Driving Through Valley of the Gods in Utah (feat. insane winds 💨 + sandstorms 🌪 + jaywalking cow 🐄)
It is still June 12th, 2017
After hiking to all three bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument,
I was excited to relax and spend the rest of the day
driving through the grand
Valley of the Gods.
But the best part wasn’t getting there — it’s how we got there.
Let’s let the adventures begin, shall we? 🏜
It’s only fair for me to preface this post telling you about my mood at this point during my camping trip: I was tired and consequently starting to lose sight of how magical this camping trip was. I touched on this a little bit on my post about my experience hiking down to Sipupa Bridge, but if I’m in a really fatigued state, it’s a clear guarantee that my positive mood would diminish a little bit. I was running on the little mental strength and energy I had left to appreciate the landscape around me, but physically, I was very drained. If I didn’t know the trip would end soon, I would have probably just called it a day and rested instead of driving, because driving around actually does take some energy to do.
Anyways 😊, now that you have some context about my mental energy levels in this setting, let’s talk about the plan my dad and I had for the rest of the day!
📜 The Fancy Itinerary 📜
which is not set in stone —
change is welcome any moment a better opportunity arises 👍🏼
To get to Valley of the Gods from Natural Bridges, my dad and I will first have to navigate our car down the famous Moki Dugway. The dugway is 1200 feet tall, 3 miles of gravel road, and has an 11% grade. If you’re curious about what a dugway is or how the Moki Dugway came into existence, I would recommend reading this short, two-page brochure from the website Utah’s Canyon Country — it’s pretty interesting and might help you get a better idea of our drive from Natural Bridges to Valley of the Gods. 😊
In other words, it’s an insane drive down to Valley of the Gods. Frightening, too, but we’ll make it. 😋
After making our way down Moki Dugway, we’ll drive through Valley of the Gods, take some pictures, and make our way to the more well-known and consequently more touristy Monument Valley if we have time. After that, we’ll either start driving home or find a place to sleep or do both.
As soon as we made our plan, though, we broke it because my dad had spotted a sign pointing to an overlook that we couldn’t find on our maps. It was a four-wheel drive road, and since our vehicle could handle it, we decided to take a short detour and see where the road would lead us.
The moment I got out of the car when we got to what appeared to be the overlook (oh, you know, we were just on top of slickrock on the edge of a cliff 😦) was the most insane moment of that day. Maybe the entire trip.
Forget about all the poetic descriptions of solitude and silence I wrote about earlier — what I experienced on the overlook was the exact opposite of the tranquility that one might expect to experience while camping. No — instead, I was beat by winds blowing 50 mph scattered with gusts that had to be over 60 mph in speed.
Yes. The picture above embodies how I felt on the overlook. 😁
Please kindly compare the mood of the picture above with the picture below:
Doesn’t the second picture look so much more serene and not like 60 mph winds were about to chuck me, the daring photographer, over that cliff?
Do you see how, without the descriptions, you can easily mistake that moment to be peaceful and serene??? I’m telling you now that my dad and I were freaking out the whole time on the edge of that cliff because we were so scared the wind would blow us over. We wanted to get closer to the edge but decided for our safety that we clearly shouldn’t risk being thrown off a cliff. I mean… I don’t think I have to explain myself here. 🤣
To make the situation even more terrifying, as I was walking on the slickrocks trying to get a better view, I found out that the rock wasn’t a solid mass beneath me — there were huge gaps throughout the rock and I could see the bottom of the valley floor through the gaps.
On camera, the gaps don’t look that large or that terrifying, but combined with the screeching wind and random gusts and the fact that we were so close to the edge of the cliff made me chicken out when I saw those gaps. (Haha — did you get the Chicken Corner’s reference? 😉) My dad and I got back into our car as soon as we could (aka after we finished taking some pretty cool pictures — this is a photography trip, after all) and were greeted with a pleasant sight on the way to Moki Dugway:
Yay! Jaywalking cow! 😄
Eventually, after recovering from that insane experience on the overlook, we made our way to the very top of Moki Dugway and admired the extensively sticker-decorated sign before we began our descent to Valley of the Gods.
Well, at least, we tried to begin our descent. The views were so amazing that we had to pull over several times to take pictures. It was absolutely stunning how gorgeous the valley floor looked like from above. I could pick out the bumps of all the individual monuments on the otherwise seemingly flat terrain. The roads snaking through Valley of the Gods and the hazy sandstorm in the distance could also be seen from where we were standing on Moki Dugway. I never would have thought that one of the best pictures of my camping trip would be taken from the top of Moki Dugway.
