Story by Bill Wood. Photo by Marc Averette.
This article appeared in the February 2007 issue of American Motorcyclist.
I’m many miles from any major city in Arizona. I know you’ve heard of the middle of nowhere.
This is it. But I’m on a mission, to ride Monument Valley.
I keep getting fooled by the scale of this place. Up ahead, I see a mesa rising out of the desert landscape. It looks like a big, red-rock castle about a mile away.
Ten minutes later, at 65 mph, I still haven't reached the base, and I realize that what I thought was merely a large rock outcropping is actually enormous. As the scale snaps into focus, it makes everything else, like the road I'm on and the 90-cubic-inch Suzuki cruiser I'm riding, seem tiny by comparison.
That feeling of being overwhelmed by the land is what defines the experience of riding through Monument Valley, in the remote northeastern corner of Arizona.
Just getting to Monument Valley is a journey into a very different world. It's more than 300 miles from any of the major cities of the Four Corners region: Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver or Albuquerque. And many of those miles take you across what is essentially foreign land: the sovereign territory of the Navajo Nation, which covers the northeast corner of Arizona and extends into New Mexico and Utah.
Our day begins in Gray Mountain, a small settlement just outside Navajo country. As we head north on U.S. Route 89, we begin seeing hogans, the traditional round dwellings of the Navajo people.
Approaching the town of Tuba City, we turn onto U.S. Route 160 and pass through the canyon of the Little Colorado River, where painted-desert bands of color stripe the intricately folded hillsides.
The town itself has only about 8,000 residents, yet it's one of the larger communities within the Navajo Nation, which is about the same size as the state of West Virginia, but contains only 170,000 people.
In other words, there's a lot of open land around here, and we cross a long stretch of it heading northeast out of Tuba City. Rolling by on both sides of the bike are sweeping views across sagebrush valleys leading to distant hills.
We see horses, burros and sheep grazing, a couple of coyotes on patrol and, off in the distance, a few hogans with smoke rising from the central hole in the roof. Other than the highway, there's almost nothing to indicate this is the 21st century, or even the 20th. And that makes it all the more surprising when we come across Peabody Western's Black Mesa Coal Mine near Tonalea.
We pass under an enormous conveyor system that transports the coal from the mine, on the south side of the road, to a railroad line on the north side. From there, electric trains, powered by 50,000-volt overhead lines, carry the coal to a powerplant 75 miles away in Page, Ariz.
It's an amazing amount of modern technology to find out here in the middle of nowhere. But once we pass it, we're back in timeless desert again, with red rocks pushing up through the tan sand. It's a hint of things to come.
At Kayenta, we turn north on U.S. Route 163. After a few curves just outside of town, the road turns arrow-straight, which is OK, because it's the only thing that is.
On both sides, rock formations tower above the highway, making it, and everything on it, seem small.
This is the southwest edge of the place the Navajo call Tsé Bii' Ndzisgaii, meaning “Valley of the Rocks.” We've come to know it as Monument Valley.
The scenery is at once exotic and familiar. It's like nothing else on Earth, but it's so compelling that, over the years, dozens of movie directors have made it a symbol of the American West. From classic John Ford Westerns like “Stagecoach,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon'” and “The Searchers'” in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, through “Easy Rider,” “2001: A Space Odyssey'” and “Forrest Gump,'” some 66 movies and television shows have included scenes set here.
As a result, this is the way we expect the West to look. And yet, when you see it in person, it still looks like a massive, incredibly detailed special effect that's too amazing to be real.
A large part of the valley is contained within a Navajo Nation tribal park a few miles east of Route 163. But the only road through it is an unpaved route that's a bit primitive for streetbikes. Still, the part that we can see on about 20 miles of paved highway from Kayenta to and across the Utah state line is magnificent.
We ride among the rocks to a historic location, Gouldings trading post. The original trading post has turned into a thoroughly modern motel/restaurant/mini-mart complex, but the setting is still perfect, with a towering sandstone cliff backdrop that's right out of a Hollywood movie.
The ride back through the valley is, if anything, more dramatic because of the late-afternoon sun. Everywhere the light hits glows reddish-orange, while the shadow areas turn pitch black.
By the time we get back to Gray Mountain, it's fully dark, and we find that we're sharing the motel with a busload of French tourists, seeing a part of America that many Americans haven't seen.
After dinner, we hang out in the parking lot, communicating as well as we can about the motorcycles and Western scenery. It sounds like they're impressed with both.