A snow-covered Grand Canyon was charming and adventurous, but it was nice to head east along the Rim Road, make one last stop to gaze upon the emptiness at Desert View, and then descend to Cameron, where Arizona 64 ends at U.S. 89 and you can go south to Flagstaff or north to the Navajo Reservation and Page and the blasted Glen Canyon Dam.
We turned left to go north on 89 and then east on U.S. 160. Just outside Tuba City, we stopped for 15 minutes to tour the dinosaur tracks petrified in the rock floor of the desert. Our Navajo guide, Delfina (not sure of the spelling), led us across the wind-swept sandstone pointing out the prints left by allosaurus and other "wondrous lizards," though after further research, I don't think we saw more than mere footprints, which are unmistakable (and she didn't try to tell us any were made by Tyrannosaurus rex), so the alleged eggs and the potential skeleton now seem dubious. But that doesn't take away the allure for me; I'd still stop again to look at the prints and pretend that the small round bubbles were once dino eggs.
We made a donation and got back on the road, through the towns and not-quite towns of Tuba City and Moenkopi, Tonalea, Cow Springs and Tsegi to Kayenta, which had the last traffic light, gas station, McDonald's and other roadside staples we'd see before crossing the border into Utah ... only to then turn onto Monument Valley Road, cross back into Arizona (no sign this time) and onto the Monument Valley Tribal Park. In a parking lot at the end of the paved road sat a gift shop (or trading post, as they like to call them in the desert), restaurant and The View hotel. A quick check-in had us in our room in time to step out onto the balcony with our cameras to watch setting sun bathe the monoliths across the valley -- the Left (West) and Right (East) Mittens and Merrick Butte -- in the deepest red-orange hues I've ever seen. The sun was setting behind us, over the hotel, and even though the rock formations sat on the desert floor at an elevation below the ridge on which our hotel sat, they reached high enough so that they held the light as the shadows made the long, slow creep up from the floor.
The sun down, we stepped back inside to organize ourselves, but I returned to the balcony a short time later to get a stronger cell signal to call my parents. As I did, a coyote trotted along the ridge below the balcony, looking up when it heard me and sitting down at one point. The wily guy probably knows to ook for scraps beneath the balconies where the tourists come to gaze at the desert and watch the stars at night.
We walked down to the restaurant for dinner -- our first of three meals there (we brought crackers, string cheese, granola bars and juice with us for breakfast to save a little money since none of the hotels after Sedona offered it for free) -- and agreed that the dry Navajo Reservation would provide a good check for us as far as our alcohol intake. The free refills on soft drinks helped the bottom line as well, especially once we got to Moab and its brewery across the street from our hotel.
Back in our room for my most anticipated night of the trip -- but not for the reasons you may be thinking -- we turned out the lights and stepped onto the balcony to look up at the dome of stars, filling the sky from the horizon to the roof over our heads. I'd requested a room on the third floor, the highest, specifically to have the best vantage point at night. With the help of the Google Sky Map app on my Droid, I could confirm Venus on the western horizon (on the other side of the hotel; we saw it on the way to dinner) and spot Mars and Saturn in the sky above the Mittens. Castor, Pollux, Betelgeuse and more were hanging out up there, too.
I tried my hand at photographing the stars with a long exposure to create trails across the sky, but unfortunately the A/C power adapter that I'd bought for my camera hadn't arrived before our departure (likely delayed en route by some of the snowy weather in late February) and I was only able to take three shots before my three batteries were drained. In a way, though, I'm glad I didn't have it, because I wouldn't have thought to bring an extension cord to reach from the room out to the balcony, so it would have done me as much good as it did being in the post office back in Clifton.
With my batteries drained, I couldn't experiment with different settings, so the one shot of the three that was salvagable had one glaring flaw -- my white balance, still set to auto, is (I suspect) the reason pixelated red, green and blue dots appeared on the image. I probably wouldn't have bothered to post it to Flickr (or here) had I not tried looking at it in black and white. The dots are still there, but they don't stand out as much in black and white. At least I had a decent composition and can use this as a starting point for my next attempt, whenever -- and wherever -- it comes.
Loving the idea of spending the entire day in the tribal park, we set the alarms for early the next morning, waking up to step onto the balcony with our crackers, juice and cheese and settling into the deck chairs to watch the sun come up. The opener was just as spectacular as the previous night's closing, with a few clouds streaked in shades of rose and indigo to complement the orange horizon and add depth and variety to the tableau.
Afterward, a nap was necessary, but once we arose for good, we set out for the Wildcat Trail, the only self-guided hike in the park (the others required Navajo guides), which circles the Left Mitten. Though the description on the hotel website and the arrows on the map given to us at the front desk both said to circle the monolith in a clockwise direction, as the Navajo do, yet when we reached the point where the trail circle back on itself, the marker pointed to the right -- counterclockwise. Most of the footprints we followed did the same, and the mileage markers (the whole trek is roughly 3.2 miles, and we'd passed the three-mile marker on the way to the fork) were laid out in the counterclockwise direction. This bugged me throughout the hike and continues to perplex me now, but no ill will came of us as a result of spurning Navajo tradition.
The walk was a true desert hike, over soft, beach-like sand, firm redrock and muddy, adhesive wet clay during one stretch in which the path and a wash through the rabbitbrush and Mormon tea undergrowth were one and the same. The mud caked onto our hiking boots, filling the treads and turning the dark gray of my soles into a deep red to match the ground on which we trod. We stomped our feet on any slickrock we found and picked up a little more mud -- though less adhesive -- over the rest of the trail, but by the time the trail looped around to meet itself, we'd shed all the mud in the coarse, dry, loose sand. "It's a natural exfoliant!" Casey noted.
Around the backside of the West Mitten, as I walked ahead of Casey, hearing only our footfalls and the wind, I thought I caught a comment from behind me. I slowed and asked her what she had said, but she insisted she hadn't uttered a word. "Probably just a rustle of my pants or one of our packs," I surmised. "It almost sounded like a horse's whinny, though." Casey punctuated that statement with a whinny of her own. Yet a minute or so later, just as we were about to resume our walk after snapping a couple photos, we did in fact hear a horse, and turning to the east we saw two of them grazing in the desert, closer to a homestead at the crest of a small hill than to us, but free-range grazing nonetheless. So at least I wasn't hearing things.
The hike finished with a 900-foot climb back to the vacant campground where we'd started, and after shedding our gear in the room, we went to lunch in the restaurant and stopped by the shop so Casey could procure some prickly pear juice. Before leaving for the trip, I considered using this day in Monument Valley to make the two-hour one-way drive to the Four Corners and playing Twister -- one hand and one foot spread out over Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico -- but after enjoying the comforts of The View and checking the weather report (calling for snow), we ditched that plan and any attempt to take our Ford Fusion rental out onto the 17-mile dirt road through the tribal park and decided we'd earned an afternoon to relax at the hotel.
To get out of our rooms, we took our laptops and books (I was re-reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in advance of our trip to Arches National Park; Casey had brought along Kerouac's Desolation Angels) to a pair of leather chairs and ottomans set in the second-floor traverse past the lobby. There, we caught up on reading, chatted with a few fellow travelers and looked out the windows with regularity as the squalls came through, obliterating the Valley and its formations from view. A few hours later, it was time for dinner and a quiet, lazy evening of TV and more reading as the snow continued and cancelled any star displays for the night.