Thursday, September 23, 2010

long night & morning glory

After our steak and rattlensnake dinner, we wanted to get as close as we could to Monument Valley that night. We found a small highway that started near the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park and headed east. After turning onto the highway we quickly saw our first animal: a majestic buck that must've been a 10 or 12 point. He was only a few feet off the road and looked a lot like Bambi's father. Later, I had to swerve to avoid a skunk as it waddled down the white line. With some old jazz playing on the satellite radio, we took the curvy road through the arid forest, our high beams illuminating the trees and brush. We found a place to turn off, got out of the car, and gazed upward. There were more stars than either of us had ever seen in our lives.

The Milky Way was clear as day, the stars so dense and plentiful that even the familiar constellations were difficult to discern through the blanket of bright, twinkling stars. There were so many, in fact, that it made us both dizzy. You felt as though you could reach up and run your fingers through them like sparkling water. Your feet didn't feel so tethered to the ground and any second they would float free from the bounds of gravity and you'd fly away. Then we heard some strange noises and quickly got back into the car.

The lazy road was made almost entirely of twists and turns and it was quite pleasant to drive leisurely, without aggressive headlights constantly blinding you in the rearview mirror. Even when we connected to a more major roadway, we pretty much were the only ones out driving. By 1am, I was exhausted and we pulled over at the first motel we found in Tuba City. Not only were they full, all the area motels were full. Apparently, the southwest is a popular destination for European tourists who travel in huge buses and take up every room in the place. We loaded up on coffee and headed to the next town but with the same result. By now, we were only an hour to Monument Valley.

The reality was setting in that we might be sleeping in our car that night and we figured if it came to that then why not drive into Monument Valley itself and wake up with a view. The moon had already slipped behind the horizon for the night and it was pitch black with nothing but stars to guide us. When we arrived at the valley we started turning off onto side roads looking for the area's famous monoliths against the horizon. Sometimes we could make out their slightly darker silhouettes against the black sky, but the red dirt roads were rough and always seemed to lead to lonely private residences. After about an hour of u-turns and double-backs Deb suggested we try the new hotel overlooking the Valley. I was skeptical, but we were out of options. They too were full (and I'm certain we wouldn't have been able to afford such a place anyway) but the woman at the counter could not have been nicer. Not only did she say we could sleep in our car in a darkened portion off their parking lot, she also gave us water and offered us pillows. Such hospitality at a time like that is a rare gift. We slowly pulled into a gravel area behind the now familiar tour buses which had plagued our route, made ourselves as comfortable as one can be in a Hyundai Sonata and went to sleep. It was 4am.

I awoke a few hours later with a sliver of sun in my eyes and shivered in the now chilly car. As my eyes adjusted I could see something amazing out the window. I tried to wake up Deborah so she could see what I was seeing, but she was having none of it. So I got out of the car and walked to the nearby cliff edge. There was Monument Valley in all its glory, the mesas, the buttes, and the spires of the American West as far as the eye could see. The valley floor had a greenish hue from the many spots of desert plant life and the three massive, signature rocks silhouetted against the blue and orange of the morning sky. The sun barely peeking over the horizon and was further obscured by one of the the three mittens (huge vertical mesas rising out of the ground with a separated sliver of rock on one side to give it its namesake shape). Their red orange coloring was subtle and tempered by the shadowy backlighting of the fragile sunlight, but their shapes were clear as day.

I stood alone on the cliff and looked down at them from my high vantage point. It was one of the most astonishing things I've ever seen in my life and suddenly all the extra driving and dusty dead end roads of the long night behind us were more than worth it. It was freezing, but I stood there as long as I could, taking in the spectacle of one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. The sun continued its morning arc and I snapped a few pictures to capture a taste of the sight. But photos cannot capture the encompassing glory of such a moment, they can only help remind us of how lucky we once were to experience it.

I got back into the car as quietly as I could, covered my face with a t-shirt, and went back to sleep. It was going to be a great day.

1 comment:

  1. Blankets & pillows are good extras to have in the car on long road trips, as you found out. The hugeness of the American west and austere majesty of the landscape always make me stop and stare in wonder.

    I get a taste of it on a semi-regular basis with the mountains, forests, and waterways around Puget Sound. The stars at night are too obscured here by light pollution, though not nearly as bad as in NYC, I bet. The best thing is to drive hours and hours away from any city, then allow yourself some time in the full darkness so your eyes can adjust.

    It takes 30+ minutes for healthy human eyes to adapt to extreme darkness, and only takes a few seconds of light exposure to reset that clock. Cigarette, campfire, dashboard lights will all ruin your night vision.

    Last time I was out camping in central Montana, hundreds of miles from any big city, a couple times I woke up in the middle of the night and peeked outside the tent. It was bright. Almost like there were billions of miniature suns in the sky...