The wind whips my hair into my face as the uneven ground bumps me around the back seat of the jeep. Surrounding me, towering rocks cast shadows, bright orange against the blue sky.
Monument Valley might just be one of the most amazing places I’ve been able to visit – and all because I had the chance to go beyond what tourists usually see.
I’d been excited about visiting Monument Valley since booking my trip months earlier. But it wasn’t just the movie-set landscapes I was pining after.
Being able to venture into the Navajo reservation, where visitors are unable to go without a guide, was the real selling point. With an overnight stay in a traditional Navajo Hogan part of the experience, I spent the first half of my fortnight in America counting down the days…
From the moment the sandstone buttes come into view, I find myself overtaken with excitement. Once we’ve had the chance to gaze out from the visitor centre, the group’s sleeping bags and overnight packs are loaded onto the jeep, and off we go into the vast, burnt orange landscape…
Our Navajo guide John is full of information about the land, pointing out shapes and forms in the rocks. With a little imagination, faces, animals and objects can be seen in the colossal shapes. As the road becomes less flat and the vehicle numbers dwindle, we find ourselves in the backroads of the Navajo nation.
At one stop, Big Hogan Arch, we lie on a slanted face of rock and stare up at the circular hole in the ceiling. It’s at this point that John introduces us to some Navajo songs and chanting, and I lay captivated as the sound bounces crisply around the cave-like walls.
We squeeze ourselves into a hogan (a traditional Navajo building, built from wood and packed mud), where a local woman demonstrates traditional crafts. Woolen rugs, woven baskets and handmade jewelry are all key wares sold by the Navajo tribe, completely from scratch with raw materials.
Next up, the ultimate photo stop. John Ford’s Point is named after the filmmaker, who shot scenes from many of his movies in Monument Valley. As I pose for the ‘money shot’, a pair of fellow visitors make their way into my shot, and I have a slightly-unwarranted tantrum, heading back to the jeep.
But when they move back from the lookout, I’ve found my moment, and sprint back, staring out into the landscape, posing for a photo that’s worthy of hanging on my living room wall.
As the sun goes down, we’re driven to a space in the shade of one of the larger buttes, where local cooks serve up a traditional Navajo taco dinner. Unlike traditional Mexican tacos, Navajo tacos use a thicker flat dough ‘frybread’. Topped with shredded steak, salad and salsa, it’s a warming and delicious treat as the incoming night brings on colder temperatures.
Make your own: Navajo Frybread and Taco Recipe
To my left, the first sparks of a fire appear, and before long, it’s blazing brightly. Having expected to go back to the hogan, I’m pleasantly surprised to find out we’d be participating in a traditional Navajo celebration ceremony. As the dancer spins her way around the burning flames, I gaze up at the starry sky, and have a moment of pure appreciation that I get to be here and experience it.
Pairing up the men and women of the circle, audience participation gets fully underway, with group dances and the opportunity to freestyle. Obviously, Conor and I absolutely smash it with our epic moves. John sings a traditional birthday song to those lucky enough to be born in the month of October; and presents them with a thoughtful gift.
Feet worn out from dancing and stomachs filled with taco, we head to the hogan we’ll be calling home for the night. The round structure has a fire in the middle, keeping us all warm in the cold night. And before leaving the group to sleep, John fills us in on some bedtime stories that definitely aren’t the comforting kind.
In Navajo culture, a skinwalker is a witch, with the ability to take the form of an animal. John tells us that upon seeing one, fear overtakes you – a gripping, all-consuming true terror. You become unable to move, speak, or cry out. He tells us stories of relatives who’ve had encounters with the creatures, whether it be in real life or a skinwalker making its way into your deepest of dreams.
As we settle down to sleep in the hogan, 13 sleeping bag-clad bodies in a circle, it’s a chilling bedtime story and a good reason to avert our eyes from the smoke hole in the structure’s centre…
3am. I wake up. A dog barks in the distance. I can’t help but ponder what it could be barking at…
Surprisingly, despite a wake-up or two during the night, I get a much better night’s sleep than expected. Waking up before daylight hits, it takes less than 10 minutes to bundle up my sleeping bag. Hair unbrushed, make-up free, I quickly brush my teeth before hopping back into the jeep and heading off for sunrise.
Sitting on a ledge overlooking the valley, the colours slowly come to life. There’s not long left until we devour breakfast, re-enact the famous scene from Forrest Gump and leave Monument Valley behind us.
Before we do, I sit alone and soak it all up. From the captivating landscapes, to the warmth of the Navajo towards us as visitors, I feel privileged to have been let in for a taste of their fascinating culture. It’s a world away from social media scrolling, packed train commutes and star-less city skies, and one I’d recommend absolutely anyone to try and experience.