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Among Giants at Monument Valley

Monument-Valley-drive-BTThe land forgets. Time forgets. And this is the natural way of things, I think, driving through the crimson valley. Or is it? Perhaps nothing is consigned to oblivion except from human memory, human perception. 

The erased things are more noticeable at Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii. The eroded sandstone calls attention to itself by its absence from the towering buttes. The bleached skull of a lizard points out the presence of death in the wilderness. The hogan of the Diné reminds me that a vanquished people live here. The stratified topography evokes memories of lost stories, misplaced names, extinct societies, broken bodies.   

Monument-Valley-BTThis terrain makes it so easy to forget with its vast sweeps of sky, its unending rusted plains. Too readily I pretend to be the privileged explorer discovering untamed mesas and alien pillars untouched by time. Erasing the past I play at conquering the illusory empty harshness of a nonexistent American West.  

Life goes on. What’s old will be new again. History is set on an infinite loop. All this is true, but it’s also a convenient excuse. I can choose not to remember what is still present. I can deny knowledge recovered over and over again. I can couch the narrative in conjunctive amnesia. I come out of it defeated, though, buried under the rubbish I’ve concocted. 

Monument-Valley-cows-BTWhere weather has stolen the principal layers it has left deep scars — minerals exposed change the color from tawny to lavender, cracks widen into chutes, fins thin; it is the same with human actions. Past conduct complicates future solutions, ignoring them doesn’t ameliorate.

Perhaps it is because these rocks are one-hundred-and-sixty million years old. Perhaps it is the seemingly eternal ribbon roads cutting through expansive desert on their way to meet an infinite horizon. Perhaps it is the solitary monoliths which appear to broodily guard this space. I can’t put my finger on it, but something at Monument Valley provokes great melancholy, a feeling of isolation, a wandering of the soul. To me it also breeds a sense of sanctity too precious to be spoken aloud.

Monument-Valley-hideout-BTOf course the imperviousness of the environment is a lie which can be dispelled by the sight of discarded mines, signs for new age retreats, fast food wrappers fluttering from gulches. Any way you slice it, truth is we change the form of the land. We reshape it with our perspective, our ignorance, our desire. We mow it, plow it, scrape parts of it onto other sections, gouge it, polish it, build on it….

Monument-Valley-peaks-BTSuch feats feel impossible in this dream world whose otherness emphasizes our inability to comprehend nature. It’s a deception. This earth also carries upon it our violence; the wounds of identity, the trauma of ownership exist here too. Only my unwillingness to acknowledge it hinders me from seeing. 

Monument-Valley-storm-BTIt’s difficult at first for me to comprehend that Monument Valley is a continuous sea of rock. The famous turrets that rise up, like mythical beings, are in fact part of the plateau. They are deeply rooted, imbedded — as I am, as we all are — to our planet. I think it a mistake that they’ve been labeled: the Three Sisters, the Mitten Buttes, the Totem Pole. Such categorization constricts us from understanding the interconnectivity of existence, the multiplicity of matter. I’m reminded by these mega-formations of sedimentary-conglomerate-sand-rock not to confine the generosity on spectacle at Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii.

Monument-Valley-road-BTI’m glad this place disquiets me. I hope I never forget it. I hope it continues to haunt me long after I drive away. I hope it whispers to me in coming years of its undefinable fluidity. I hope it confounds me to the very end.


Monument Valley may look like an impregnable landscape, but it is a delicate habitat and a cultural preserve. Plants, such as the purple sage, the juniper, and the yucca as well as animals like coyotes, red-tailed hawk, and mountain lions depend on the balanced environment. In addition, this is home to Navajo Nation who consider the geology and wildlife here as sacred and essential. Please travel throughout the plateau responsibly and tread carefully.

What does landscape mean to you? From what perspectives do you see it? Ever been in a landscape which you thought was from another planet? Let me know about it in the comments below!


118 replies »

  1. I love your pictures and your post. I am delighted that this land evoked such deep feelings and thoughts and you skillfully expressed them in your post. We have passed through Four Corners many times only to see Monument Valley from a distance. I feel that we have to see it much closer. Your post ultimately inspired me to go there.

