VIEW FROM THE MESA

Monument ValleyApril 10, 1988
 
UTAH:  San Juan County
 
Between Oljato Trading Post and Gouldings Trading Post about seven miles west of junction of US Hwy. 163 and the Utah/Arizona state line; near Monument Valley and inside Navajo Indian Reservation

David Harris and I climb the mesa behind the Harrises' house. We're looking for lizards and snakes. As we climb the mesa wall Monzi the dog (half dingo and half mut) and a slate-blue cat called Ganda come with us. We spot a Western Whiptail, Cnemidophorus tigris, and several of what I believe to be Side-blotched Lizard, Uta stansburiana. But they escape and David and I are talking. The kind of lizard they are, on a day of ceremonial ending such as this, really isn't so important, I suppose.

By the time we're on the mesa's top it's clear that what we really want to do is just to sit in the sunlight and wind and watch the character of the valley below change as the sun crosses the sky. A herd of about twenty Navajo goats go wandering along the slope just below us. A little while later David jumps up and starts running.

"Monzi's chasing goats again," he hollers back. "If the Navajos see her doing that, they'll shoot her."

David saves the goat and throws rocks at Monzi to drive her home; the slate-gray cat seems to be stranded on a rock midway up a very steep cliff below us. But the very moment we start to rescue it, somehow it runs up the sheer sandstone face and curls about our feet, looking at us as if wondering what all the fuss is about. Then, finally, just sun and wind.

I'm trying to come to terms with my feelings about the desert -- to understand what I've been through these months. Here at the edge of the mesa the wind almost is cold and I recall all the cold winds of this trip. But the sunlight now is generously warm, at least where it strikes the skin, so also I remember those cold mornings when the sun was so good -- especially that recent morning with the Sagebrush fire. But these memories are just memories, already becoming like postcards inside me, and I can't make much more out of them. So, I try this:

All things and events are part of one or more stories. Therefore, in that desert below us, what is the story?

Most striking is the geological story. On the mesa wall across the valley I see plainly the thick lower layer of sandstone showing those curious swirls, indicating that the sandstone there is made of ancient sand dunes. Above this unit are darker, horizontal layers of sandstone and shale deposited by water. David and his mother have found a fossilized shark's tooth in those strata. In one place at the mesa's base a chimney of basalt juts upward, showing itself to be the solidified core of an ancient volcano's eruption pipe.

If I remember right, the sand in that sand-dune stratum was deposited 150,000,000 years ago. But, I can't visualize even a million of anything. At my foot lies a flat rock bearing the imprint of a ripple laid down on a streambed or in the bottom of a shallow sea or lake... 100,000,000 years ago, we'll say, just to be safe. It has to be at least that old... But, no, at least while a fresh wind blows my hair and a boy sits beside me, I cannot see you penetratingly 100,000,000-year-old-ripple-marked stone. My mind just catches itself on all those zeros in the number 100,000,000, trivializing the whole effort I'm making...

Maybe seven Navajo homes are scattered in the Rabbitbrush scrub on the valley floor below us. Most of the Navajos live in regular houses and their yards are filled with old junk cars and pickup trucks, just as we'd find back in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. One or two families live in traditional earth-covered, mound-shaped hogans, and next to a few regular houses stand hogans.

I ask David: "Are those hogans built by the Navajos because that's the way they've always lived, or are they new ones built by young Navajos who want to perpetuate their Indian identities?"

"I think they're mostly or all built by the older Navajos," David replies. "The young ones just want to make money and have regular homes. Hogans are kind of looked upon as being low-class, maybe. It's just the old people. And us. We really like our hogan. We had a Navajo build it for us the way it's supposed to be built."

While we're on the mesa I count six orange-yellow school buses, mostly with SAN JUAN SCHOOL DISTRICT printed on their sides, pass below us, all filled with black-haired Navajo children. One kid throws out a handful of sheet paper and valley winds scatter those sheets in the waist-tall, yellow-green Rabbitbrush and Mormon Tea.

These cliffs, the valley, the Indians' homes with old pickup trucks around them, the yellow school buses and the papers blowing in the wind all do tell a story but they speak for themselves. They don't need me to interpret them.

Maybe, after all these hundreds of miles and all the wind and sunlight I've been through, that's what I've learned. I'm not to be the interpreter of anything, just someone who went into the desert and saw things for himself.

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