Day 5/6: Road Trip in the Time of Covid
Day 5: Grand Canyon > Monument Valley
Got up early again for sunrise and then headed on my way to Monument Valley. Since the park's east entrance is closed, I had to drive back south toward Flagstaff and then north toward Page. Along the way, I tried to stop at Cameron Trading Post, which is my first stop on the Navajo Tribal Lands. I love to look at the countless Native American crafts and also eat their yummy Navajo Tacos. If you’re not familiar, the Navajo Taco is proof God loves us. I think Ben Franklin said that about beer. Both would be true, in my opinion.
Basically, you take everything you would normally put on a taco and put it on top of Navajo Fry Bread which is a big flat(ish) fluffy deep fried chewy piece of bread heaven. They are always as big as the plate they're served on, so it is epic in proportion. Some people forgo the taco portion and just eat the Fry Bread by itself - it can be eaten plain or topped with honey or dipped in stew, etc.
Unfortunately, Cameron Trading Post was closed, so I moved on to Horseshoe Bend - an amazing overlook above the Colorado River not far from where it flows out of the Glen Canyon Dam. When I am guiding a trip, we always take a boat tour on the river and look up at the tiny people on the massive cliffs above us. It was fun to see it again from the top - something I haven’t done in a decade.
After a picnic in Page, I made the long drive through the desolate Navajo Reservation to Monument Valley. The Tribal Park is currently closed, but you can sill see a bunch of the cool rock formations from the main highway and also from the hotel I normally say at: Goulding's Lodge. One of my all time favorite things to do while on a trip is to take a sunrise photo from my hotel balcony. (See one of last year's photos below). Monument Valley is truly my happy place.
I ended up paying for a campsite for the night at Goulding's Campground. My reasoning was because the Navajo Nation has been hit really hard by Covid-19 (both financially and medically), so I want to contribute to their local economy.
The first thing I did after I checked in, was grab a Navajo Taco and several pieces of Fry Bread. You know...to support the economy...and to support my expanding waistline. Remember the expression about weight gain in college, “the freshman 15”? I’m currently sporting “the Covid 30.” It was “the Covid 20," but that was last month. Please, Lord, don’t let it be “the Covid 40” next month.
Now, I think it’s time I admitted something awkward - up until 6:00 PM, today, I still hadn’t showered since departing Texas 5 days ago. (Not for lack of trying, I assure you, I just didn't anticipate a few key closures.) Shocking enough, it hasn’t been too big a problem. The region is so dry that my typically oily hair (which has to be washed every day) was dry as a bone. I guess evaporation and dry shampoo are a great combo. I did get a little desperate and start to at least wash my face with cooler water. Brrrr, but worth it.
Granted, I still REALLY wanted a shower. It’s also another reason I was keen on paying for a campsite for the night. As soon as I pulled in (and after my first Navajo Taco), I hopped into a gloriously high-pressured shower. Lemme tell you - it was heaven.
I then ran around taking photos of the area which are best done in the early evening light. Mexican Hat rock formation and the Navajo Blanket cliff side are both west facing, so morning light wasn’t good enough for my critical eye.
The only thing I really missed about the park being closed was not being able to take the iconic 3 buttes photo, but I get to take those every trip. (Below is one from my first year of guiding in 2005.)
There was a hike around one of the buttes I was going to take (the only hike in the park), but I guess I’ll just have to come back to do it. (That thought fills me with joy.)
Day 6: Monument Valley > Mesa Verde National Park
It was an amazing sunrise at Monument Valley this morning. I drove from Goulding's Campground over to Goulding’s Lodge since they have the best views. When I spend the night on a trip, we stay at the Lodge and I always get the most amazing sunrise photo while sitting on my room’s balcony.
As soon as I started setting up my camera, a security guard pulled up, wondering where I had come from. He was totally fine with me being there, just curious. We talked a bit about how the season was going for the whole Goulding’s operation which employs Navajo staff for its hotels, restaurants and tours. As you can imagine, they have been hurting for business and once the guests start to trickle in, there is a big concern about contracting Covid. The entire reservation is still under shelter-in-place orders and face masks are required everywhere.
