© Jerry Stanecki
“Ready?” asked Lorenz Holiday, our Navajo guide.
“All set,” said my long time friend John Manis as we all piled out of the Jeep and to stare at Mitchell Butte, a monument in one of the most dramatic places in America today.
It was my second visit to Monument Valley, Utah, a Navajo Tribal Valley in the southeast corner of Utah. Mitchell was named after one of two soldiers who served under Kit Carson. Mitchell and a fella named Merrick were killed trying to mine silver on sacred land.
It would take hours for us to reach the top of the thousand-foot-high monument, which meant about a 20,000-foot zigzag climb.
As we started climbing, I felt pain in my chest—which is not necessarily encouraging for someone who has had five bypasses. It’s actually tricky at times, because you always wonder is this—as Fred Sandford always said—“The big one or just gas?”
We stopped at the base of Mitchell, about 200 feet from the car. John looked at me in a strange way.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine except for the chest pain,”
“Want to turn back?” John said, concerned.
“No, I’m thinking like a sore muscle, the pain will work itself out as we climb. Does that make any sense?”
John, a doctor, looked at me like it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard.
“That’s the dumbest thing, I’ve ever heard,” he said.
“Lets just keep moving a bit and see what happens,” I said, thinking, “What the heck, if something happens, I had a doctor with me.” Besides, John has been my trusted friend, who I could always count on without fail in any situation.
‘I’m not gonna’ carry you out,” my Tonto said.
We all laughed and resumed climbing.
* * *
We had arrived the day before in an almost blinding sandstorm, one that made sandstorms in movies look like a little dust in the wind. It was incredible; the day had actually been darkened by the winds that had been blowing the desert sands from one state to another for days.
Our plan was to explore the historic valley, shoot some photos and hike for a couple of days, soaking up the essence and spirit of the sacred land.
We headquartered at Gouldings Lodge, a place of rest and nourishment established long before John Wayne starred in “Stagecoach,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and a dozen other western movies shot here.
* * *
It was in the spring of 1921, a young pioneer named Harry Goulding rode west from Colorado. Arriving here he was awestruck by the almost unbelievable magnificence that lay before his eyes. Giant monuments stood like sentries to the Gods. The sheepherder and trader had found heaven.
In those days the land was owned by the Paiute Indians and adjoined the Navajo Reservation. As luck would have it, in 1923, the State of Utah offered the Paiute tribes more fertile land to the North in exchange for the valley. The Paiutes accepted, freeing the land for public purchase.
Harry and his new wife Leone, who Harry nicknamed “Mike” plunked down $320 for one square mile of the valley.
Years passed, tents became buildings as Mike and Harry became friendly with all around. Well, almost all around. At first there was friction between the Goulding’s and the Navajo’s, but Harry and Mike held their ground, all 640 acres, and managed to earn the respect, then friendship of the Navajo’s. It became a trusted, lasting friendship.
It was the mid-1930s, as the people of Monument Valley struggled to rebuild in the aftermath of the Great Depression that had ravaged the U.S, Harry heard that the dream-makers of Hollywood were going to start making movies on location. So, as the story goes, he and Mike traveled to Hollywood using their last $60.
Old Harry must have been a smooth talker because he convinced John Ford, the famous movie director to come and shoot movies in the valley.
Ford found the valley perfect for his shoot’em-up Westerns, and brought out his pal, a tall young rugged actor named John Wayne.
The movie people built houses, corrals and sets—some of which are still stand today You can walk on the very dirt the “Duke” walked on inside his house in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”
In no time cameras started cranking on the movie “Stagecoach” and, the rest partner, is. . .well, you know.
About half way to the top of Mitchell, on one of our many rest breaks, I asked Lorenz about a hole we spotted near the top of the mountain. It looked like a cave.
He explained that in the 1950s uranium—a key ingredient in Nuclear power has been mined here and the hole was one of the abandoned mineshafts.
“There is also the what’s left of a work trailer on top,” Lorenz said.
Sitting there, drinking water, looking out across the desert for at least 100 miles, I thought of the dawn and how mysterious and eerie it had been as the winds of Utah blew themselves out.
Just after dawn, I’d come across horses feeding oblivious to the winds and blowing sand. Beyond the horses were the monuments, mystical in the storm.
“Ready, Jerry?” John asked breaking the spell.
* * *
As the years passed, so did Harry, then Mike, but not before they added this and that and built another section of the hotel. From a distance, Goulding’s blends so well with its environment it almost disappears into the giant mountain behind it.
It’s a terrific place to stay; every room has a view of Monument Valley. There’s a dining room, pool, gift shop, and added since my last visit, a gas station, grocery store and self-serve laundry. There’s also a campground.
The original trading post, where Mike and Harry lived is now a fascinating museum. Go up to the living quarters on the second floor and walk into the 1930s. Look out through the front window and let yourself escape to yesteryear. Imagine you are Harry or Mike. It’s a satisfying and peaceful feeling.
The museum it includes a room with memorabilia from the movies created in the valley.
Tell them in advance if you’d like them to set up a guided tour of the valley. They offer half–day and whole-day trips.
If you want to climb, you’ll have to hire a native guide. With the guide you also get the benefit of seeing places public roads don’t go.
* * *
We reached the top in just under three hours. It was stunning, like being on a plateau floating in midair. The top of Mitchell is maybe 300 feet across and wide—very wide.
We found the remains of the trailer; a few rusted beyond identification tin cans, and, amazingly, petrified wood. I came across it lying among wild flowers blooming on the mountain.
Standing there, looking down a thousand feet and more across this most beautiful of valleys, I felt humble, very humble—a mere spec in a universe truly beyond the imagination. I was filled with joy and peace.