Wide open spaces

Monument Valley, seen from U.S. Highway 163, coming from North.

The writing was on the wall,  for whoever wanted to see it and did the math,  trusted science, or just trusted that entire countries do not shut down for a simple cold. And here we are -- words like pandemic and lockdown are not just a movie plot and the times when one could hop on a plane for a short, unplanned vacation seem from another life. Now, more than ever, I feel grateful for all the places I've been, all the views  I have taken in, all the people I have met, talked to, had drinks and meals with, have laughed with, all the hugs I have been given and gave.  When the knot gets tight in my stomach and the walls feel like crumbling down on me in this apartment where even the windows do not open more than a few inches, I know exactly where I would like to be.

View from Artist's Point, Monument Valley
When I was a child there was a place that fascinated me,  a bunch of red rock tall constructions thrown in the middle of an orange dessert topped by blue sky. It was a landscape so remote from my everyday life, that for a long time I did not think it was real and just assumed it was a movie set, because I often  saw it as background in movies with cowboys. I loved everything about it, the energy of the strong colors, the freedom of the wide open space, and the elegance of the rocks projected on the wallpaper like blue sky. After a while it became apparent that it was a real place as the same familiar image will show up in adds and other movies on tv.  I still did not know what its name was and getting to ever see it in person seemed impossible. I remember trying to describe it to some of my colleagues in graduate school and they had no idea what I was talking about. It took me many years in my American life to learn that the place was called Monument Valley and was located near Arizona and Utah, on Navajo land. This makes Monument Valley a Tribal Park and  it is the reason why you will not find its name on the list of parks on the National Parks Service website.

West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, and Merrick Butte, Spring time.

Dreams do come true, or at least my dream of seeing Monument Valley did,  on a very cold and windy Spring day when I drove through snowy weather from Flagstaff to Kayenta.  There was no snow when I got at the park, but it was almost deserted. The only people that adventured during that time of the year (and through that weather)  were me and a postdoc from Duke making the most of his last days in US.  The self-drive through the park does not give you access to some of the more interesting sights, so the two of us took one of the back roads tours. We were the only two tourists on the tour so we got full attention from the guide. He told us lots of stories about the many movies filmed in Monument Valley and about the different places we stopped, the mittens, John Wayne Point, Artist's Point, Totem Pole and so much more.  We took our time at each stop,  I felt that the entire place was mine and it was as spectacular as I imagined. I took my favorite photo from all the photos I have ever taken, that March. I have versions of it hanging both in my home and my office as a reminder that sometimes the impossible becomes possible.

West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, and Merrick Butte, Summer time.

This past summer, I decided at the last minute to change a planned trip and take a detour to see Monument Valley again. The experience was different, but still extraordinary.  The week before I got there it snowed (again!), even if we were already in June. There was so much water, that the entire area was full of purple flowers and everything was very green. Unlike the previous time, it was also crowded with tourists and the tour was less detailed than five years ago.  My reward came at the end of the day, watching the sun set over the West and East Mitten Buttes, documenting every change of light and color, looking for the shadow to get bigger as the wind got stronger, just happy to be there in that very moment.

If all that's left when we are gone is  dust blowing in the wind, let mine blow over the buttes in Monument Valley.

West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, and Merrick Butte at sunset.

March 20, 2020


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