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A Life-Altering Visit to Monument Valley

A few weeks ago I travelled to Arizona’s Monument Valley in a nostalgic quest to commune with all the movies made at that majestic site and to stand on ground where John Ford and John Wayne created such film classics as Stagecoach, The Searchers, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Little did I realize that I was in store for a much different and far more meaningful experience.


I checked into Goulding’s Lodge just in time to sign up for a 4:00 P.M. tour with an expert guide through the Valley’s famous 17-mile loop. As I waited for my guide, a gentleman approached to inform me that I was the only person signed up for the tour. He assured me that the guide would still honor my ticket and happily take me on the three and a half hour excursion. The arrangement seemed a bit awkward, but having a personal guide was ultimately appealing.


A few minutes later the tour-bus pulled up and the driver jumped out to greet me. He was driving a dusty white pick-up truck with an extended, open-air cab built onto the truck bed and outfitted with five rows of traditional school-bus seats. He introduced himself as Leo and gave me a firm handshake. He presented me with a map of Monument Valley and then he pulled down an aluminum set of stairs at the back of the bus. I climbed on board. Leo got into the cab of the truck and we took off. He started talking through the microphone system and I unfolded the map to orient myself.


As we drove up to the entrance gate, I spotted a police vehicle with the words, “Navajo Nation Police” printed on the side. I also noticed the full name of what I was about to see: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew we were on Indian lands, but that reality was far from predominant. I was too anxious to see John Ford’s point and places where famous movies I had grown up watching were filmed.


Our first stop after entering the Tribal Park was to take in extended views of the Mitten and Merrick Buttes. Their monstrous size and dramatic colors were truly majestic, especially from such close proximity. Leo began telling me about the 3,000 Navajo Indians who live in and around the valley. He shared that many live without running water or electricity, and they eke out a living any way they can. Their allegiance to the sacred lands of the Navajo Nation is unyielding; they honor the land; they revere it, they preserve it; they open it to others to share its beauty and wonder; they tell its history as no one else can.


As Leo spoke and offered to take pictures of me, I quickly realized that my education about the valley would prove to have much more depth and resonance than a John Wayne film. Although my interest in western movies remained unabated, it was now matched by an equal interest in Leo’s story and the Navajo Nation.


Less than an hour into the tour, I felt like Leo and I were more than tourist and guide. Leo was revealing himself to be part archeologist, part historian, part film buff, and full-blooded Navajo Indian. He was so much more than a guide. He was a proud spokesperson for the Navajo Nation. He was sharing his culture, values, traditions, and ways of living. He possessed such an open, generous spirit. He wanted to know where I came from and how I lived. He wanted to know who I was beyond a white man sitting on a tourist bus. I wanted to know who he was, about his family and customs.


As I stood at the edge of the famous bluff called John Ford’s Point, with the expansive background photographed in so many films, such as My Darling Clementine and Windtalkers dwarfing us, with Leo taking pictures of me, his baseball cap blew off in a gust of wind. I could tell he wanted to retrieve his cap. I followed him to a lower plateau, easing our way in the soft sands down a steep incline, and took charge of recovering his cap. I felt I owed him a favor for all the history of the valley he had shared with me. He seemed surprised at my gesture and more than grateful.


Leo delighted in showing me the famous Totem Pole used with such dramatic effect by Clint Eastwood in the film, The Eiger Sanction. We laid side-by-side on our backs against a cavern wall and stared up at a circular opening, a giant donut hole used in Steven Spielberg’s film, Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. His insightful commentary made unique features such as Three Sisters and Artist’s Point even more vibrant and indelible.


But Leo’s senses ignited when he showed me hieroglyphics thousands of years old, especially images of the fertility deity, Kokopelli, lying on his back and playing his flute, as well as deer, antelope, and birds.


Halfway through the visit, Leo introduced me to his brother-in-law who was guiding another group of tourists. The gentleman looked at me with piercing eyes and said,“Yá’át’ééh. That’s hello in the Navajo language. When John Wayne said it, he meant, ‘How the hell are ya?’ By the way, Hollywood got it all wrong. Indians fight at night.” As he pronounced the word night, he made a slashing motion with a flat, downward palm across his neck. Then he smiled and said, “Hollywood is okay. Just wrong.” Leo looked at me as we walked away and said, “My brother-in-law is a good man. He knows more than I do.”


Leo took me to a sacred part of the Tribal Lands, a burial ground. “Guides never come here. Navajo are very superstitious, but I’m not, so I feel safe. We’ll only go if you want to.” I said I trusted him, “Let’s go.” We walked slowly and reverentially. I tried not to disturb a single grain of sand.


We ended our time together with a visit to a hogan. Leo explained the bubble structure honors the shape of a woman’s pregnant belly. The nine pillars supporting the Hogan represent the nine months of pregnancy. Leo said the door always faces east, to welcome the sun and acknowledge the idea of rebirth and renewed possibilities as a new day dawns. Leo said emphatically that it is our duty to the natural world to be hopeful.


Leo then told me about one of his uncles who served in WWII as an infantryman. When his uncle came back from the war, he knew that his readjustment to civilian life was far from assured. His family encouraged him to enter a traditional Indian sweat lodge in order to extract from his mind, body, and spirit the horrors of war. Leo relayed that his uncle went through that cleansing experience and thereafter lived free from even a hint of PTSD. Leo proudly told me that his uncle enjoyed a full, satisfying life and died of natural causes at an advanced age. Clearly, Leo was suggesting that other races and cultures would be wise to study and follow traditional Native American customs. Leo invited me to join him in a sweat lodge on my next visit, which he hoped would be soon.


Leo and I ended our time together talking about the sanctity of life, the miracle of Mother Earth, the hope that each new day promises, and the optimism we owe to each sunrise.


Leo then shared that his children, now adults, had left his beloved Tribal Lands to enter “Your world.” He said this with a bit of sadness and regret. He insisted that he and his wife would remain committed to their sacred homeland, traditions, and customs. They would never leave the hallowed land they called home.


I thanked Leo for guiding me through his Tribal Lands but more importantly for teaching me a little about the Navajo people, their culture, and their way of life. I walked away feeling more connected to America’s rich and varied history. Leo made the land speak in a way I could not accomplish on my own.


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