Lost in Navajoland

A cautionary tale on why it is monumentally stupid to drive off the map in Monument Valley—or any desert for that matter.

"That's it,” I said. “We're lost."

I tossed the map onto the floorboard and stared out the dusty car window.

The scenery was straight out of a John Ford western: an endless expanse of red earth crusted with sagebrush and broken only by dark orange, mitten-shaped mesas and striped rock pinnacles.

"We can't be lost," said my buddy Stew, gripping the wheel as the road turned into sifting sand and our rental sedan's back tires slewed around wildly. He steered back onto solid dirt. "At every fork, I've gone left."

How to get lost

The map hadn’t shown much detail in the vast no-man's land of the Navajo Indian Reservation (to put that into perspective, the rez is enormous—larger than West Virginia).

Even the Utah/Arizona state line gets lost out here, a meaningless imaginary boundary running somewhere through the middle of more than 27,000 square miles of Southwest desert called Navajoland by the natives (who, in this case, actually are Native Americans).

We had been headed south down the lonely main highway plied by an occasional pickup crowded with Chestnut-skinned families, the bed in back stacked with twisted juniper logs. Occasionally we'd pass a ramshackle stand advertising "Handmade Indian Jewelry!"—empty for the off-season, the display tables’ white cloths flapping in the wind.

We stopped at the only dot shown on our map, Goulding’s Trading Post, a gift shop, lodge, and tour outfit (435-727-3231, www.gouldings.com).

We stocked up on silver-and-turquoise jewelry and Indian drums for folks back home and, as we left, noticed the map did provide one other detail. If we continued down the dirt road at the Gouldings turn-off, it would loop around to rejoin the highway after a mile or two.

Where's John Wayne when you need him?

Nearly an hour went by before I finally threw down the useless map and declared us lost.

The loop had been a lie. This road was nothing but a dirt track that seemed to fork every half-mile, and despite Stew's left-turns-only strategy, we were further from the highway than ever.

At first, we'd threaded though a forest of rock pinnacles and passed the occasional modest homestead declaring its Navajo heritage with a dome-shaped hogan (ceremonial mud hut) in the yard.

But for miles, all we'd seen were dust devils spinning through the sage and flocks of tumbleweed, which occasionally attacked our car.

Even the scenery had become more menacing than majestic—odd, since everything looked so instantly familiar despite the fact that I'd never been here.

Thank Hollywood.

Navajoland's Monument Valley has served as backdrop to a litany of western classics: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach, The Searchers, Tombstone, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and dozens more.

It's where Indians chased the time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future III and, more to the point, where the Griswold's Family Truckster flew off the road in spectacular fashion in National Lampoon's Vacation...after which Chevy Chase gets hopelessly lost in the desert.

Thinking that the only wise move we'd yet made was to stash three gallons of water in the trunk, I said, "So this is it," I said. “I'm going to die in Monument Valley like the bad guy in a bad John Wayne movie."

Cue the, uh, cavalry

Right about then is when the cavalry arrived.

Or, more accurately (and ironically), the Indians.

A cloud of dust on the road ahead of us resolved itself into a battered white pickup containing an elderly Navajo couple.

I asked the driver if this road would take us back to Route 163. He thought for a moment then drawled, "Oh! Now that's a looong way." His wife smiled at us piteously.

The man thought again, rubbing his weather-beaten cheek, then continued, "Best go back up here, about two, three miles. The dirt road on the right will take you to the highway."

We turned to follow the pickup, which paused at the turn-off to wave us in the right direction. After another long drive during which the only thing we passed was a red-capped Indian riding bareback, we finally spotted a line of electrical poles and the glittering of moving windshields.

"Do you realize," I said as we turned onto the highway and accelerated north, "that the two of us can't go four waking hours without doing something incredibly stupid?"

(When we returned to the area about seven years later leading a group of Boy Scouts, we nearly got our van stuck in the sand, as the sun was going down, while touring the actual Monument Valley Tribal Park... but that's another story.)

When You Go...

For more on Monument Valley—including guides and tours so you won't get lost—contact Navajo Nation Parks (435-727-5874, www.navajonationparks.org) and the official Navajo tourism site, www.discovernavajo.com, which also includes links to hogans where you can spend the night.

The lodge at Gouldings (435-727-3231, www.gouldings.com) is a bit pricey (doubles $73–$180) but perhaps worth it, with an indoor pool right in the heart of the park, and some decent of-season deals (winter 2008/09 brought a $255 special that included two nights' lodging for two and an all-day Monument Valley tour with lunch).

Otherwise, in the dusty crossroads hamlet of Mexican Hat at Navajoland's northern border, the San Juan Inn (800-447-2022, www.sanjuaninn.net, $64–$84 doubles) is a little motel clinging to a low cliff above the San Juan River. The rooms are basic, the food passable, the beer cold, and there's even an Internet cafe.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2013.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.