  2. A beautiful, thoughtful post. I can see why you feel disquiet there. The starkness and beauty echo in the silence and remind us of our broken past. We humans have nearly destroyed our covenant with nature, haven’t we?

  3. This type of landscape is so foreign to me, given I live in an urban city filled with buildings, which are now all covered in snow.

    This would be an amazing place to visit.


    • Other topographies sort of pale in comparison, don’t they? 🙂 Although I like to also admire the little bits of nature that crop up in urban areas. Thanks for your feedback and I hope you’re keeping warm.

  4. Great post and photos! We visited Monument Valley last year for the first time. I really liked seeing it in the distance as you approach. Conditions were not ideal for photos but my husband and I drove the loop and I got a couple images I like. I would like to go back when conditions and timing might be better.

  5. Wow! “We reshape it with our perspective, our ignorance, our desire. We mow it, plow it, scrape parts of it onto other sections, gouge it, polish it, build on it….”

    I love how you can shape a narrative so eloquently on an image and experience, which otherwise might go unheard. Beautiful as always.

  6. “Perhaps nothing is consigned to oblivion except from human memory, human perception.” 🙂 That’s getting right to the heart of it! And perhaps all is illusion….but meanwhile, here we are. And you are a scintillating guide to have along. I love the way you look beneath the surface. The erased things – what a good way to look at that landscape. I think the erasure, the forgetting and even the melancholy that vast desert landscapes can engender, can be a very positive thing. We can empty ourselves of ourselves more easily in places like this, don’t you think?
    I like your musings about naming. There’s no way we could not name those structures, but it’s a valuable insight to think about how naming them prevents us from certain ways of seeing and understanding. I hope you stay confounded too! There’s a lot we don’t know, and that’s such a comfort. Wonderful post my friend!

    • Ah, thank you for popping in to see my musings and be so kind to them! Your words remind me of something I heard once (can’t remember the reference), which went along the lines of: “Perhaps life is a dream. We wake up when we die.” Perhaps, it’s the scientist in me, but I used to be bothered by the not knowing…now I’m learning to live in it better.

      • As eager as I am to identify every new plant I find, and learn all I can about each person who interests me, it would all be meaningless without the vast space of not knowing. (p.s. I just enjoyed the 5 questions video from MoMa – what a pleasure it was to hear your critical, inquiring mind at work).

      • Oh, much as I’d like to take credit for that brilliance, that’s not me! The remarkable art historian and I do share the same name (which is not an uncommon one in my heritage). I very much enjoy her perspective too and if you’re interested she’s got her own website:

      • Oops! You’re both exceptional! I knew Gupta was a common name, but I thought your first name wasn’t, and I convinced myself there were many similarities in the way you think, which may still be true. 🙂

      • Haha, thanks, but I think she’s far more of a genius than me! It is an eerie feeling, I admit, to see my name presented under the marvelous things she writes and says.

  7. Both your photos and your lyrical prose are breathtaking, and I mean it. I had to stop reading to concentrate on the images, then I could go back and absorb your impressions. Your words have done justice to this strange and beautiful place.

    • I’m deeply touched by the richness of your compliment. I like the idea of my post being a too-decadent dessert that you had to consume in smaller bits to fully enjoy. I hope the rest of your week is kind to you.

  8. Amazing post …the best I have read to date … thanks for allowing me the opportunity to share your journey … the solitude found in such parts of the world allow you to find yourself

    • Why, thank you! I often wonder if my posts are getting away from me, straying farther and farther off into the baffling and enigmatic, so I’m very pleased to hear that they continue to speak to you.

      • Absolutely … you have shown a respect for the land seldom seen. One shown by the indigenous peoples of our different continents. It’s like those who have climbed the mountain in search for their reason for being. Well my friend … you have been to the mountain :))

  9. Your photos are breathtaking. I live in the southwest and I understand the scars of which you speak. This landscape, however, as otherworldly as it is, has a beauty that somehow hides those scars, at least in a photograph. I remember visiting Monument Valley 25 years ago and feeling uncomfortable with everything from the degradation of the reservation to the commercialism of the place. And who named those mesas and buttes? It’s as idiotic as the sunny-side-up egg from a broken stalagmite in Luray Caverns. Everyone runs to take a picture.

