Saturday, September 28, 2013

Valley of the Gods & Monument Valley

The next episode of our journey from Alaska to Argentina, took us to Monument Valley. A very special place. Probably also one of the most photographed places on earth. All the typical 'western' images I saw on TV as a kid can be found here. To me, scenery wise, it doesn't get much more 'American' than this. It's surprisingly enough, not a National Park. It's owned by the Navajo nation and falls under Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation, who's aim is to 'protect, preserve and manage tribal parks, monuments and recreation areas for the perpetual enjoyment and benefit of the Navajo Nation'.

The last bit 'for the benefit of the Navajo Nation' made me think it would be expensive. It wasn't. It wasn't a very warm start of the day either: ice on the tent. When we left Montana, where we had send our winter gear back home, we had no idea we would see so much frost going further south! It was getting seriously cold! Yet, looking at the names of the towns we were riding through you could be forgiven for thinking we were. Maybe the remarkable Mexican Hat rock had attracted Mexicans to settle here?

Instead of riding straight to Monument Valley, we took a little detour via 'Valley of the Gods'. They didn't name Valley of the Gods like this for nothing. It really is Gods' heaven on earth, especially on a motorcycle! In technical terms it's a sandstone valley with geologic formations. In my view it's another of nature's masterpieces. I'm not sure how this one was made though. It's almost like 'someone' below has pushed these weird looking rocks up from the ground and painted them bright red. The colours alone, which seem to change around every corner, are amazing. The different formations have been given funny names by the local people, like Rooster Butte, Hen Butte, Balanced Rock or Lady in a Tub. Whoever gave them these names must have had a good laugh. Places like this usually turn quickly into a start-stop affair as we made a lot of photos, photos that later-on will bring back so many memories! Good memories because this is really amazing. Mike also made a movie about it, a link to which can be found at the end of this post.

One of the stops resulted in a bruised ego… Mike's! His foot slipped on the gravel when he stopped for another photo and before he knew it his headlight was very low to the ground… Luckily no damage to him or the bike. The dented ego became even worse when he couldn't pick up the bike up himself and needed mums help! The XT660 isn't too heavy for him, the rear wheel just kept sliding away from him over the loose gravel.
Having spend a lot of time in the Valley of the Gods we decided to skip the Moki Dugway for now, go to Monument Valley first and do the Moki on the way back north. A good decision as the days had slowly but surely become shorter and shorter as we were getting seriously into autumn by now.

Riding to Monument Valley is something not to be missed. The landscapes are 'western' style and wide-open. I can't think of anywhere in the world where I've seen anything like it. As we're approaching Monument Valley, we're also approaching 'golden hour' in photography (i.e. about an hour before sunset). Perfect timing!
The entry fee was just $5,- a head, which surprised me, considering it's Navajo owned and thus a commercial enterprise. We were warned that the road into Monument Valley was in a terrible state. According to people we spoke to the Navajos deliberately don't maintain the road as they want you to take the 'bus'. The word 'bus' is used somewhat loosely by Navajos, as what they call a bus is in fact a battered open pickup truck full of kitchen seats, which go for a minimum of $ 55,- each! We decided to ride the bikes in… which was at first forbidden by the Navajo ranger at the entry gate as we were not on off-road bikes(!) Hmmm. I was beginning to wonder how bad this road was… We soon found out as we passed the visitor centre and started the 17 mile loop road.

In front of us were two Harley Davidsons… they decided within 200 metres to turn around and forget it. A wise decision we think. A monster truck / motorhome didn't continue either. The monster bounced and twisted so badly that it looked like the camper part was about to fall off. They took the photo just before the first bend and returned. Looking at the struggling truck I wondered what the point of them is. Despite the huge, expensive tyres and beefed up suspension, they are clearly rubbish off road. Our old VW Kombi would have handled this lots better.

Having lived in Australia for 8 years, including living and working on an iconic outback station, I have yet to see a road as bad as this! Looking at the 'damage' I'm sure it's done deliberately… and the descend down hadn't even started then! Soft sand, pot holes, bull dust, ruts covered in sand, switchbacks… you'll see it all on the way down into Monument Valley. The tyres were struggling for grip in the soft sand and we had to take it slowly to avoid collapsing in the holes. Jeanette had enough halfway down I think, but struggled on until the first parking area and decided she was rather looking at Indian jewellery and talking to the people that made them and waited for us to return at this spot. Again, a wise decision.