After the guard left, I sat blissfully enjoying the sunrise at my leisure. Usually when I’m in Monument Valley, I have time for a brief sunrise photo before it's off to the races to get the group organized for breakfast & tours of the valley. It was magical to be completely obligation free.
The colors of the sunrise were spectacular. I was so excited to see the time lapse video. Truth be told, I've been having terrible luck with my sunrise/set videos. The wind has been ferocious in Arizona. Every time, the camera has been super shakey on the tripod (despite trying dfferent approaches), so all the videos look like they are jumping around. It offends my cinemographic sensibilities.
In Monument Valley, however, the wind was absolutely calm. So let me tell you, it would have been my best video by far...if I had remembered to press record. *face palm* Apparently, I was having such a lovely conversation with the security guard, that after I set up the camera, I completely forgot to hit the big, red record button. Oh, well, at least I got to experience it first hand. I did get one photo which I accidently took when I was setting up, so I guess that will have to be sufficient. For a brief moment, I thought about staying in Monument Valley for another night, just to get the next day’s sunrise video.
After packing up my equipment, I decided to head back to the campground to take a nap. I ended up staying up really late writing the night before, so I was happy to take advantage of the 11:00 AM checkout. I ended up sleeping away most of the morning, so I guess my body needed it. Once I got up, I took another shower - just because I could. #bliss And of course I snagged another Navajo Taco & extra Fry Bread on my way out of town. I then pulled over at a scenic turnout and popped the hatchback for another picnic with a view. The location is quite famous since it appeared in the movie “Forest Gump.” It’s where Forest decides he’s done running and turns around to go home.
The afternoon was spent driving the rest of the way through the Navajo Reservation to Mesa Verde National Park. I was going to stop at Four Corners National Monument (where four states meet), but it was closed due to Covid. Instead, I detoured to Ship Rock, New Mexico. Ship Rock is a very tall rock which can be seen for up to 100 miles away. It’s been a useful navigation tool for as long as people have inhabited the Southwest. I've seen it in the distance on every trip in this region, but never got close to it.
I decided to get a campsite on top of Mesa Verde for the next two nights, because I love the park so much. The architectural history of the ancient Native Americans in this region is so facinating. The fact that we have preserved ruins from over 1500 years ago on American soil is just so cool. I fancy I can still feel the spirits of those who lived on top of the mesa, today. I wanted to be as close to that feeling as possible, and I was lucky the campground still had sites available last minute.
After checking in, I headed to the abandoned Far View Visitor Center and set up for my sunset time lapse video. The center is abandoned, so I had the place all to myself. It’s funny, though, I could hear people talking on their balconies at the Far View Lodge which is at least a mile away. The shallow canyons on the mesa must be shaped in such away to amplify sound. Made me think of the hundreds of different settlements all living up here a millennia ago. Because the place is all ruins now, it’s sometimes hard for me to visualize a vibrant society going about their daily lives. After hearing the guest’s voices so clearly, I can better imagine the individual “towns” could hear each other and see the other’s fire light. This whole place feels like an isolated island in the sky. Makes me wonder if the average citizen ever left the mesa in their lifetime or if that was something only nomadic traders did. (Below is a view from on top of Mesa Verde, looking toward the Rocky Mountains.)
While I was taking the video, and pondering an ancient culture, I pulled out the new toy I had purchased: a mini propane stove. While I was gearing up, I was thinking of bringing some sort of an electric coffee cup or water heater which I could plug into my cigarette lighter. All the ones I looked at online had such terrible reviews, I decided against getting one. I don’t normally drink coffee, my diet soda addiction is enough, but I like the thought of having a warm cup of something (tea/coffee/cocoa) as I do my videos. The high elevation and progression northward means its getting cold real quick once there's no direct sunshine. I saw the perfect self-contained water heater at the Grand Canyon Market, but I punked out when I saw the price tag. Three days later, I was still thinking about it, regretting my frugality. Fortunately, there was an outdoor outfitter along my route, so I picked one up. It worked great from my instant hazelnut coffee I sipped as I watched the sunset over the mesa.