Just after 7 AM local time, I pulled out of the campground. On top of the camping fee, it costs an extra $5 to take the Valley Drive down into Monument Valley, but it was absolutely worth it. The drive starts at the end of the visitor center parking lot, and curves down below the cliffs to the valley floor. It was dangerous going at first, squinting into the early sun. The drive winds along between buttes and rock formations that can't be seen from the highway. The towering stone all around is awe-inspiring. In some places, the drive more closely resembles a "stairway" than a "road." It also goes past several private drives to homesteads– there are people living within the valley, Navajo families that have been there for generations. Most of the dwellings are mobile homes. I thought, pre-fab housing makes a lot of sense when the nearest lumber yard is an hour's drive away. The drive forks off at John Ford's Point, where horses wait for tourists who want a leisurely trail ride tour of the valley. I drove past the Three Sisters, the Totem Pole and the North Window.
It was a beautiful, clear morning. I headed south on Highway 163. The rocks alongside the road had a globular quality, much like the landscape near Moab. The highway passed between a pair of jagged buttes. Off to the side of the road, a lone sheep casually munched on some grass. It was the only sheep I saw my whole trip. Crossing little Laguna Creek, I was in the town of Kayenta, Arizona. I stopped for some gas ($2.81 a gallon). Gasoline kept getting more and more expensive the further west I went. It was beginning to affect my whole trip budget. Gas prices have a direct effect on economies that depend on tourism for their livelihood. A local newspaper headline asked, "Where are the tourists?" Kayenta was where I turned southwest on Highway 160. The air smelled fresh. I drove through Tsegi, which sits alongside the deep stone canyon at Marsh Pass. I went by the turnoff for Navajo National Monument, and made a promise to myself that I would come back and visit someday. The cliff dwellings of Keet Seel and Betatakin would have to wait. About a half hour from Kayenta, I turned northwest on Highway 98. I was on the Navajo Mountain Scenic Road, and it was lovely. The landscape was carpeted in a vivid quilt of sage, yellow wildflowers and wild brush. Stubborn, gnarled trees sprouted from cracks in exposed bedrock. In the distance brooded great Naatsis'áán ("Head of the Earth"), the sacred mountain of the Navajos. After 25 miles, I passed by an impressive, beautiful butte. Beyond that, the land flattened out into broad prairie. That was when I got a text message from a friend back home. It was nice to hear from them. The road turned south briefly at Kaibito.
As I closed in on the town of Page, I saw whispy clouds ahead. They didn't seem to match the other clouds in the sky. When I got closer, I realized it was smog. The smudge hung over a facility with tall smokestacks. The road went right by it: the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-burning plant used to generate electricity for the Arizona, Nevada and California... but not necessarily the Navajo Nation, over which the ugly film of smog hovers. By sheer coincidence, the bottom of the hill from the NGS are the turnoffs for Antelope Canyon. One goes to the Upper Canyon, and the other to the Lower Canyon. I elected to stop at the Upper Canyon. There was a fee to get into the canyon site, and another fee for a guided tour. There is no unguided hiking allowed, so there's no choice but to get the guided tour. This was still a bargain, since they drive you to the canyon entrance about a couple of miles from the gate. There were a couple dozen of us signed up for the tour that morning. We had to wait a half hour before heading out.
trucks took us on a dirt road along the floor of the canyon, which was
as wide as a football field. Twenty-foot ridges trailed along to either
side. We rounded a corner, and the canyon seemed to end in a big semi-circle.
At the far end was a large crack in the stone ridge. The trucks stopped
in front of it. Our tour guide led us into the tall crack... and into one
of the most amazing sights I'd ever seen. Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon,
meaning that instead of being wide at the top and narrow at the bottom,
like most canyons, this part was narrow at the top and wide at the bottom.
In between, wind and rain have carved the stone walls into a magnificent
symphony of stone. Swirling, curving, rock bends and flows like a petrified
ocean current. From high above, sunlight filters down, irradiating the
stone in rich bands of orange, red and gold. Every step brings a different
perspective. Car-sized blocks of carved stone bulge out from the walls
in flowing lines. Everyone took bunches of pictures. The guide suggested
turning the flash units off, to fully capture the natural colors. None
of us wanted to leave. I actually spent too much time inside and missed
my ride. I waited at the canyon entrance with the tour guide for the next
On the way back, I chatted with a man traveling with his son and father. He asked where I was from. I said I was born in Texas, and live in Oklahoma. He said, "You don't sound like you're from either Texas or Oklahoma." "I get that a lot," I admitted. The only explanation I can come up with is that, in grade school, most of my teachers were from New England, and I guess I picked up the accent. The man nodded. "I would have guessed one of the eastern states," he said. It made me wonder: was my voice annoying? Did my voice turn people away? I decided to forget about it. I already had plenty of things to feel self-conscious about.
