A movie pilgrimage to Monument Valley
MONUMENT VALLEY, Ariz./Utah—He remembered the first time he saw this place. It was October 1948, and the chill of high-country autumn had already set in.
He was here to work with Victor McLaglen and Ben Johnson and John Agar and Arthur Shields and John Ford and the tall guy from the small town in Iowa.
The movie was “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” Nearly 60 years later, that film is still wonderful—and alone among the key players, Harry Carey Jr. is still around. He is 86. His voice, by phone from his Santa Barbara, Calif., home, is 59 years younger.
“When we worked there,” Carey said of Goulding’s, then the only public lodging anywhere near Monument Valley, “it was very primitive. There weren’t even any bathrooms. The shower we had on ‘Yellow Ribbon’ was a five-gallon tin can with a hose in it and holes in the bottom. Duke Wayne and everybody, that’s what we did.”
But it was surrounded by magnificence.
“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever worked in films, and I’ve made films everywhere. Of course in those days, the air was a lot cleaner … ”
The Duke. Also still around. When you consider an iconic figure like John Wayne, born 100 years ago and gone for 28—well, pilgrim, death is just a technicality.
Now, for many of us of a certain age, it’s hard to imagine what people who didn’t grow up with cowboys and cavalry charges think about places like this. Maybe they think about that “I Disappear” Metallica video. (Hey, children—impressed?) Or a certain Chevy commercial filmed here, in Ford country.
But we can’t entirely separate Monument Valley from those old movies … which explains this, um, pilgrimage as we contemplate the man’s centennial.
The Navajos who live and work here certainly understand.
“They rode right along there,” said Rosie Fatt, who grew up in the shadows of the great spires, as she showed a visitor her country. “When they got to the bottom of it down there”—she was pointing now—“you saw a young girl running down the sand dune.”
The young girl was a young Natalie Wood. The riders were Jeffrey Hunter—and John Wayne.
The dune is still there. That’s the beauty part. OK, the dune—along with perspectives on film history and, yes, on John Wayne—might have shifted a bit since 1956, when John Ford made “The Searchers” on this stunning landscape. But the dune is still a dune, and the buttes and mesas are as they were when Ford made them his Old West signature—so leave us go amongst them.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the official designation, is not an easy place to get to. Most of the park is in Arizona, though some extends across the border into Utah. Closest town, such as it is, is Kayenta, in Arizona, about a half-hour south on U.S. Highway 163.
Even just a few years ago Kayenta was little more than a gas station, a convenience store, a simple restaurant in a trailer and a Holiday Inn for tour groups and strays who couldn’t get a room at Goulding’s. Today there are two more motels, and you can get a decent meal at the Golden Sands next to the Best Western or, if you happen to be there when it chooses to be open, at the Amigo Cafe.
Or … well … there’s a McDonald’s, Burger King and a Sonic.
On Goulding’s Trading Post and Lodge: This Utah motel/restaurant/gift shop/museum near the park’s only gate is almost as much a Monument Valley fixture as Merrick Butte. It was Harry Goulding, struggling to save his Navajo trading post during the Depression, who went to Hollywood and induced Ford to come here for location shots on a movie that would star Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine and a semi-obscure kid actor sprung from B-Westerns.
The How Harry Met John Ford story varies from storyteller to storyteller. (They’re all good stories, by the way.) The consensus truth: In 1938, a desperate but determined Goulding somehow canoodled his way into a meeting with the famously persnickety director, showed him some black-and-white pictures of the valley and sold him on sending a camera team—crudely housed but adequately fed by Goulding and his wife, Mike.
“Stagecoach,” released in 1939, was nominated for seven Academy Awards (Mitchell won for best supporting actor), introduced the world to Monument Valley and made John Wayne a star.
It also made Goulding’s a going concern. Owned since 1981 by the LaFont family, the property includes a stone cabin that sits alongside a supply shed.
If you’ve seen “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” you’ve seen that cabin.
In time, Wayne and Ford would return to this red-rock country to make four more films together: “Fort Apache,” released in 1948; “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” 1949; “Rio Grande,” 1950; and, in 1956, “The Searchers.”
Carey was in the last three. He would work with John Wayne in 11 films—none more revered than “The Searchers.”
“Greatest western that ever was,” he said. Its greatness, he said, was the Duke. “I’ve never seen him so dedicated. The part of Ethan really got under his skin.”
Wayne and Ford would make more films, some together and some not, and Ford would shoot other movies in Monument Valley—but any serious retrospective of either career certainly would include “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”
In all three, and so many others, Monument Valley is an uncredited co-star. It’s an interesting sensation to see a Monument Valley movie—especially “Yellow Ribbon” or “The Searchers”—then come here and see the real thing, then go back and watch the movie.
Things aren’t quite where they should be. Horses and riders go in circles. These are movies shot in a real place, but they weren’t documentaries; Ford filmed “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” in 28 days—astounding quickness by today’s standards—and you shot where the light was.
For visitors, as it might have been for John Ford, the light’s best in the afternoon.
It’s possible to drive your own vehicle on a designated, rutted sand/rock “road” and see much of the tribal park. Possible. Not smart. Letting a Navajo guide drive you around on a Jeep tour is the better idea, because it will save your car’s underside, get you into backcountry open only to tribal members and their guests, and give you a better clue of what you’re looking at.
“The Chevrolet commercial,” said Fatt, my guide, as we bounced along, “was done right up at the top of the Right Mitten,” she said. “And a Jeep commercial took place right up on the top of Merrick Butte.”
And there was John Ford Point.
“One of John Ford’s favorite viewpoint areas,” she said. ” ‘The Searchers’ was filmed in this area—and also the Subaru Outback commercial.”
Movies and commercials and rock videos aside for a moment, the universal reality of Monument Valley is the grandeur. That’s what draws international visitors, including Martha Schultzke of Nuremberg, Germany.
“It’s famous, ja? In the guidebooks in Germany, it’s on every cover.”
And visitors there are. In summer, when the numbers rise with the heat, it can get a little tense.
At Artist’s Point, an astonishing overlook—“Stagecoach” scenes were filmed near there—it gets so crowded in high season, Fatt said, that tempers flare over people refusing to move their tripods or just being in the way.
And with so many vehicles around, private and tour, “it gets really dusty in the summertime.”
Which might have been what Harry Carey Jr. experienced on his most recent visit a couple of years ago. Because when I stopped by in late February, when only a few tourists were around, the clarity of the air was startling. The sky was a deep blue, Camel Butte looked like a camel and Elephant Butte looked like an elephant.
And something else.
“You know,” noted Lee An Denison, who works in the Goulding’s gift shop, “they have his initial out there in the desert.”
“It’s called ‘the Three Sisters.’ And it makes a big ‘W.’ ”
That is silly. Monument Valley is not a silly place. Spiritual, certainly.
“Some people I meet, it’s like their 12th time being here,” said Cinda Atene, who grew up on this land and today is a park interpreter. “They always say, ‘There’s something here that brings me back.’
“I’ve even seen men cry here. ”
And on clear nights when a full moon is scheduled to rise, dozens of photographers—even on a bitter cold February evening—will set their tripods along an appropriate ridge and wait to capture an instant when moon and butte play off each other just right.
One of those bitter cold nights, I was among them …
“It is different,” Harry Carey Jr. said of today’s Monument Valley, “because they paved some of the roads and, of course, there’s tons of tourists now. It doesn’t have that same starkness and that same wild ‘out-West’ look it used to have.”
But anything less than spectacular? That’ll be the day …