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As we travel the country we often get suggestions about places we just have to see. In fact, I started a page on my phone's note program where I write those suggestions down, mainly because my memory is so lousy that I wouldn't remember five minutes after I heard the suggestion. This simply puts off the problem, as remembering to look at the page of notes is problematic.
But every once in a while I do, and the national parks in the southwest occupy a prominent place on the list, and rightly so. The landscape is magnificent; truly overwhelming. The pictures we took can't capture the breathtaking beauty, but I'm going to let you see some of them anyway and hope you can get a feeling for the place.
Our first stop was Monument Valley in Utah, situated in a narrow, red rock canyon with a stunning view from the RV. Goulding's Lodge is actually a complete small town in the desert; hotel, RV park, grocery store, gas station and post office everything a tourist might need. So we filled up the gas tank and proceeded to drive around the area, gawking at the landscape.
We started in the Valley of the Gods, a seventeen mile paved road that wandered through some fascinating formations. We stopped frequently to get out of the pickup and take pictures, mumble inane things like "gorgeous!" and "spectacular!" or simple wordless exclamations.
We were nearing the end of the road when the phone rang, a bit of an unnerving experience in a remote place where you would never expect a cell phone to work. It was my sister Becky, who came close to the last person I would expect to be calling me. As it turned out, she was actually calling Judy; it was her cell phone that had hooked up to the hands-free connection in the pickup instead of mine. My sister cleared up the confusion when she said "Ralph, you idiot, you dropped your cell phone and some guy started calling the people in your contact list and got me. Go back and get it!" The phone pouch on my belt had started to swivel whenever it felt like it and the phone must have fallen out without me noticing.
So we turned around with only a vague idea of where we were going, we had stopped in quite a few places along the way. Judy thought it might be the people we saw relaxing under a tree, so naturally I was looking for those trees when the phone rang again. The guy who found the cell phone saw us drive by, missing him completely because there were no trees, and called us. So we turned around again and reclaimed the lost phone with great expressions of thanks. If he hadn't found it, it would still be laying on the desert floor.
By the time we had retrieved my cell phone we were rather hungry. Fortunately, there was a very nice restaurant close by (a surprise in the lonely reaches of the desert) called the Twin Rocks Cafe.
We remarked on the good cell service in the area and found out why it came to be. There used to be a bridge over the river in the area, but it had become unsafe and was no longer there, causing some hardship to those on the other side of the river. For several years the community tried to raise money to replace it, but the cost was just too high to be feasible, so they opted to use what money they had raised to erect a cell tower., thus allowing me to reclaim my phone.
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This area of the country is unusual, it is the only place where the borders of four states meet; unsurprisingly it is referred to as the Four Corners.
Naturally, there was a marker erected at the spot, which has been replaced several times over the years.
Now there is a plaza surrounded on all four sides by booths with Native American craftsmen and their wares. We left a considerable amount of money behind and have the pleasure of some beautiful examples of their ingenuity and craftsmanship.
On each side of the plaza are markers explaining a bit of the history of the area.
An interesting side note - modern surveying techniques using GPS and lasers and such found the original marker was about a thousand feet off the mark, not bad considering the technology of the time. Naturally, someone had to bring a court case to try to move the marker, but the courts decided the original placement is just fine where it is, thank you very much.
The Four Corners area is also home to the Hovenweep National Monument. These are the ruins of several stone buildings about 700 years old, very impressive when you realize how much work it took to quarry and move all that rock. Nobody is sure why they left the area - climate change, other tribes, whatever? There are many theories but nothing widely accepted.
I wouldn't have thought it possible, but after several days of incredibly beautiful landscapes we were almost on beauty overload. Ho-hum - another spectacular rock reaching for the heavens. Been there, done that.
Well, not quite that bad, but you get the idea.
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We drove Monument Valley twice, once as part of a tour that let us see some of the back country and again on our own. Monument Valley is on the Navajo reservation and is run by the tribe, who have done a wonderful job of preserving it while allowing people to view the wonders it holds.
Our guide told us that the word is what the Spanish called the people of the area; in their language they are the Diné. Back when the Diné were contesting the Spanish occupation, they became known for their flexible tactics in war, always trying something new and different to the consternation of the Spanish. The Spanish named them from their word navaja, meaning clasped knife, sort of the equivalent of the Swiss army knife and the name stuck - at least for those outside the tribe. another source say it is a corruption of a word from the Pueblo peoples. I kind of like the poetic Swiss army knife explaination
The Spanish weren't the only ones to become disenchanted with the reluctance of the Diné to be pushed around. The US government forced the Diné off their land and caused a great deal of bloodshed and hardship. They were eventually forced to allow the Diné to return to their lands; not a part of history I was taught in school.
Fortunately, these days the US government is (at least officially) more reasonable with the people we stole our country from. Everyone we met was quite friendly and willing to explain their traditions and beliefs, and to help us understand more about the Diné. I did have some background from having read Tony Hillerman's wonderful books, but there's nothing like being there and talking to the actual people who live there.
Oddly enough, we arrived in the desert in time for several days of rain. Not great for tourists, but welcome in the arid landscape. On our sunset guided tour the clouds broke and we were treated to a lovely rainbow against the cliffs of Monument Valley.
The sunset lighting brought out the beauty of the red rock formations.
On our last day at Goulding's Lodge we visited the museum, which is in the trading post that Harry & Mike (his wife called herself Mike) Goulding opened in the 1920s. Many of John Ford's westerns were shot in the area, and John Wayne had his own cabin in the place.
They have a stagecoach and buckboard outside the museum, so it will come as no surprise I took pictures of Judy and yet another cute little kid there.
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Next stop - Moab Utah for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Canyonlands is huge, far more than we could do in the time we had. We opted for the Island In The Sky, a great plateau with spectacular views in every direction.
When you think of deserts you naturally think of sand - lots of sand. What damage could you do to all that sand, you might ask. Actually, you can do a great deal of damage. A very fragile crust of sand and microbial life forms in areas that are not scoured by the winds, and that crust is easily damaged. The trail in this picture was made a century ago and is still there, lifeless amidst the life of the valley.
We were repeatedly asked to stay on the paths and not mess up the environment; alas there were footprints galore from people who don't care if anyone else will have a chance to see the unspoiled beauty of the park.
We also saw a rare stand of Douglas Fir trees, located on a Cliffside where there was enough water year 'round to support them in the otherwise arid landscape.
Once again we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the place, here are some of the things we saw.
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Only a few miles from Canyonlands is Arches National Park, which you probably have guessed is full of arches, not to mention more spectacular scenery. The entrance road is pretty daunting, switchbacks up what looks like a shear cliff from the entrance station.
From the top they don't look quite so bad, but it's not for the faint of heart. Apparently, heart disease is not rampant among our fellow tourists, as we had plenty of company on our explorations. Besides the arches, there are plenty of the now familiar interesting rock formations.
The balanced rock is particularly interesting, changing appearance as you walk around it.
At last we come to the arches, like the world famous arch at the top of this page. You are welcome to walk right up and into the arches, but not on top! You can see that we were not alone, all those little dots on the double arch are people, one of them Judy.
I'll leave you with a couple of more shots of the more interesting rocks in the park.
Next stop: Boulder Colorado across the great divide.