The Rocky Mountains of Colorado rise to the south and we’re bound for the Million Dollar Highway towards Durango. The scenery is sheer alpine, snow-capped peaks rising out of a painted foreground of farmland and forest. Ouray, named after a chief of the Utes, is a beautiful wooden town clinging to a rugged gorge, hemmed in on three sides by spectacular mountains. This is ski resort country in winter and already the road is mimicking the giddy slalom of the skier.
We skirt some scary cliffs and there is no barrier between us and the precipice. We stop at the thirteen thousand foot Red Mountain Pass. This underlines how Colorado was named, the snow streaked peaks have changed from blue to red, most strikingly in the mountain that dominates the pass. There are two more high mountain passes before Silverton, a nineteenth century mining town. Silverton is connected to Durango by rail which offers a round trip on a traditional steam train.
We get a motel beside the quaint station in downtown Durango, a bustling place that retains its old wild west charm, punctuated by the train whistle. There are fine red brick hotels and bars, plenty of restaurants and shopping. We eat Mexican tonight, which seems appropriate on the fringes of the desert. I’m thinking of Dylan and Emmylou taking the horse across the desert, and Dylan’s Mexican taking an avenging bullet. ‘Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun…’ The waiter is surprisingly abrupt, but the food – fajitas for me – is excellent, and plenty of it.
It’s one hundred and sixty miles to Monument Valley with plenty of interest on the way. We stop for gas outside Mesa Verde. The woman at the office has to come out to show me how to use the pump. She has a more sophisticated, citified look than I would have anticipated out here. We fill up and head into the reservation.
Mesa Verde reminds me a bit of Benbulben, but russet and arid. It’s a twenty mile trip in from the gate, winding up steeply to a thousand feet above the plain, then across the parched and rugged plateau. This was home to Pueblo Indians a thousand years ago who developed an advanced civilisation on the harsh but secure mesa. The Navajo, who arrived in these parts five hundred years ago called them the Anasazi, the enemy-ancestor. Even then the ancient civilisation had faded with mythology hinting it contributed to the southward push of the Aztecs. The scattered remnant forms a necklace across the desert, always a vulnerable target for passing warriors, be they Apache, Navajo, Hispanic or American. The Anasazi built stone villages in the rock fissures, fantastic sculpted dwellings suggesting a magical and mythological people. We visit one village clinging to shallow caves below the flat rock capping of the plateau. The place has suffered from fire recently and weird charred forests stretch for miles, like jagged tableau acting out a Rousseau painting. The desert heat is heavy, even up here, giving us a foretaste of what to expect further south, sweltering on the horizon.
Turning towards the Four Corners we pass Sleeping Ute Mountain and the landscape begins to limber up for the buttes and pinnacles of Monument Valley. The Four Corners is the one place in the US where four states meet – Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. We pull into a circular, dusty park ringed by souvenir stalls. The stalls are operated by Native Americans. This is Navajo country, one young stallholder tells me. North, south and west, although, with a faintly bemused gesture of his chin towards the mountains to the east, he acknowledges the Utes. We get flavoured ice in a conical cup to ward off the heat.
We talk to a couple from San Diego who are heading north east on some mixture of family business and pleasure. He’s depositing the care somewhere in Montana before heading back home alone. “I look forward to it,” he says to my commiserations. You see that a lot over the mid-west; those basic motels where the guy puts in with his car, sits on the stoop nursing an amber drink, squinting into the sunset. In the morning there’ll be nothing there but tyremarks. Heading north towards Utah the car registers the outside temperature at ninety six degrees, and climbing. Now the magical monuments are glimpsed pushing out of the desert floor.
The Navajo reservation is the most populous in America. Navajoland is just over the bridge from Mexican Hat. This gets its name from a giddy stone formation nearby, for all the world resembling a sombrero held aloft on a stony pole. It’s a jagged string of rough-hewn joints, not entirely charmless, hugging the last straight stretch of road before a wide, shallow gorge. A place to go for a few jars I’d say, especially since the reservation is dry. There is a peculiarly ancient feeling to the landscape, the sensation that it was home to dinosaurs as jagged and strange as the rock formations. Everpresent is the mythology of the wild west. Our Cadillac could be a stagecoach, the windscreen the frame of a Hollywood film and, in the lengthening shadows, hostile indians follow our progress.
Goulding’s Lodge, 1000 Monument Valley, is set above a straggling settlement of low dwellings. It is built into sandstone cliffs and looks out on one of the world’s most enthralling and resonant views. Harry Goulding and his wife ‘Mike’ had established the lodge in 1923 as a trading post with the Navajo but in the Depression years the tribe had fallen on hard times. Attempting to improve their plight, the Gouldings set off for Los Angeles in 1938 to convince directors of the advantages of Monument Valley as a film location. John Ford obliged and within months had located Stagecoach starring John Wayne in this strange landscape. The Western, as we know it, was born.
There’s a museum to Goulding’s illustrious past, a red stagecoach outside and a timelessly redolent corral fence with wagonwheels. All sorts of romance come together at once: the boyhood thrill of the western, the teenage anticipation of love in the image of the silver screen, and the mature realisation of the timeless aesthetic of the western with its bold reduction of history to a mythology of good overcoming adversity. There’s an excellent shop with beautifully crafted jewelry, a predominance of silver and turquoise, and the rightly famous, and expensive, Navajo weaving. There are colourful stones and crystals too amongst interesting souvenirs of which the most poetically named are the dream catchers, and the most useful are the peace pipes, perhaps.
The restaurant is tiered and arranged arena style towards picture windows looking out on the valley. I order a Navajo Taco which might be quantitively described as minced Brontosaurus on a football pitch of pitta bread, with two choices from the salad tray. The reservation is, like I said, dry; but Davin gets one over on his Da with a pint of alcohol-free beer. We have insurance, though, having bought a bottle of Colorado wine from Durango. We retire to our room where, from the balcony, we gaze on the dreaming spires and vermilion slabs strung out before us. We watch the sun go down and, six hours or so later, watch it rise again.