It took about two hours to go through Antelope Canyon. Back on the road, I went through Page, Arizona, a town that was a sleepy intersection just a few years before. Lake Powell changed all that, and it had turned the town into a bustling tourist attraction. I stopped at the Wal-Mart for some supplies. Passing the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, I crossed a dizzying bridge over the Glen Canyon Dam and headed for Kanab, Utah, 73 miles down the road. Above was a bright blue sky. I saw two police cars parked by the side of the road, both empty. One read Big Water Marshal on the side. The road took me into the mountains up several steep grades. Once reaching a high valley, the road evened out and followed a ridge of red stone off to the west. A lush forest spread out to my left. Mile by mile, the treeline crept closer to the highway, until it finally jumped the road, and there were trees on either side. I made it to Kanab, "Utah's Little Hollywood," right at 2:30 local time. I was still 30 miles from Zion National Park. Colorful mountains lay ahead, and the highway didn't waste any time climbing into their embraces.
Just over the Virgin River, I turned onto Highway 9. At the top of hill, there was a grassy field fenced off with buffalo wandering about. The neighboring resort advertised it had live buffaloes to pet... and the grill served buffalo burgers. There was a ranger station at the entrance to Zion. It cost $20 to drive through, but I had my National Parks Pass, so I got in free. I had never been to Zion before– and it blew me away. The cliffs and mountains soared high above me, arching their backs towards Heaven. The side of one mountain was scaled like a gigantic alligator, frozen in stone. It was truly breathtaking. The stone flies above your head, and it's a challenge to look around and keep your eyes on the tricky road that zig-zags through narrow switchbacks. I went through one tunnel. At the second one, the park rangers stopped traffic for ten minutes. I got a chance to get out, walk around and get some pictures. The rangers were holding traffic at both ends until there were enough cars to send through one-way. When traffic was opened up again, mine was the first car through the tunnel. Thick exhaust fumes filled the tunnel, which dives about a mile through the mountain. I'd read online that this particular tunnel had several windows cut in the sides. The windows roll up on the side unexpectedly, and for a split second give a commanding view of the next valley. There were five windows, the final one big enough to push a semi trailer through sideways. Beyond the tunnel, I found myself in a narrow valley, dominated by a mountain face with an overhanging cliff. It could be an arch in another couple thousand years, I figured. I had to stop at the visitor's center for a while to relax after such an overwhelming drive. The center's parking lot was full, shaded by many tall trees beside a peaceful creek. There were a couple of campsites nearby, full of tents and RV's.
Back on the road, Highway 9 follows the North Fork of the Virgin River southwest through the resort town of Springdale. It was full of motels and comfortable places to eat and sleep. I was outside the park at that point, but there were still plenty of mountains to see. Highway 9 wanders west through the town of Virgin, a trading post with several small buildings. Beyond the mountains ahead, the silhouette of a monstrous peak rose behind them, dwarfing everything around it. I passed a mobile home park called Lava Burr. At the end on Highway 9, I got on Interstate 15 south and got off in the city of St. George, Utah. It was just after 5 PM local time. I got some gas, then drove through some city streets under construction until I found Highway 18. I turned north. It was 37 miles to Enterprise, Utah. The highway winds north, through Snow Canyon State Park, filmsite of the ill-fated "Conqueror" movie made by John Wayne. Dozens of volcanic cones dot the landscape, carpeted with a thick growth of trees. That wasn't why I was headed that way. I was headed for the site of the worst crime most folks have never heard of.
