Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Into Tse Bii' Ndzisgaii

Monument Valley

If you stand long enough, squint and gaze into the far distance you just might see a dust plume and a galloping team of four horses pulling a stagecoach, along the base of a butte.  Following the coach you might also see a troop of US Calvary led by a distinct figure wearing a yellow bandanna and a white trooper’s hat with the front brim turned up.  That imposing silhouette looks very familiar, I'm darn sure I've seen that feller somewhere before.  Could it be?  I think it is! Yes, it’s..

Please, permit me this bit of fantasy.  I grew up with the likes of John Ford’s classic  Stagecoach”, “Fort Apache” and more. It was these stunning black & white vista panoramic movies that featured the towering sandstone buttes of Monument Valley in Arizona. The Navajo call them Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii meaning valley of the rocks.  Ford shot many of his western movies here and was an ardent champion of this unique area of the US.  In fact, Monument Valley has been catapulted into the American consciousness thanks to the many westerns that Ford shot here.

On the way to Monument Valley
Arriving at Monument Valley you can either stay on the rim and view the buttes from the comfort of the Navajo welcome centre or, as I did, you can test yourself and your cars endurance abilities and venture onto the valley floor, to drive "the loop".   

Driving "the loop" is not for the faint of heart. 

The first 100 yards consists of a 45º slope in the very soft red soil.  SUV’s can find it a challenge so you can only imagine how the average car does.  Not to go unmentioned are the washboard road surfaces in many spots that can seriously rattle and shake both you and your car.  There is a dentist at the welcome centre to replace fillings that get jarred loose and a Navajo towing service to the nearest garage to fix your car's suspension ;-)

Nothing can prepare you for the dust you are about to experience.  Every vehicle emerged from the one and a half hour trip covered in a thick layer of Arizona red dust.  The visitors who opted not to take their own vehicle into "the loop" but instead choose the open air vehicle guided tours needed to wear dust masks.  All the time you are in the Monument Valley area there is dust everywhere. It creeps into your eyes, nose, ears, hair and worst of all your camera's sensor.  Some say don't change your lens while on the valley floor but one lens can't deliver all your needs in such a place that's screaming to be captured with everything from a fish-eye to a telephoto.
Did I mention the dust?
It’s definitely worth putting up will all the dust.  Monument Valley is breathtaking and cannot be truly appreciated until it's viewed from "the loop".  The buttes tower above you on your right, you’re left, in front and behind you. At every turn people were popping in and out of their vehicles with cameras, cell phones, tablets snapping, snapping, snapping.  Some try to capture the beauty, others check their emails, while others shoot who-knows-what.

Typical family scene. At least this group left their vehicle, many don't.
Cars on "the loop"
The point from which John Ford shot many of his scenes
Buttes and a very old tree
Must give the Navajo real credit for preserving this magnificent wonder.  Also, their entrepreneurship is never-ending.  At the John Ford lookout, this is the location where he shot many of his panoramic scenes, there was a guy renting his horse for you to sit upon so that a family member could then take a photograph with the famous vista in the BG.
The tourist just eat this kind of thing up.  One more step backwards and Dad will be a goner.
I’ve never shot so much of any one place, everything changes every minute.   I stayed long after sundown to shoot the famous buttes.  In the last of the day's fleeting light, using long exposures, these giants are magnificent.

Remaining well after the sun went down resulted in some of the best photos.  With only one exception all the others shooters jumped back into their cars as soon as the sun went behind the horizon. Regardless of what Apple might claim, the iPhone and iPads just can't capture long exposures the way a DSLR or mirrorless camera can.

"The Mittens" Before sunset

"The Mittens" After Sunset
No amount of viewing videos or looking at photos can quite prepare you for what Monument Valley has in store.  There is almost something magical about this place.  Just after the sun went down the wind started to gently blow and a soft murmur seemed to be coming from the valley. This noise along with the snaking line of the headlights of the last of the vehicles leaving "the loop" made for a surreal moment. No wonder the Navajo guard this place with such passion. 

For those interested as to how these marvels came about here is a brief explanation.  Not being a geologist I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of my information but from what I've read it's not too far off the mark.

If nothing else moves you about this place perhaps the knowledge that you are standing at the foot of giants whose creation started 300 million years ago just might have an effect. 

300 million years ago this place was once an inland sea, then 220 million years ago it became a green forest that provided food for early dinosaurs. Sometime around 200 million years ago the climate became aired, the forests and early dinosaurs died out and the area became a desert with 200-foot high sand dunes. Around 160 million years ago the rains came back and the, by now hardened sand dunes disappeared under a lake. By 110 million years ago the early dinosaurs have all died and others replaced them. At this point, the weather here was similar to northern California, mild and wet and the first flowers appeared. About 100 million years ago an ocean slowly started to creep back in and kept rising for 10 million years until 2000 feet of water covered the region.  Around 75 million years ago the ocean started to recede and soon the sandstone buttes were above the water again.  About 65 million years ago a lake returned and the Rocky Mountains started to push up.  Around 35 million years ago the lake got pushed out and the Rocky's crew higher. Only within the past 10,000 did the climate become what it is today. 

More to come…

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