Handing a DSLR camera to a stranger is like giving a toddler a Rubik’s cube and expecting success. I’m desperate enough to offer someone my cracked iPhone. It met its fractured fate a week prior as I dashed out of the camper van to snap a mind-blowing sunset on The Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway.
I decide, instead, to hold out for a particularly advanced toddler.
It smells like desert rain from the late-morning monsoon, the first spring precipitation on my three-week trip to San Juan County. After weeks filled with solitude, I am finally surrounded by people. Gobs and gobs of tourists.
Monument Valley’s iconic Mittens touch the clouds behind me; I hear people speaking Mandarin, Dutch, Japanese and German. The sweet sounds of my native tongue are nary to be heard. English isn’t even the second language during high season in Southern Utah. For someone who has travelled the globe, I can get by with charades-like gestures. But that doesn’t work for communicating the camera-tech nuances of focus
After the third tourist’s attempt at taking my picture, I concede: good enough. Probably 10 dozen tourists board open-air jalopies for the noon tour of the valley, and two unrelated things leap to mind: What would John Wayne think of Monument Valley now that it’s become Desert Disneyland? Second, I’m starving.
Across the state line, back in Utah, folks flock to Goulding’s Lodge for the famous dish (beans and taco fixings piled atop fry bread). I wish I liked Navajo tacos—even a little bit. The real treat here, however, is Goulding’s Trading Post Museum.
Inside, I find a trading post, a throwback to when it sold provisions in the 1920s and 1930s, along with movie memorabilia and posters—from John Wayne-John Ford’s classic The Searchers to Back to the Future III. If trading post owner John Goulding hadn’t lured Hollywood to the area way back when, I might not be here.
Despite devouring cinematic history lessons, my hunger has not subsided. The Swingin Steak beckons. A family-run joint at the Mexican Hat Lodge, this is where you get your beef fix. Fat, juicy steaks are cooked over an open fire on a grill that, you guessed it, swings back-and-forth.
But this isn’t a culinary tour of the Four Corners. There are plenty of other travel destinations for high-brow (or even dive-y) noshing. We travel to Canyon Country for the canyons.
Mexican Hat sits at the end of a 26-mile float trip on the San Juan River. The murky brown waterway takes its color from silt deposits and only runs clear in the winter before snowmelt. A few days ago, I hopped a boat near Bluff and snaked through the monstrous river-cut canyons with Wild Rivers Expeditions,.
While craning my neck to see the top of the canyon walls, our guide Luis, a resident Navajo , filled us in on the local lore, the story of the land. We made little side-trips to spots like Butler Wash, where a short hike took us to one of the biggest and most pristine collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest. The region is replete with ruins.
Natural Bridges National Monument
We explored River House Ruin, a well-preserved cliff dwelling. The famous House on Fire is my next stop, and a must. Good luck getting the same answer twice from a local on the best time to visit the ruin to photograph it illuminated by reflected sunlight. Every person offers a different time.
You can’t walk 100 yards without tripping over remnants of the ancients in San Juan County. It’s a mysterious window into the past. Anthropologists say Grand Gulch had more residents 600 years ago than today’s population of the entire Four Corners area.
After ruin peeping (and missing the House actually on Fire), I head to Natural Bridges State Park.
At one point in every wanderer’s life, he falls in love with a park ranger—wind-swept hair, thoughtful eyes that peer over romantic vistas, who wears her beige and iconic hat with confidence. It’s all there. My itinerary is set, but I linger just to hear Azure (made-up name) talk a bit more. “Will you be leading the educational stargazing seminar tonight?” No, she says. Sigh.
Aside from its three landmark bridges—Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu—Natural Bridges is known for its view of shimmering balls of nighttime light, and in 2007, it was the nation’s first International Dark Sky Park, certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. Yes, a truly milky Milky Way, vivid scenery and massive stone bridges make a memorable package at this forgotten park.
One tourist asks the surprisingly common question: “Where is the dark-sky part of the park?” It’s everywhere, my friend. What San Juan County offers is sagebrush and solitude. He leaves and I look up at the stars.
Goulding’s Lodge and Goulding’s Trading Post Museum, 1000 Main Street, Monument Valley, 435-727-3231
Swingin Steak, 163 Main Ave., Mexican Hat, 435-683-2222
Wild Rivers Expeditions, 2625 S. Hwy. 191, Bluff, 435-672-2244
Natural Bridges National Monument, PO Box 1, Blanding, UT