Mexican Hat Rock
I'm glad we pushed on though as the scenery is more than worth it. Amazing isn't the word. As we were on a one way system, we didn't had to worry about vehicles coming from the other side and we could thus choose which side of the road to take… or so we thought! A jeep driven by Indians came flying around the corner, against the traffic… lucky escape and lucky it was the only one!
We stopped at each and every opportunity to take some photographs, some of which you'll see here, and just soaked it all up (we also 'soaked' up a lot of dust by the way… :-). Looking around me at one of the many viewpoints my eye catches my Triumph. Covered in red dust, the chromium bits barely visible, red tyres and rims… it couldn't have been further removed from the shiny classic I bought 4 years ago. Yet it seemed to fit it rather well, just like the dual-sport panniers somehow seem to fit it too.

It was rough going at times, the Triumph bottoming out several times, but I wouldn't want to have missed it for the world. The last part back to where Jeanette had parked her bike was reasonably straight and good… so guess what I did? Right, classic mistake! It was getting late so I thought it was ok to speed up a little bit… it wasn't. I found the only pothole which threw me off-balance… upon which my foot found the only rock on that road… a big rock! Ouch! As if that didn't hurt enough, my leg was then thrown against the pannier… 

Another dumb mistake I made was not walking the last steep bit of the road back out of the Canyon before riding it. Had I done so, I would have seen the bull dust covered hole on the right-hand side… Going up on a steep sandy road like this, I had to keep my momentum… so when I did 'find' that pothole… I hit it hard. The Bonnie bottomed out, the bash plate taking most of the hit… most of it… the rest was absorbed by the side stand so hard that it crushed the side stand spring and threw the stop rubber out. Getting out of the hole was fun too :-) Distanzias are great tyres, they kick up a lot of dust! With the side stand tied in place with a bit of rope, the bike was mobile again. Meanwhile someone who had paid the 55 dollars to get covered in dust, was thrown out of one of those horrible bus/truck things when it hit the same pothole I had… It was a seriously bad bit of road! To make it worse, the other 'busses' just drove past, narrowly missing him…

We took the first camp-ground, where I took my boot off to find half my toe-nail loose in it. So that's what hurted so bad :-) In the morning I did a bodge job when knocking the double wound spring back into shape proved impossible. A cork I had found in Canada somewhere had ended up in my toolkit and was cut into shape to replace the side stand stop rubber (I knew that cork would come in handy one day!) and we were ready to go again. An English couple on a Triumph Tiger, asked us if we were the motorcyclists that went into Monument Valley the evening before. 'You are very brave' they said…

We went back north, to the Moki Dugway. I must admit that I had never heard of the Moki Dugway before I saw 'The Ride' video. It's a narrow dirt road with 10% grades and a series of switchbacks along a cliff… in other words: beautiful! The views along the way are breathtakingly beautiful. From the top of the road and on a clear day like we had, you look over the Valley of the Gods. It's a road that you have to do slowly to appreciate it. But slowly no longer 'fits' in the current rat-race-lifestyle, as demonstrated by a BMW GS rider that roars up the Moki Dugway, waves his smart phone round to take a photo and dashes off again… What is the point, I wondered. Even holidays and days off have to be 'fitted in tight schedules now? 

Natural Bridges was supposed to be the next stop but we found the campground full, again. We also found, again, motorhomes taking up tent only spaces and length limits grossly ignored. What a management… According to the ranger we could camp just outside the park on BLM land. As there are no toilets (so why do they send those oversized RV's parked on tent sites not here instead?) we decided to ride on until the next campground. It turned out to be quite a ride until the next campground, but in the end the beautiful Glen Canyon Natural Park provided a place for our tents for the night. We were the only ones there and how and what we had to pay was unclear.

In the end we never saw anybody and assumed it was free, which we could hardy believe as there is a beautiful toilet building, fish cleaning and dishwashing facility etc. which must have cost a few bob. Still we're not complaining :-) We even found plenty of firewood to have a good campfire,  that was still smouldering in the morning…