    • Yes, you’ve said it so well: that gorgeous geography is good at hiding so many things — and even I’m perpetuating those myths with my images here. As for the names…haha…that’s a whole other etymological black hole to drown in. Thanks so much for sharing your insight as a southwestern local.

      • I don’t consider myself a photographer, but I, of course, try to take the best pictures I can, get the best angle, make the place look as beautiful as possible. And sometimes I feel exactly as you do. I’ve also found that people can be so sensitive if you show too much of the truth. When I wrote my book about Calabria, for instance, I tried to give as accurate a picture as possible, through my eyes, of course, and there will always be that percentage, however small, that wants no part of it. On the other hand, I have a friend who is a good photographer and who specializes in chainlink fences in rummy neighborhoods. She has a different audience.

      • Thank goodness I’m not a photographer either! I use the medium for my posts, but I struggle so with it. There’s a constant tug-of-war for me between presenting a polished version about the destination or showing a part of the truth but then worrying that it ends up fetishizing the issues. And I definitely don’t want to invade other people’s privacy, so…anyway, glad you share some of the same quandaries as well!

  10. It is definitely a place I will never forget; I camped there over 30 years ago. There’s nothing like it. Your photos capture Monument Valley’s beautiful, haunting essence. The ones with the purple hues are particularly striking.

  11. It’s all been said! I can add little that is important other than envy of your travel experience. I have been to many places but Monument Valley only in a John Wayne movie! I will view it differently next time he comes around…as he sure will!

    • The topography lends itself so well to lone-hero stories, but it was a privilege for me to explore much more than the myth and I’m delighted to learn that my post will have you viewing this landscape in a new way next time John Wayne rides through it. Thank you.

  12. Located in Chad near the Tibesti Mountains and known as Emi Koussi, I visited once a shield volcano, a type of volcano defined by its shallowly sloping sides, quite similar in structure to Elysium Mons, a volcano on Mars discovered in 1972 by Mariner 9, an unmanned NASA space probe. Not only do both volcanoes contain similar calderas, which are the bowl-shaped depressions that make volcanoes recognizable, and show signs of caldera collapse, but both also exhibit deep channels that are the result of faulting followed by lava, which poured through them.

    • Ah, if you were Martian, visiting this shield volcano on Earth would have been a very powerful and unnerving experience in a totally different way! Had you seen the Mariner 9 photos of Elysium Mons before your visit to Emi Koussi?

      • It was explained to me by a French geologist during my trip. Oil exploration just started in Chad and of course the money bickering between the central government and local tribes started right away, leading to some severe civil war. So taking pictures was a big no no if you didn’t want to end up being accused of espionage.

  13. And this is a haunting piece, that speaks of all the questions travelling through such a landscape must prompt. I don’t think the land forgets, I think, as you say, it’s us who forget or choose to forget.

  14. Such a beautifully written, haunting piece Atreyee. Clearly the land spoke to you in a profound way, and you found a way to put it into words. And your photographs are spectacular. Maybe one day I’ll get to see it for myself.
    I love nature. I love hiking, I love being away from civilization, and have wandered in the somewhat more wild places in many lands. The land that speaks most to me is the Australian outback. I don’t know if it’s because I was born there or not. I was raised in the city and it was only as an adult that I discovered nature, and not in Australia, but on trips back there, exploring the outback I felt as if the land owned me in a way I’d never felt before. In case you’re interested I wrote a little about it in a post called Too Many Crocs and Not Enough Water.

    • I’m so grateful for your kind words Alison and for sharing your experiences regarding the Australian landscape. It’s a mystery what sort of geography will call to us…sometimes it’s where we grew up and sometimes it’s a place entirely foreign to us. Your photos of the wildlife you saw at Kakadu are exquisite and I can understand how trekking in that topography, which seems primeval, had a similar effect on you. Wishing both you and Don the best.

  15. Wonderful post with stunningly beautiful images. This is not an area I have been to but perhaps the closest I have come to your experience was on a trip to the area of Mt Sinai. I think we do lapse into amnesia about the land around us and sometimes that is a fault of the categorization and labelling. We have a glacier commonly known as the Franz Josef Glacier. It’s Maori name is Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere, the frozen tears of Hine Hukatere. Both names tell us stories of the history of this land but the former made some of us forget for awhile an earlier history.

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