Friday, June 1, 2012

Day Seven: Monument Valley

Heading east from page, low green shrubs dot the red-soil landscape. Steel power girders march across it and variagated red monotliths rise tall above all. Some distance along the 98, actual trees appear and the buttes disappear. The black mesa runs along to the right, dark coloured slopes pebbled with trees and stones and to the left, the red jutting ridge of the Shonto plateau, the two making a sharp contrast to one another. the occasional black butte rears up to the left, adding a touch of menace to the view.

Kayenta is a small town perched on red rocks, beyond which the road leads into Utah. A little futher, to the left, a tall striped butte resembles a worn statue, to the right, a jutting black rock, the two frame the road, like silent sentinels.

We stop over at Monument Valley, paying $5 each to enter the carpark and step out into the sweltering heat of Utah at midday. The restaurant and gift store are scuptured of red rock, seeming as one with the landscape. The carpark is crowded with a mixture of vehicles and I pose for photographs in front of the buttes that give the valley its name and fame. They are impressive structures, rising from the flat plains in strange, almost surreal shapes. We purchase drinks and cake to add to our picnic lunch and find a picnic table, under a shelter made of trees. Not from around here, obviously, as this land is all but barren. Nearby sit two Hogan huts and inside they appear suprisingly spacious. There are places where you can stay in them, but we shall not be. Our next stop is Moab and we are still some way away! There is a 17 mile road running around the buttes, a 17 mile road of blowing red sand and great potholes that jerk and jar the car about. We drive in about ten metres, and decide that it will not be an enjoyable experience. So, it is goodbye Monument valley and onward into Utah.

 "Utah: Life Elevated" proclaims the Utah border sign and one really does feel on top of the world. I have never been anywhere like it, could never have even imagined it. It is vast, the horizon stretching forever in all directions. Small wispy white clouds break the unrepentent blue of the sky - a sky so vast that I wonder why it is Montana that is referred to as "big sky country". The rock is an intense shade of red, swirled with grey and white into hillocks and sideways cliffs that look as though they have been windswept into formation. Buildings cluster at the base of sheer cliffs, almost seeming to have sprouted from the rock itself. This is the San Juan county of Utah, and it is breath-taking and alien. Photograghs cannot do it justice, for they fail to capture the vastness and the strange feeling of both isolation yet also uplifting that you feel when gazing upon them.

We stop by the side of the road, so that Tim can stretch his legs. Fluffy white cottonwood floats about, pushed by hot gusts of air. There seems something almost ominous and brooding in the wind and the clouds, and I worry for a time, wondering if tornados are something that happen in Utah. But we continue on without event. One thing we did notice all through the south-west is how dry the air is, and how statically charged it all is - every step out of the car results in a small electric shock.

Many of these pictures were taken through the car window. Hence the speckles in some of the photos. Those were bugs. We collected quite a few along the way - you should have seen the front of the car! It looked like it had committed mass carnage. And it was not just our car - every car we saw was bespeckled with dead insects and rather disturbing speckles of blood (I still don't know where the blood came from, as this is not mosquito terrain and we hit nothing larger than a butterfly).

Continuing north, the land becomes significantly less dramatic as we approach the appropriately named town of Blanding. Here the red rocks are replaced by open plains of white-freen bushes and taller trees that I think may be cedar (but I'm a zoologist, not a botanist). We pull over at the Utah Welcome Center for a Driver Reviver. Tim (the driver) collapses onto a patch of lush grass shaded by a tree whilst I meander off to explore the sights. Not that there is much to see. The Welcome Center offers a free gift for those who sign the Guest register, and thus I do so, collecting my free bounty of ibruprofen, cold and flu tablets, toothpaste and gum. I am not sure what this says about Utah, but retrospectively, it did say a little about the continuation of the trip. Let's just say - there would be time to regret that I left all but the toothpaste behind in Moab.

Across the road I seek out a milkshake to help revive the driver (I also pop into an art/scrapbooking shop, the scrapbooking side is dark, and I must flick on a light to browse it. I end up not purchasing anything. It feels kinda weird and I feel like some sort of out-of-town intruder). There is a map on the wall of the diner, so I eagerly ask for a pin to make my mark - the first not only from Christchurch, but from New Zealand. The "milkshake" is so thick that it requires a spoon to consume it and comes piled high with whipped cream. I feel rather like the hero as I present this rather epic "beverage" to my now-slightly-more-rested husband. And then proceed to help him consume it.

North of Blanding, where trees flank the road, smoke billows from the forest. No fire is visible, but the fire service are spraying it with some sort of powder and the police are controlling traffic. It is only a five minute delay. As we were leaving Blanding the police car had whipped past us, siren blarring, so now we know where it was headed. Fire is a huge problem in the south-west wooded areas as they are in drought conditions and the place is a giant tinderbox.

Further along, three mule deer like broken by the side of the road, two together and the third a distance away. Casualties of a careless driver. A turkey vulture soars drunkenly overhead.

Some distance from Moab we see our first natural stone arch - Wilsons Arch. Further along we pass by Hole in the Rock but it is closed for the night (it is now around 5.30).

Our accommodation, the Rustic Inn, is nothing fancy. Just a run of the mill, blocky motel building. The rooms are large - and we have separate double beds again - and there is a microwave and fridge. 

We take dinner at the Peace Tree Juice cafe, where I order a banana-chai smoothie (yum!) and a vegetarian burger with salad, with sweet potato fries to start. Whilst we are waiting to place our order, Tim points at something over my shoulder. I turn, and see my first hummingbird. It is the most remarkable little thing ever, and oh so adorable. I haven't "squeed" so much since I saw my first chipmunk. For those of you that have not seen one of this darling little birds, they rather resemble a bumblebee in their erratic flight patterns darting back and forth in short, sharp swoops making adorable little whirring noises. The males ever sing a little as they fly.

I believe hummingbirds might well be my new favourite bird.
Alas, they are too fast to photograph, so no pictures for you!
Oh, and the food was pretty good too - although our server forgot my salad and had to be reminded and then I couldn't finish it. I felt very silly leaving half my salad. But I was so full of chips and burger that I could not take another bite.

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