John Ford's Monument

The 30,000-acre Monument Valley National Tribal Park that straddles the Utah-Arizona line consists of mesas carved millions of years ago from stone plateaus by water and wind.
By Glenn Frankel
Sunday, September 14, 2008

A woman in a blue country dress and a white apron stares from the porch of a simple ranch house. She spies a lone rider framed by two distant, towering buttes, moving slowly across sage brush, sand and scrub. Martha Edwards realizes it's her long-lost brother-in-law, Ethan, coming home three years after the end of the Civil War. Ethan's war has never really ended: Following the defeat of the Confederacy, he has been living south of the border as an outlaw and a hired gun.

The opening panel of "The Searchers," John Ford's classic western, sets the scene as Texas 1868, but the real setting was Monument Valley, Utah; the year was 1955; and Ethan Edwards was played by the legendary John Wayne. It was the fifth western that Ford filmed primarily in this desert dreamscape, 650 miles east of Hollywood. He filmed cowboys and Indians and cavalrymen against brooding mesas and cloud-feathered skies. A complicated man who ruled his movie sets like a cranky despot, Ford loved the splendid isolation of working far from the moguls and money men in a place where he could reign over his loyal troop of actors, cameramen, wranglers and stuntmen. He stayed just up the road at Goulding's Lodge, whose amiable owners set up a special cabin for him, fed his crew and even provided a medicine man to predict the weather. He admired the Navajos who lived here, and they in turn appreciated the cash his film company paid them for working as extras and support crew.

But what he most liked was the setting: the stark, arid landscape, the sandstorms and the scarred, defiant mesas rising 2,000 feet from the earth, overshadowing man and beast. It was John Ford's mythic vision of the Old West.

It's mine as well. "The Searchers" has long been my favorite movie. It's a thrilling and emotionally complex film about race, anger, vengeance and love set against a breathtaking background -- I've seen it a dozen times, and it never fails to move me. After Martha and most of her family are brutally murdered by Comanches, Ethan and his adopted nephew embark on a five-year quest to find Debbie, Martha's kidnapped daughter. They roam far and wide through Monument Valley, its awesome silent beauty in marked contrast to the ugly deeds of men.

Sooner or later, I knew, I had to come here to see the places where Ford filmed his greatest scenes. But it's not easy to search for "The Searchers." Ford died in 1973, and the sets he built are long gone, as is just about everyone who worked on them. Still, the extraordinary landscape survives, as does Goulding's, which offers a variety of tours.

So on our first full day here, my wife and I and 18 other tourists are packed into narrow benches in the back of an open-air trailer, and Larry Rock, our Navajo guide, is at the helm of a four-wheel-drive pulling the trailer down the winding dirt track into the heart of the valley. On our way out of Goulding's, Larry points out the small stone cabin, once a storage shed, that Ford turned into an officer's quarters for "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," one of his earlier Monument Valley westerns. But Larry has never seen "The Searchers" and doesn't have much to say about John Ford -- he's got other stories to tell.

It's clear to me that it's going to take an act of imagination and a certain amount of faith to find "The Searchers." But that's okay, because Monument Valley is big enough for anyone's imagination, and it turns out that John Ford is only one legend in a place that holds many.

There's no interstate on Monument Valley's doorstep and no place to stay within 20 miles except for Goulding's, which has already put out the No Vacancy sign this morning. The 30,000-acre Monument Valley National Tribal Park straddles the Utah-Arizona line. Its road are unpaved, and the 17-mile dirt circuit through the valley is steep and unfriendly; if you venture out in an ordinary car, there's a good chance you can kiss your rear axle goodbye.

Larry is ticking off the names of the various buttes and mesas as we slowly weave past them. These are the "monuments" that are the valley's signature feature, and they look like sandstone cathedrals. There are Mitchell and Merrick buttes, named after two former soldiers who entered the valley in the early 1880s looking for silver and lost their scalps. There are Castle and Gray Whiskers and Sentinel and Elephant, and East and West Mitten, each with a rocky thumb. At the northern end of the park, there are Bear and Rabbit, King on His Throne and Brigham's Tomb, named after Mormon pioneer patriarch Brigham Young. One of the favorite pastimes here is to re-imagine the buttes as celebrities: Larry points out the profiles of George Washington, Alfred Hitchcock, Al Gore and Snoopy.

Each mesa, carved millions of years ago from stone plateaus by water and wind, is basically a rock sandwich -- two slices of crusty shale with a soft sandstone filling. From ground level they loom tall and majestic, and their deep red color glows especially brightly near sunset. It's easy to see why the early Navajos believed the formations held up the sky.

The buttes seem welded to the ground. But Larry recalls the precise time and date -- 12:45 p.m. on May 18, 2006 -- when an awesome chunk of the thumb of East Mitten came crashing down. "All we saw was a huge red cloud of dust that rose, and then we heard some rumble," he says.

Larry's truck bumps and grinds its way past a half-dozen shacks and hogans -- the traditional circular Navajo huts. Maybe 200 people live in the valley; there's no electricity or running water, and it's hard to grow crops amid the rock and sand. With harsh, wind-blown winters and an annual rainfall below 10 inches, it's even hard to keep alive a handful of skinny sheep or goats.

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