On our way down, we came across a group of motocyclists who seemed like they were not having a good time (you can actually see them parked on the pullout in the picture above) because a few of them were wearing only T-shirts, and keep in mind that it was very windy in this area. Small rocks and dust were being thrown across the air and I was so grateful to have a car I could retreat into when the wind got too harsh. I found this poor bug that was hanging on for dear life on a twig on the side of the road, which really illustrates how harsh this environment is.
Yes, it’s grand and a famous place to travel to, but would you really want to live here? Really think about this question as you continue reading about my experiences in this area of Utah, because I’m going to explain why this is a very important question to think more about near the end of the post. 🙂
I could tell driving down Moki Dugway took my dad a lot of concentration, especially with the random gusts of winds that crashed against our car and the random sandstorms that popped up. To give you an idea of what the mini sandstorms looked like, here’s a gif of pictures I took in the passenger seat of my car driving down Moki Dugway:
It took the amount of time we estimated it would take us to get down Moki Dugway, so it wasn’t like the process of getting down was anything as adventurous as what we experienced during the previous detour to the overlook.
Once we drove off Moki Dugway, we were officially in the Valley of the Gods…
…and it was a meh experience. 😅
Since I’m a fair reviewer, I’d like to remind everyone that my energy just completely crashed at this point in the trip, so it was difficult for me to appreciate the beauty of the landscape when I was so fatigued. In addition, I mentioned previously that it was really windy in the area, and since much the terrain consists of dry dirt and rock and dust, the winds created a sandstorm that had enveloped the entire valley.
That made the road dusty and the landscape unpleasant to look at. The filter the sandstorm had put on the valley made everything look stark, dusty, and brown, and I didn’t even want to get out of the car to take pictures because of how much it hurt to have little pebbles and rocks pierce my exposed skin.
This was why the three pictures I put above for Valley of the Gods are in black-and-white — there simply was no color or interesting light for me to play around with in the valley.
My dad and I had planned to drive to Monument Valley after Valley of Gods and pay the entry price to get into Monument Valley, but we just weren’t feeling it. Monument Valley isn’t the exact same as Valley of the Gods, but it’s much more touristy and we gathered that the formations generally seem to look similar to the ones we just saw.
We decided to drive towards Monument Valley and use the time we took to get there to think about whether we wanted to just call this a day and find a place to rest, or actually drive through Monument Valley.
The sky was grey from the sandstorm-y, dismal weather and we could tell that the winds and dust in Monument Valley would be the same, if not worse, than what we had experienced in Valley of the Gods. I mean, do you see the clouds of sand in the distance in the picture above? 😱
Also, we saw a couple of huge tour buses drive into Monument Valley, and seeing that we like solitude and exploring nature with as minimal sightings of anything related to civilization as possible, we decided to just keep driving.
That brings me to the reason why I asked you the question earlier about whether you would want to live in a place like Valley of the Gods.
If you didn’t know,
The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the United States, situated on over 27,000 square miles of land within the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. (Get the Facts About Navajo Nation)
What is a reservation? According to Google dictionary, it’s “an area of land set aside for occupation by North American Indians or Australian Aborigines” (Google Dictionary).
I’ve learned about U.S. history my entire life. I’ve been taught extensively how the Declaration of Independence was formed, about past European politicians’ and philosophers’ influence on the U.S. government, and that I should actively keep up with current events to see how the U.S. is progressing as a country.
I’ve also been taught how Native Americans have been treated — how they were treated when European explorers first “discovered” the Americas. Year after year, it’s been the same: the reading of textbook pages, the watching of documentaries in which natives are conquered by conquistadors in metal armor atop horses while holding guns, and the examination of documents comparing European views of natives, such as those of Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Gines Sepulveda.
Yet… beyond that, I haven’t learned anything extensive about Native Americans within the United States. After studying how Europeans took over the U.S., the school system jumps immediately into the wars that happened within the U.S., the thirteen colonies, and the establishment of the modern-day U.S. government. Yes, I still learn a little bit about the treatment of Native Americans in the process of learning the above things, but there’s clearly something missing.
I never felt that gap in my education as strongly as I did driving through Navajo Nation.
An estimated 43 percent of Navajo people live below the federal poverty line, with an average per capita income on the reservation of $7,300, as compared to the U.S. average of $43,000 (Landry).
I don’t know much about how reservations for Native American tribes are made, distributed, or decided on. I find it strange that something so connected to American history isn’t something that I’ve been taught to understand throughout my years of schooling. As I’m growing and understanding more about the world around me, I realize that there are many things that I can’t depend on my school to teach me — I have to take the initiative and educate myself on topics that aren’t taught in my public school system, and learning more about the Navajo Nation is the first small step I’m taking to understand not how Native Americans were treated in the past when Europeans first came to the U.S., but how they are treated now.
