After spending the month of July 2015 getting soaked, snowed on and blown around Alberta, I went south to the Rocky Mountain States. I hiked the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. I skipped over Yellowstone in favor of Great Teton National Park, and did a 19 mile hike through Cascade Canyon, over the Paintbrush Divide, through Paintbrush Canyon and around Jenny Lake. That was AWESOME. (I might have to tell that short story at a later time.) I picked my way back to the PNW with stops at Craters of the Moon in Idaho and the Painted Hills, Smith Rock and Crater Lake NP in Oregon. I spent a couple weeks going up the Oregon Coast, but it was peak PNW camping season. The campsite pickings were slim. If I didn’t have a reservation, I was out of luck. It was time to head home for a re-supply. After the re-supply, I could spend September and most of October in the Southwest. Perfect.
I picked my way south through Crack in the Ground, OR, Great Basin National Park, NV, Canyonlands and Arches, UT. I went up to Colorado to visit my great friend, Lori, and her husband, Gary. Lori and Gary graciously put me up, fed me Moscow Mules and let me love on their sweet cat, Hank, between stops at Rocky Mountain NP and Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP. Gary even washed Lady Bird! (Thanks Lori, Gary and Hank! That bed was heavenly, the shower was glorious and the Moscow Mules plentiful!)
Mesa Verde NP came next. After that, Chaco Canyon in NM. Then Four Corners… I was a heartbeat from Monument Valley. September 30th, 2015 around noon, I rolled into the camping area at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. I was in the place that had inspired my trip. When you drive in from the south you get an idea of just how cool it’s going to be. But that’s just an idea. When those red Buttes break from the valley floor and enter your memory forever…It’s… words…hard, feelings…big.
For the first time that summer, I was able to grab a campsite after 12pm. AND – I had my pick of the lot. The “campground” is the middle section of a gently sloping red sand hill, spotted with Purple Sage, Rabbitbrush and Brittlebrush. Campsites are flat spots on the hillside marked with the familiar National Park Brown metal marker. Purple Sage and brush provide breaks between campsites, too. Parking is at the top of the hill so you get to carry your gear down to the campsite of your choice. I chose THE site at THE front. I was directly facing the Mittens with no one in front of me. A full face view… This was going to be good. I got my tent set up, bedroll rolled out then went out exploring.
The road into Monument Valley is notorious for oil pan scraping rocks, tire grabbing sand pits, alignment ruining mud traps and some really killer views. The Mittens, Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, Ford’s Point, Camel Butte, the Ice Cube, Totem Pole, Yei Bi Chei, Rain God Mesa, Thunderbird Mesa and a whole lotta other amazing sights are right off the road. I drove and drove, stopped and took a zillion pictures, wandered where allowed, then drove and drove some more. I got back to the campsite just in time for sunset and light dinner.
The campground had filled up completely while I was away. Green, yellow, red and orange half domes dotted the red sand hillside. Campers were preparing meals, storing gear away for the night, chatting quietly – and quite often stopping to stare – while the sun set behind us. Soft edged, puffy grey shadows swiftly sharpened, turning a deep black as they sliced over the Mittens and out to the horizon. I had a front row seat in my camp chair. My bare feet were buried in warm red sand. It was so…pleasant. This was the sight that had inspired my entire trip. I wanted to be right here. And here I was.
You know how sometimes expectations are just a little too high and you are left with a feeling of slight disappointment? Well, forget all that. Monument Valley was the exact opposite of that. I felt all the feelings I thought I might: awe, gratitude, wonderment, bliss, joy. Giddy, teary joy. Watching the sun set behind those iconic rock formations was as good as it was going to get on that day. Heck, any day.
The remaining sunlight faded into a blue grey twilight. Venus and Mercury were pinpoints in the sky. The air was still warm. The sand was barely cool on its surface, but once I pushed – even the slightest – the warm sand below enveloped my feet. I could hear Whiptail Lizards dash for cover in the sage as campers moved down the hillside.
When I hopped in my tent to read for a bit, the sand was so warm and so soft it was like getting onto a perfectly heated massage table in the dead of winter. It was sooo damn good. My Thermarest was just icing on the cake. For the first time on my trip – and the last – I slept with my tent fly staked open. All I had to do was lift my head, turn slightly to the left and look out on the moon rising behind the Mittens. And I did. I did that all night. I kept waking up thinking that it couldn’t be as good as it was just 20 minutes ago. But it was. It freaking was all night long. The higher the moon rose into the sky, the more stars came out. Sure, it helped that the moon was nearly full and giant and beautiful, but this place…this place is that good. This place is special.
I woke up before dawn. The sand beneath my Thermarest was still warm and pillowy soft. I stood barefoot outside my tent, perfectly comfortable in my t-shirt and shorts. This was not a PNW morning full of blowing on frozen fingertips and hurried fire making. This was a glorious, melty warm, velvety kind of morning. This morning was welcoming! This morning had charm!
I could hear the hillside full of campers stirring behind me. First light was breaking on the green, yellow, red and orange half domes. Zippers unzipped. Bathroom runs were run. Coffee was made. Teeth were brushed. After the brief hustle and bustle, the whole campsite settled down into the warm red sand to watch the sun come up between the Mittens. Yeah. The sun came up right between the Mittens. Can it get any better than that? Trick question. The answer is No.
The sun broke free of the horizon with a speck of golden luster and then it just boomed into the day. I could hear the hillside whispering. There were plenty of Whoas (I can claim one of those.) But then I noticed that the green half dome back and to my right was whispering in German. There were also whispers in French. There were some Kiwi whispers, some Brit whispers, some Spanish whispers, some Scandinavian whispers (sorry, I generalized) and some Aussie whispers. People come from all over to see this. I could totally understand.