Sunday, November 23, 2003

Welcome to Hollywood terrain!
Nirmal Datta

The famous southwest of America is a sprawling region of picturesque landscapes. Apart from Grand Canyon National Park, the most famous tourist destination of the area, there are less-frequented tribal parks. One such tribal park, situated along the border of Arizona and Utah, is the Monument Valley, the 'eighth wonder of the world'. It is a flat, desolate desert, stretching for miles on end. Towering sandstone formations in the shapes of buttes, arches, mesas, spires and pinnacles greet you.

These monuments, as they are called, tell the story of gigantic geological changes. Remnants of solid sandstone rocks that once covered the whole area and were slowly eroded by natural forces, some of them rise hundreds of feet in the air amidst the windswept desert! Changing skies and seasons constantly provide new images to them.

Till the late 1930s, Monument Valley remained almost unknown. Thanks to traders like Harry Goulding and his wife Mike for introducing it to the world. They moved into the Valley in 1924 with the intention of setting up a trading post, which still bears his name and continues to be in operation. The photographs of Josef Muench further contributed in opening up this beautiful land. Harry became the one-person ambassador of the Valley when he encouraged Hollywood filmmaker John Ford to focus on it as the location for his films. It was featured in western film classics (cowboy movies) Cheyenne Autumn (1932) starring John Wayne and Stagecoach (1940). My Darling Clementine, She wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and How the West was Won were all shot here .

The most photographed site in the world, Monument Valley is a Navajo Tribal Park. It is a small part of the almost sixteen million acre Navajo Reservation called the Navajo land. The Navajos live according to the rules of their own making and function like a small independent country. You require a formal permission or visa to tour the valley. The Navajos are the native Indian tribes who settled here after the departure of the Anasazi, the original inhabitants of the Valley. They call themselves "Dineh" which means The People. Deeply entrenched in their traditional ways, they have also adapted to the changes of modern life. Instead of wagons you see pick-up trucks on the road. The towns on the highways have motels with all the modern trappings of airconditioners and other luxuries.

Totem Pole and the Yeibichai
Totem Pole and the Yeibichai — two well-known monument

Navajos normally live in round dwellings made of mud and timber called the hogans. The hogans generally face the east and are most suitable for the desert, being cool in summer and warm in winter. Their chief occupations revolve around the sheep and the wool. They are accomplished weavers. The Navajo woollen rugs, woven in pretty traditional designs and in plethora of colours, are prized for their beauty and quality. They also create pottery and exquisite jewellery of silver, turquoise, beads, glass and other stones. Hundreds of wooden shacks can be seen along the highways where the tribals display their fascinating array of handmade articles like the rugs, jewellery and sandstone paintings. The 'squash blossom' necklaces modelled after pomegranate blossoms are simply beautiful They are made of large, hollow silver beads separated by flower shaped pendants.

Taking an evening flight from New York, we arrived at the glitzy city of Las Vegas-known as the "city of lights and sin" - around midnight. From the airport we hired a multi-purpose vehicle and headed towards our destination. On the way is the brightly-lit Hoover Dam, an ambitious engineering project. 

The Monument Valley in all its splendour
The Monument Valley in all its splendour

We reached the Grand Canyon in early hours of the morning, just in time to see the sunrise on the rim of the Canyon. The dazzling spectacle of the 18 miles wide and one-mile deep canyon suddenly illuminated by the golden sunlight was breathtaking. We stood watching the dramatic transformation of the scene as the light of the rising sun crawled into the steep walls of the Canyon.

The next day, we passed by Canyon de Chelly with its sheer cliff walls and eroded formations on our way. We were told that the right time to see the monuments was either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when they look the best. So we checked in at the Weatherill Lodge at Kayenta and chose to drive through this area in the late afternoon. At the entrance of the Monument Valley stands the Visitor Center where you can get hold of necessary maps and brochures. On reaching it, to our dismay, we found that it had closed down. However, the initial disappointment gave way to delight as soon as we saw a superb view in front of us. Facing us were two vermillion coloured monoliths silhouetted by a deep blue sky with a few specks of white clouds. They resemble a hand in shape and are sometimes described as the "hands of time." Befittingly named as "The Mittens", they are the most famous site of the Valley. Each butte stands a mile apart and is more than one thousand feet in height. Close to them is another formation called Merrick Butte.The three make an excellent photographic subject and look gorgeous any time of the day but the golden haze of the setting sun gives them a surreal charm.

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A paradise called Atlantis
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Growing vegetables in a sea fort
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A city of bulging domes
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The timeless temple of Ambarnath
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Ervell E. Menezes
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Missing history for the woods in Bassein
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A yatra that is an affirmation of faith
Shashi Mehta
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Theme for Tughlaq’s dream
Shona Adhikari
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The road extending up to the Visitor Center is paved but beyond that we travelled mostly on dirt roads and some of them were difficult and uneven. The next monument where we pulled up was the Elephant Butte. In the afternoon it looked like an elephant. From here, we moved towards John Ford's Point, named so because it was the favourite location for many of Fords'movies. As I pored over a tourist guidebook, I discovered that one spire-like formation we had stopped to admire was the famous Totem Pole. The Yei Bichai stands behind it. The Totem pole is 800 feet tall and only a few metres wide. It has often been scaled and used in auto commercials .A convertible car was hung over its top by a helicopter for an advertisement. Yei Bichai is named after the dancers in Red Indian mythology. There is one particular site where you can see a group of monuments with interesting names like King on His Throne, The Stagecoach (movie), The Bear and the Rabbit and The Big Indian. They were named according to their shapes by the initial White discoverers.

On completion of the detour of the Monument Valley we returned to Kayenta, a town mainly inhabited by the Navajos. Originally it was a trading post named by John Weatherill after a spring close to the town. On approaching Kayenta you observe two curious looking rocks facing each other on the side of the highway as if to welcome all visitors coming to Kayenta. After a comfortable night's rest at the Weatherill Lodge and a wholesome breakfast at a nearby Navajo Golden Sand restaurant, where we guzzled cups of steaming filtered coffee served so generously, we geared up for our journey towards The Petrified Forest National Park.This Park is known for its brilliant display of petrified wood and the scenic views of The Painted Desert. It is a place of quiet grandeur. The word "forest" raises false expectations. Instead of tall trees, standing in groves and dense vegetation you are disillusioned when you come across fossils of logs, lying in sections, on the ground. These crystallized rocks with myriad of patterns and rainbow of colours glittering in the sun is wood-turned-into stone. The beauty of the vibrant colours ranging from white to mustard, yellow, red, purple and orange bewitched us. The Petrified Forest which is the largest concentration of highly coloured petrified wood in the world today was a tropical land millions of years ago. Floods and volcanic action uprooted the huge, tall trees and buried them under a blanket of silt, mud and volcanic ash. This slowed the decay of the logs as oxygen was cut off. Soon chemical reactions set in to turn the wood to stone. Gradually the groundwater bearing silica seeped into these logs. The silica deposits slowly crystallised into quartz thus preserving the logs as petrified wood. On our way to Holbrook we passed through The Painted Forest named by early Spanish explorers for its rich warm colours. It is the multi-hued badlands or barrenland famous for its deeply eroded soft clay hills formed of horizontal bands of pinks, reds and whites. These streaks of colours are the result of irregularly eroded layers of red and yellow sandstone and bentonite clay. The terrain is characterised by eroded peaks and plateaus.

Holbrook, the closest town that offers motels on the historic route 66, is one of the new railroad stations named after a railroad construction engineer. While hunting for a suitable place to eat here we were surprised to see a large number of wigwams and were carried back to the childhood tales of Red Indians.