After visiting one red-rocked American icon in the form of Arches National Park, we headed south for another – Monument Valley. We stopped for supplies and a hit of civilisation in a happening little town called Moab on the way South. Moab is the centre of any exciting form of outdoor pursuit you could possibly think of, particularly off-road driving. And we’re not just talking 4WDs that are for once not being used to pick the kids up from the local private school. No, the town was full of proper off-road buggies of all shapes and sizes. We felt a bit left out having drive to only two of our wheels and a standard clearance on our vehicle… Little did we know how apt this would turn out to be in the next few hours….
Nonetheless we headed into the desert. We paused at a natural rock formation called Mexican Hat, which humorously did look like a large Mexican hat perched precariously. The weather was hot but storm clouds were gathering on the horizon (meteorologically not metaphorically), which gave an interesting backdrop to the desert vista. As we got closer and closer to Monument Valley, the clouds grew more menacing… Monument Valley is the iconic ‘wild west’ – it must have appeared in a million western movies (and 80’s TV series Airwolf) – those huge red orange buttes towering above the desert floor. The area is in a Naïve American Indian Reservation, and the local indigenous people run the facilities. This is fantastic, given the awful history of white settlement of the US – it does give the Indians an opportunity to manage their own sacred land, to restrict where the hoards of tourists can go, and to gain some revenue. However, it must be said that the facilities and management were probably not quite up to the standard of somewhere run by the government National Park Service. And this became increasingly obvious…
The nice lady who took our entrance money said we should start on the 17 mile unpaved loop road around the formations right away as it looked like it might rain and it tended to ‘get muddy’… What she didn’t mention was that the ‘road’ is really only suitable for 4WDs even with no rain! We took our big colourful camper down the first maybe 500m and, after shaking loose everything on board, giving the suspension a good thrashing, and wheel-spinning through a pile of sand, we decided we probably wouldn’t make it through another 16 and ¾ miles of it. We just managed to get back up the first hill before the rain came smashing down. Another 5 minutes and we would still be there now!
So we didn’t quite get to do the full tour. But, while we sat eating lunch in the back of the warm dry van from the safety of the car park (where there was still a pretty good view through the rain of the infamous Mittens formations) we did feel slightly smug – for the poor bus tour groups get put on the back of open roofed Toyota landcruisers, and everybody was coming back freezing and soaked to the skin from two hours of desert-rock-road jolting in the middle of a thunder storm… From Monument Valley we passed through another attraction run by the local Tribespeople – the Four Corners Monument. This has nothing to do with rocks, but everything to do with geography, for it is the only point where four US states meet, and you can technically be in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona all at the same time. It was a slightly odd place – a small monument almost literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Native American stalls selling locally made arts and crafts, with people calmly queuing up to take a photo of themselves, twister-like, with a bit of themselves in each state.
By now it had been over 12 hrs since we were in a National Park, and that just wouldn’t do. So we headed up into Mesa Verde NP, driving up onto a huge table of land, cut through with valleys and canyons. It was a beautiful place to camp up in the hills, but the reason for its National Park status is that it is the site of thousands of ancient ruins. Between 600 and 1300AD, a group called the Anasazi lived in dwellings built into the cliffs under the mesa top. The people disappeared and the place was forgotten until white settlers rediscovered it within the last 200 years. It was quite eerie and spectacular, walking through these abandoned buildings that were beautiful in their way – they weren’t simple caves or stone houses, but complicated multi-roomed structures built in stone bricks, some with curved towers four storeys high.
Next up was a one-day mini-road trip along the San Juan Skyway, part of which is the ‘Million Dollar Highway’. The name allegedly comes from the value of the ore built into the road, but it also neatly sums up the scenery. It winds 200 miles up into massive mountain ranges, across high alpine passes, through ski fields, and down into historic towns. It was awesome! Some of the vistas we got to see were amazing – bubbling melt-water rivers tumbling through pine forest and snow-covered mountain peaks. It was Memorial Day in the US the day we did the drive, the day America salutes those who have served and died while serving in its numerous Armed Forces. By accident we came across a ceremony at a small cemetery just outside a town called Delores. It was moving service, which finished with a noisy 3-gun salute from a firing squad and a massive cannon firing across the valley.
We drove on through snow fields at the top of mountain passes – something Kirralee was particularly excited by, having not seen snow since she was 5 or so years old! She celebrated by losing a thong (flip flop – keep it clean) in one particular patch that was, er, deeper than it looked! We also managed to fit in a gondola ride up to a ski resort above the wonderful town of Telluride (which was in the middle of its annual Film Festival and had a great atmosphere).
We finished up following the historic Silverton railroad down into Durango, and prepared to go south again and back into the desert…