they offered tours of Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is, among sights on the reservation, the show-stopper. It was also our mecca. It's one of those places that you see pictures of and say, "I need to go there." It's also like a semi-famous actor: People might not recognize the name, but they see the picture and say, "Oh, yeah, that guy." Imagine a row of pinkish rock towers, each a couple hundred feet high, scattered through a desert and generally photographed at sunset. You've probably seen a cowboy smoking a cigarette there.

We were trying to get there for the sunset pictures, which meant skipping the Navajo Code Talkers Museum. During World War II, the Marines took dozens of Navajos into the Pacific because nobody off the reservation could speak the language. The Japanese never broke the code.

After all the driving and shopping and gawking, we found ourselves at dusk standing by a barbed-wire fence beside the highway. We had arrived at the Sight in the Moment. In front of us stretched Monument Valley in all its pinkish glory: the cliffs, the sky, the sunset, the emptiness. I let out a long, deep breath. The view was like a message from a higher power. It said to me, "Don't worry about all the other crap. This is what you came for. It's nice, isn't it?"

You can e-mail Paul Gerald at letters@memphisflyer.com. You can also check out his new book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland (Oregon), published by Menasha Ridge Press.

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