As my dad and I drove away from Monument Valley, we started to notice a change in the environment.
No longer did grand monuments jut out from the ground in the distance; the terrain was stark, flat, and dry. Did people really live here? — that formed the core of my thoughts as we drove on to get gas from a small gas station that appeared empty. The gas station was in front of a motel that looked vacant save for two cars parked in the front, and behind that gas station was an RV that looked like it had been parked there for a very long time.
Like… that was someone’s home, and not someone’s escape from their daily life for an adventure in Utah.
I went inside the convenience store the use the bathroom, and my dad bought a soda. As we went through the process of going to the checkout to buy the soda, I realized that the person at the checkout desk didn’t seem that much older than me. He was overweight and scanned the price for the soda with the ease and efficiency of someone who has been doing this for a very long time.
I thought back to my worry about whether I would be able to find a job I would love doing, when here, I’m standing in front of a person who might be working because they need the money, not necessarily because they love working at a gas station and interacting with people who traveled through the gas station. My concerns back at home, during those thirty seconds in which the boy scanned the soda and we payed and he gave us our receipt, seemed trivial and embarrassing to even have.
My dad needed to pump up our tires (because we had deflated them a little for smoother four-wheel driving earlier) before we went on the highway, so we parked next to an air pump. As I stood next to my dad not being much of a help, observing how to pump up the tires, a truck drove up next to us. Two men got out, and from the way they were interacting, they seemed to be a father and son working together. The younger of the two men got out a metal hand truck, and they started to both stack bags of ice on the hand truck, eyes squinted from the rocks and dust that the winds were blowing their way. I was wearing a jacket, sunglasses, and a hat despite the sweltering heat to protect myself from the rocks and dust, but these two men were just delivering ice in what felt like the middle of a vacant community without anything protecting their skin or face other than the pants and t-shirts they were wearing, as well as gloves for carrying the bags of ice.
They weren’t on the adventure of their lifetime, I could tell. They were doing work, delivering ice in a place that seemed like it could feature as the outside world in Divergent as a place that no human should live in.
Something — an emotion, a feeling, a revelation, I’m not sure what — dropped in my mind.
I thought back to all the times in my life I felt unhappy or ungrateful or snappish because I didn’t get my eight hours of sleep and felt guilty,
and those moments keep flashing in my mind as we continued driving through Navajo Nation.
Many things happened.
Gas station. My dad predicted what would happen before it did. A woman — a Native American woman — came up to us with a cardboard sign telling us the price of the necklaces she was holding. “Hand-made,” she told us. Her dark circles puffed up from her grimy face, and the way she said “hand-made” was different than the way a woman at a boutique store in my hometown would say it. It was different than how my cousins would describe their gift to me, and how I would describe my gift to them. There was a sense of desperation behind the way she said those words, and in the way she looked at me, as if she already knew what my response would be before she approached me.
“No, thank you,” I managed to choke out. The women extended her arm towards me, dangling with necklaces of beads and bones and feathers, and held out her cardboard sign again. “Five dollars,” she said. Her voice was hoarse and quiet. “They’re hand-made.”
I mumbled and turned away. I got back in my car. My dad and I decided to not get gas there because already more people with jewelry draped over their arms and cardboard signs were headed our way. As we left, I saw a man talking on the phone with a gun hanging off the side of his hip standing on the side of the convenience store.
McDonald’s in Navajo Nation. Four-wheel drive cars were parked outside of it. My dad wanted to get food, but I haven’t eaten McDonald’s in years and wasn’t go to now. I used the bathroom and saw an old woman, obese, with gorgeous hair that reached the back of her knees. I stepped next to her to use one of the two sinks in the bathroom. I caught her eye in the bathroom mirror, but before I could smile, she looked away. The next ten seconds were silence and the splatter of water against our hands. I walked out of the bathroom and found my dad.
We left without getting anything from McDonald’s. It was too crowded.
I got cream cheese, salami, and bagels from the back of our car to eat. We left Navajo Nation in our black Toyota 4runner. I felt different.
It wasn’t until a while later that I realized
According to the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, a Navajo think tank, 80 percent of food sold in the Navajo Nation could be considered junk. One in three residents is diabetic or prediabetic, and recent studies show that heart disease is the second-leading cause of death among tribal citizens living on the reservation. (Ahtone)
“I think if you talk to indigenous people, just giving someone food doesn’t solve the problem,” said Benally. “There’s an implicit understanding that if there’s a reconnection to the cultural base — this cultural ethos of Navajo — it becomes easier for them to deal with the harsh realities of living in a colonized context. So, to be very simple, I think a grocery store is just a symbol of more Western incursion and encroachment into Navajo.” (Ahtone)
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know much about the modern treatment of Native Americans.
