“ I thought I heard a slap…”
Monument Valley is a well-known physical and cultural landscape that straddles the border between Arizona and Utah. It is a centre of deep significance to the Navajo who occupy this area as part of the Navajo Nation lands of the south west of the USA. It is near the Four Corners region and about a 1000 image drive from Antelope Canyon to the west and Goosenecks Park to the northwest! It is an image rich region.
I have travelled to Monument Valley on a number of occasions. I find it a compelling location of grandeur imbued with a special sense of place for those who live there.
The area is a mecca for tourists, for travellers in search of the unique ‘monuments’ that dominate the skyline of this valley. It is a ‘must see’ experience for the landscape photographer.
The Monument has attracted the film industry as it offers an ideal location for the making of many classical John Ford style Hollywood westerns. From the 1930’s through to the present day it has been commonplace to see a film crew at work. During an early visit one of the Back to the Future films was being made and so part of the valley was out of bounds. On previous visits I had stayed at Kayenta or at Mexican Hat. My accommodation on this trip however was at Gouldings Lodge and campground located near the entrance and about a ten-minute drive to the Monument headquarters.
This place put me in the centre of the action at sunrise and sunset. Gouldings was noteworthy for its association with the filmmaking industry and their stars and to its collection of memorabilia linked to the western films it helped make through the provision of a wide range of services.
When staying at Gouldings three significant experiences helped shape who I am today. Firstly, it was here that I received a ‘phone call from the university – my employer – informing me that, following a change in governance and a new academic structure, the various Deans of Faculty or Schools were to be appointed at professorial level. This was wonderful news. I speculated, during this long distance chat that I might well be the only academic promoted to professorial rank whilst on a telephone staring at the wild west landscape of John Wayne movie fame or that depicted with the Looney Tune cartoon genre. In either case they offered a certain symbolic relevance to this promotion. Secondly, I was able to do some teaching –some volunteer teaching, in one of the Navajo community elementary schools. Here I had the chance to share information about Australia, my home city of Sydney, Aboriginal Australian societies and the joys and delights of Australia’s fauna and flora. I enjoyed the teaching in the reservation schools even though it took me away from the main game, which was to make my version of the iconic places that Monument Valley has to offer the photographer. Thirdly, whilst teaching I met a Navajo who was to be my guide. Who’s task it was to protect me and to take me to parts of the Monument that were usually off limits to any person other than members of the local Navajo community. This gesture was in recognition of the fact that I had done some volunteer teaching. It was a way for the Navajo to say thank you.
I met Michael late one afternoon and he said, pointing to his jeep, we are going to see a butte named after his grandfather. This we did. We drove over a series of side roads heading west for an hour or so to what I sensed was the edge of the Monument. We parked at the foot of a large outcrop of burnt orange slick rock (aptly named). It was the base of a mesa. Michael pointed to a slight groove in this slippery surface and advised that this was the track. It seemed very vertical heading off towards the blue sky rapidly taking on the golden hues of the twilight hours.
“We will have to hurry,” he said looking pointedly at my Sinar 4 x 5 camera and tripod and my 135mm camera bag. He took both from me and said, “Follow me”.
Easier said than done. The track was super slippery as the talcum powder grains of the slick rock broke and gave way under your weight. There was no rail, no signage, and no steps. Just a groove in slick, slippery rock. Once again I was reminded why Navajo were prized workers on New York skyscrapers in the 1890’s-1940’s. They seem to have absolutely no fear of heights and their confidence on steep side slick rock outcrops is awesome. I tentatively followed Michael who had to stop on a number of occasions, drop the load he was carrying and come back 20-30 metres to help the tiring teacher from Oz surmount an obstacle –usually a slight change in slope.
After what seemed an endless nightmare of gasping, shuffling, slipping and terror and, as the jeep became a toy model on the desert floor of the Monument, we reached the top. Michael then advised it was now easy and we only had about a half-mile to walk !
By now the sun was low –about 50 minutes from dipping over the horizon.
Eventually we reached the prized vantage point known to Navajo and now shown to me a privileged visitor. The panorama was a breathtaking mix of mesa, butte, sand dunes and dry canyons linked by the green of trees that somehow managed to survive by tapping into the underground water of the stream zones.
