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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. When I look at these pictures and feel your impressions I have to wonder how I’ve never made it to Monument Valley. Monument to time, maybe, rather than a bunch of rocks to make the tourists go ooh and aah. Hard to believe this area saw dinosaurs come and go and was around for much of Pangea’s continental drift (although I’m sure it looked much different back then). One of these years I really need to see this firsthand.

    • Yes, exactly what you say! While there I was also trying to imagine the place as it will look in the far future: a tropical landscape full of cascading waterfalls and lush foliage.

  2. I am immersed in your thoughts, Atreyee, with your fantastic images and beautiful ruminations. Monument Valley is one of my favorite places in the US. The history of the land revealed in the layers and shapes.
    The way you describe the human implications with this place is giving me pause for thought. This is truly a magnificent part of our world. Thank you.

  3. Your photos are awe-inspiring. And your thoughts are as well, always!

    One-hundred-and-sixty million years is hard to grasp. I think landscapes like these trick with your mind, just like the night sky with its millions of stars. Everything blends together, the past, the present, the future. Part of me would like to be alone in these kinds of places, feel like that first explorer. Not willing to share. Hoping that no garbage will arrive with ignorant behavior of others. But, when I think about the hardships of people back then, the pioneers, the Indian tribes, I wallow in my luxurious western life, happy to be able to experience the Southwest at my own pace, in my own, comfortable camper van.

    Your post is timely once more, as we plan on visiting Monument Valley in a couple of weeks. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • I think we would do ourselves a disservice if we didn’t contemplate what this land and the people who dwell in it have gone through and continue to experience. May your time in this area be as wondrously fulfilling as mine was. Have a safe trip and thank you for your continuing kindness.

  4. Your words are ringing in my mind. Inspiring me in more ways than I can imagine. I’ve felt this way on many occasions. Mostly when I’m far away from civilisation and closer to nature. I’ve found travel to be an escape from reality. And sometimes it brings me closer to the very things I’m trying to escape.

    • Travel has a funny way of bringing us face to face with the very things we want to run away from, doesn’t it? Too often, I’ve found it uncannily prescient. Thank you for your unfailing honesty. Wishing you sunny days ahead.

  5. 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.

  6. Oh! Quelles magnifiques photos et tu as fait un superbe voyage. Merci de ce beau partage, c’est un dépaysement.
    Bien amicalement

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. “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).

      • 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.

  12. 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.

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