It’s not something that I think about in my daily life, and I would say that what I encountered in Navajo Nation was one of my first — and definitely the most vivid one I can remember — experiences getting a glimpse into what life might be on a reservation in the U.S.
It would have been so easy for me to still view myself as a tourist when my dad and I drove into a broken neighborhood. Broken doesn’t describe the neighborhood properly — it was barren, with front yards lacking grass and full of cracked dirt, metal fences put up around houses.
I don’t have metal fences around my home.
No one in my neighborhood does.
There are reasons why people put metal fences around their homes.
And those reasons are why I didn’t view myself as a tourist.
Walker Evans is a photographer who went around the United States and took pictures that are treasured today for their insight into the American lifestyle during the twentieth-century. I read that he felt like going deep into the U.S. really gave him a picture of what it truly is to be an American.
That made me think — what does it mean, really, to be an American? What do people outside of the U.S. think of when they’re asked to think of the typical American? Because… I’m an American. I was born in the U.S., I grew up in the U.S., I go to school in the U.S., and I have an American passport.
Yet… I don’t think most people would think of me, necessarily, when they think of someone who is American. I am half-Cantonese and half-Caucasian, and grew up with both the American culture and Cantonese-Chinese culture at home. I’ve done the very American kind of traveling — camping in RV’s and tents and driving hundreds of miles on highways to get to a national park — but I’ve also traveled around the world and call Hong Kong my second home. I grew up with two first languages and am currently learning two more.
By definition of my nationality, I am American.
And as an American traveling in America, can I really call myself a tourist? Or should I view the entire U.S. as my home?
If the entire U.S. is my home, then why do I know so little about the people in it? Why do I know near nothing about the life of Native Americans in reservations throughout the United States? Why am I so saddened to see a boy not older than I am working at a gas station, a woman extend her arm wrapped with hand-made necklaces towards me, the empty shacks on the side of the highway with rotted planks of wood and painted signs saying “Native American Jewelry for Sale”, or an overcrowded McDonald’s in Navajo Nation?
The day I stop thinking about the “why” of everything around me will be the day I don’t recognize myself anymore.
I don’t want to travel without a purpose, without being open-minded and ready to learn more about this world I live in. The people I encountered in Navajo Nation live a much different life than I do. I saw a boarding school with shattered windows, the glass still glinted on the dry, rocky ground below the window. I later learned in my research that Native American children were sent “off to boarding schools” (Maxwell), where, according to the author of this article, the teachers “tried to break their spirit and erase their languages. [They] even Anglicized the names of many [children]” (Maxwell).
I found a website called Indian Country Today that had content about Native Americans I had never seen before in textbooks. My entire experience in Navajo Nation and my research following up my experience made me question not the validity of what I had learned in school, but rather how much I was missing about U.S. history from my education in school. There’s only so much school can teach me about the world. In the end, it’s not up to my school to enlighten me about the world; it’s up to my own motivation to spend time understanding, for example, the lives of the people I encounter during my travels in the United States.
For now, I’ll end here. This post is for me to look back on and remember that this experience in Navajo Nation changed the way I look at people when I travel in the United States. There’s still so much I want to talk about but still so much I don’t understand… I don’t mind waiting until I’m more educated about this topic before I talk about it some more.
I know the second part of this post was long, but I hope my writing gave you in insight into how I felt interacting with people in Navajo Nation, and made you think more about how many people you may have encountered without bothering to think more about their life.
Though we may be the main character in our own life, sometimes we need to acknowledge that other people are the main characters in their own life as well.
Thanks for reading, and I will cya next time. The adventure isn’t quite over yet, though it is coming close to an end. You won’t want to miss it. 😊
Get the Facts About Navajo Nation (Website)
Indian Country Today (Website)
Google Definition for ‘Reservation’ (Google Search)
“Navajo Nation’s poverty, violence shames us all” by Bill Maxwell (Article)
“Navajo Nation’s nutrition crisis” by Tristan Ahtone (Article)
How often can you say
a day changed your life? A moment? A minute?
I’m starting to find
that the older I get,
the more often that happens.
It’s starting to seem like every single day of mine
is life-changing now.
How wonderful, terrifying, and magical
This post is the tenth and last post in the
Road Trip of Summer 2017 travel series
on Whisked Away By Words!
If you want to read more about my adventures road tripping and camping throughout
California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona,
head on over to the Travel Archive to view a list of all the posts in this series.