Michael sat down and closed his eyes and began a trance-like rest encouraging me to work and make photographs. This I did. It was not long before I had exposed the 20 double darks I had with me and moved to 135 and a series of lens changes. I worked as quickly as the twilight chill allowed thankful I had worn thick socks, two pairs of jeans and gloves.
Throughout the 90 minutes of photography I had assumed, once finished, Michael would take me round the corner of the rock outcrop nearby and there would be a second vehicle with one of his friends waiting to drive us down to the valley floor and to his jeep. Um…err…hmm…this was naive.
As I packed up the gear the last of afterglow waned and we plunged into desert blackness. Michael once again, picked up the gear and beckoned me to follow. To my rapidly growing sense of fear and trepidation we were returning the same way we had climbed. Sure enough Michael’s now faint outline disappeared over the edge of the rock face and began to descend. I could hear him, barely see him or the $20,000 worth of camera gear he was balancing on his shoulders. He seemed to go down slope as fast as he went upslope. This was not the case for me. I walked up but using my profound sense of outdoor hiking skills, years of wandering in and through the Australian outback, many journeys into the Australian bushland, sundry bushwalks and hikes I sank to my backside and promptly slid down a sacred Navajo rock formation on my posterior. Only two layers of jeans separated me from slick rock.
At one stage, informed by abject terror, I called out to Michael did he have a torch. He said no as he did not need one but thought he had one in the jeep. Great.
After a rapid descent of about an hour and, using the headlights of the jeep Michael had kindly switched on having reached safety some serious minutes before me, I hit the desert floor covered in dust, embarrassment and a profound sense that I had just survived a very special personal and photographic adventure.
I prepared to get into the jeep where Michael had already packed the gear so that it was safe against the rough and tumble of the hour or so drive back towards the glow of his community that was starting to etch its way into the evening sky.
I dusted off my jacket, jeans and boots as best I could.
Then my life ended.
As I dusted off, my hands went across the back of my jeans to the hip pocket where my wallet was located. It was not there! It was gone along with my credit cards, license and photo of my wife and daughter.
I cried out involuntarily to Michael. With anguish I said Michael I have lost my wallet. I can still remember his noble face, framed by black Stetson, long black hair and white neck beads illuminated by the glow of the interior lights of the jeep. His face transformed in front of me. No longer was he a modern Navajo with three university degrees from Stanford, who spoke three European languages as well as the language(s) of his tribal heritage. He looked at me, then up to the black shape of the rock only metres away but where no detail was discernable because of the intense darkness of the early evening. He became intent, eyes fixed, nostrils flared slightly to create the face of the noble warrior. He grabbed the torch saying, “Stay here, I thought I heard a slap on the way down. It was a funny noise”. He asked where was I when I stopped slipping and sliding and stood up. I told him what I thought was the correct answer. That was where he heard the slap he said wait here and, having grabbed the torch, he walked off into the abyss of darkness. After a few minutes, broken only by the sound of him climbing, the torch came on and I watched it jump, swing and bounce its light from rock to slope and back again. About ten minutes went by…it seemed like an eternity. My trip was over I thought. There was no way I could last another six weeks without the personal resources left somewhere on Clay’s Mesa. How could I have been so stupid! My self-indulgent misery ended when Michael called out, “Found it.”
Within a few minutes he was back. He gave me the wallet and to my profound embarrassment said,
“Does it contain money?
“Why yes”, I replied.
“Well count it, make sure it is all there,” he asked quietly.
“Michael, why would I do that? I have placed my life in your hands today? Why would I seek to now insult you by counting the contents of my wallet you have just found?”
Michael explained, in a whisper etched with sadness, “ White people do not trust Indians”.
I said I would only open the wallet if he would accept as a gift of gratitude all the money it contained. He declined telling me to get into the jeep exclaiming I was not white, I was an Aussie who reminded him of the Aussie soldiers he met when serving in Vietnam! They had trusted him as I had done.
I cried inside as we wandered assuredly back to the lodge. Occasionally, I looked across towards him, his face illuminated by the lights of the dashboard. He was smiling.
Michael was a great teacher, a gifted soul and a superb ambassador for his people.
I slept well, that night, back in the safety of Gouldings.