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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. 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 :))

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

    • I found the subtle shifts in color of the rocks utterly fascinating. Light has such a dramatic effect upon this landscape. Thanks so much for stopping by to read and chat.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. What a jaw-dropping landscape. Dry landscapes, interestingly enough, always speak more directly to my soul. I’ve never had a strong desire to visit the US. That is, until I see images like these . . .

  10. Wow. Magnificent images, but the words. Especially the final paragraph, the final sentence. « I hope it confounds me to the very end. » Us little humans have such a need to understand (and therefore control) everything. The truly brave linger in perplexity, savoring every atom of mystery. Arizona is so magical. I lived in Phoenix for almost a year and did my best to explore every corner, despite a shortage of free time. Monument Valley is the only region I wasn’t able to get to before I left. I would so love to wander there one day.

    • Thank you dear friend for those words! You spoke in your own post of becoming wild again and I feel this happening to me in the desert scapes of the southwestern US. It’s a place so far removed from the forests and fields of Michigan to which you’ve returned and also from the seaside cliffs of California which are my favorite haunts, so I find it curious that these are the places where I’m finally embracing “living in the questions” and “savoring every atom of mystery.”

  11. Your narrative along with the breathtaking photos touched me. I can only imagine what it would feel like being there. How astounding our lands are when untouched by human hand. Despite not having water in the southwest, the region makes up for it with the lighting and the bewilderment of landscapes like these. Happy trails to you.

    • Your words fill me with gratitude. I too find it fascinating how land deprived of water still manages to provide so much life and color and variety. Wishing you the best!

  12. You remind me that there are so many extraordinary places in the USA that I haven’t been to. I especially liked your comment about the melancholy of Monument Valley.

  13. Beautiful post! Places like this remind us that we are a just a tiny part of a grand, vast universe, and the time we spend here is fleeting in comparison to the age of the landscape. It’s good to be reminded of that and keep life in perspective. Your thoughts are a perfect accompaniment to your images.

    • That’s so kind of you. Exploring these vast landscapes has indeed got me thinking about time and the various ways we can think about as well as experience the concept of time.

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