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From every room, the view's a butte

By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, February 21, 2010; F04

Somewhere on Route 89 in Arizona, we began to wonder whether we'd ever make it to Monument Valley.

It was mid-January, and snow showers had turned into a full-on snowstorm. My high school friend Roy and I were driving 400-plus miles from Las Vegas to the Navajo-owned tribal park best known as the backdrop of such classic John Wayne westerns as "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers." We plowed on through the snow, determined to get there -- and to our hotel, part of the reason we were making the journey to this remote spot on the Utah-Arizona border.

The View Hotel, which opened in December 2008, is the first hotel inside Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Built on a plateau, it's a simple three-story structure that blends into the environment. Each of its 96 rooms boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony with, yes, a stunning view of the East and West Mitten Buttes, breathtaking red-rock formations that rise from the desert floor. Managed by 25-year-old Navajo Armanda Ortega-Gordon and her non-Navajo father, Art Ortega, the $14 million hotel has brought change to a region known to be slow to embrace it.

Before the View opened, visitors to Monument Valley had few lodging options. They could stay at the decades-old Goulding's Lodge, just outside the park. (Colorado native Harry Goulding was the man responsible for persuading director John Ford to film so many movies there.) Or they could stay at any of the many nondescript motels in towns at least 20 miles away.

Ortega-Gordon, whose brainchild the hotel was, stayed true to her Navajo heritage, decorating the walls with rugs and art by local artists. A trading post features the work of local artisans. "I wanted everyone to come and see the heart of the Navajo Nation and feel a part of it and feel that culture," she told me later in a phone interview. (Having recently had a child, she was recuperating in New Mexico during my visit to the View.)

The two-story lobby is centered on a massive stone fireplace, and the comfortable leather sofas make you want to sip a glass of wine while gazing at the Mittens. But you can't; alcohol is forbidden on Navajo land. No matter, though: You still have the view.

Well, most of the time you do. We weren't quite so fortunate. We made it through the snow to the hotel and rushed to the balcony as soon as we got to our room, but all we could see was a blanket of white. There we were at the View Hotel -- with no view.

Still, the room was nice, with bedcovers in Navajo designs and native art on the walls.

The next morning we got up early, hoping to catch the sunrise over the Mittens. But the fog was too heavy.

Disappointed, I hit the treadmill. Halfway into my run, I could see the fog lifting and the tops of the Mittens peeking out of the mist. Such a tease.

Thanks to the John Wayne movies, Monument Valley is one of the most recognizable landscapes in the southwestern United States. Many American tourists, however, forgo it for Arizona's Grand Canyon and Utah's Zion National Park. You have to make a real effort to get to the nearly 30,000-acre valley, which is 300 miles from Phoenix, and for some reason, European and Japanese tourists are more likely to do so than Americans.

You can drive yourself through the park along the 17-mile road that winds around the formations. But we opted for a guided tour with Harold Simpson, a Navajo who grew up on the reservation and runs Trailhandler Tours. At least 30 Navajos still live on the valley floor in houses with no electricity or running water. (Simpson now lives outside the reservation.)

We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant while waiting for Simpson. Sitting by the window, we watched the fog continue to drift away. Then we walked outside, trudging through the snow to take photos from one of the hotel's vantage points. The valley was starting to look alive, and my worries were melting away with the snow.

Still, I wondered whether it would be wise to drive in such conditions. The snow hadn't been plowed, and it was hard to see. The dirt roads curved sharply in some places, and the signs were inconspicuous. "It's part of the adventure," Simpson told us when he showed up. His half brother, Richard Frank, chauffeured us in a pickup truck.

"It's awesome to see the white blanket of snow on the red rock," Simpson said. "You can actually see the definition, the contrast of the monuments."

He was right. Although some of the sights he wanted to show us were shrouded in fog and clouds, what we did see was awe-inspiring. Simpson pointed out the buttes, towers and spires that are the result of millions of years of erosion and volcanic action, telling us their Navajo names and then translating them. There was the Thumb, and the Three Sisters. ("They look like three Catholic nuns," he said.) There was the Sleeping Dragon. ("You can see the nostrils.") We got out of the car to look at the Sun's Eye, a formation with a cutout that did indeed resemble an eye. We stopped at the Ear of the Wind, one of the largest arches in the valley. "It looks like an ear," Simpson said. "But it also looks like Elvis Presley in his younger years. See the hairdo inside the arch?"

Roy said he could. I couldn't, but I gave the men credit for having vivid imaginations.

Nearing the end of our three-hour tour, we arrived at Artist's Point, which offers a panoramic view of the buttes. Again, the fog conspired against us, but we had fun anyway. Simpson let out a scream that echoed for miles. Roy yodeled. I offered up a pathetic shriek that made my companions laugh.

Back at the hotel for dinner, I ran into Art Ortega, sitting at a nearby table with members of his staff. When we were done eating, he invited me to the lobby for a chat.

Ortega told me that his daughter was 18 when she came up with the idea for the hotel. The family already owned jewelry stores, gas stations, hotels and other real estate throughout New Mexico and Arizona. The View grossed more than $8 million in its first year, he said, and paid $1 million in taxes and fees to the Navajo Nation.

"We knew there was something in here that no one had tapped into," Ortega said. "We're bringing money from outside the reservation and we're bringing it in."

A new visitor's center with a museum opened in December, and Ortega said he hopes the hotel will attract more of a certain kind of tourist to the park. "Too bad more Americans don't come," he said.

Really.

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