Thirty-one miles from St. George, I pulled off the road for the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The side road climbs to a parking lot on the top of a hill. From there, it's a brisk but "moderate" climb to a memorial to the settlers killed in cold blood. In 1857, a wagon train of 142 men, women and children left Arkansas for California. While going through this peaceful Utah valley, the wagon train was surrounded by a group of Mormons. Denied food or water for 4 days, the Mormons approached under a flag of truce and allowed the settlers to leave, provided they leave their wagons, livestock and possessions behind. Once beyond the safety of the wagons, one of the Mormons gave a signal, and the others shot the settlers in cold blood. The bodies were not buried, but rather allowed to rot in the sun, their bones scattered by wild animals. The settler's possession were distributed among the Mormons. Perhaps even more disturbing was the fact that about 18 children were allowed to live. Since they were under 10 years of age, they were considered "innocent," and were subsequently taken in by Mormon families– taken in by the very people that murdered their families. Eventually, the surviving children were returned to relatives in Arkansas. In 1859, a passing cavalry troop gathered up what bones they could find and built a small memorial on the site of the massacre. The memorial on the hill was erected by the Mormon Church in 1990, but relatives of the victims demanded a better memorial. In 1999, a more suitable memorial was constructed in the field where the settlers were massacred. I drove down to the memorial in the late afternoon sun. Across a narrow footbridge over a babbling brook, the path climbs steeply to the gates of the memorial. At the center is a cairn of stones, surrounded by a short wall. Mountain Meadows was the biggest massacre of white people by other white people in the history of the United States –right up until the Oklahoma City bombing. Unlike Oklahoma City, however, there are no personal memorials lining the metal fence. There are no tour guides. Information stands sit empty of materials. There are no maps, no pamphlets, no audio-tours, nothing to explain to people what happened in this lonely place so long ago. Mine was the only car in the parking lot. I said a little prayer, and quietly went on my way.
Down the road, I found the tiny farming community of Enterprise. According to my directions, I needed to turn west at Enterprise and take Highway 120 into Nevada. Enterprise itself wasn't but a few blocks wide, and right outside of town the road turned very rough. No signs, no shoulder, no line down the middle, the narrow, pothole-ridden road wound its way into the grassy hills. I kept thinking it would get better down the way. About 10 miles from Enterprise, the road did improve. I passed a farm with a sign saying it had been there since 1864. It wasn't the best road, but I seemed to be headed in the right direction. Suddenly, I came upon a sign: "Pavement Ends." And it did! All of a sudden I was going down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I'd gone too far to turn around, and I kept believing it had to get better, so I kept going. Two miles in, I crossed a cattleguard and found the only sign I'd seen since Enterprise. It said Panaca 28 miles, and pointed down the dusty path ahead. I was on the right road after all. The right dirt road! Nothing on my map indicated it wasn't a paved road. I felt like I had no choice but to keep going. Shadows were getting long as I drove down that dirt road, kicking up dust as I went. I couldn't go any faster than 40 miles per hour, due to the surface conditions. Mile after mile I traveled, trees on either side. There were no road signs, no side roads, no buildings anywhere in sight. The road just went on and on, with the occasional washed-out sections full of softball-sized rocks. Those were fun to drive over at 40 MPH. Kinda like being inside a pinball machine. At some point I crossed the border into Nevada. I remembered that "Twilight Zone" episode of the airliner that traveled back through time, and just kept flying, hoping to find its way home. I started to imagine the dirt road just going on and on forever, and when Satori finally ran out of gas, I'd come to the end of the road, which would be a big wall with a sign that said "Ha ha!" I was cursing cartographers everywhere for tricking me so callously. A pox on ye! ... Finally, after what seemed forever, a paved road appeared ahead. Before it, there was a sign that said "DIP" –but the only dip in that road was me. It had taken me almost two hours to go 40 miles, and I still wasn't sure where I was. The paved road ran east to west, and had no direction signs at all. I elected to go west. Down the road, I finally passed through the little town of Panaca, founded in 1864, but I still had to go all the way through town to the next road before I found any signs. Beyond was Highway 93, and I turned north for the last leg of that day's journey.
An hour and a half past Panaca, I turned west on Highway
50, and I was back on familiar territory. To the east was the road to Delta,
Utah, the loneliest part of "the loneliest road in America." About 8:30
local time, I made it to Ely. After settling in to my motel, I got a take-out
sandwich and took a nice, hot shower. As I was drying off, I discovered
my left knee was sunburned. It was the only part of my legs that got exposed
to sunlight that day. I finished my last beer, and headed on to bed. It
had been a very long day. I'd driven 504 miles in 13 hours.
Navajo Tribal Park
Navajo National Monument
Zion National Park
Radioactive Snow Canyon
Mountain Meadows Massacre
|All original content (c)opyright 2005 by Tim Frayser
Last Updated: September, 2005