Classic Western Setting 1; or, Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, Of Course

“I’ve been here before,” you say, and you have–in the movies.

Visiting Monument Valley,  a space of mind-blowing proportion,  30,000 acres on the Utah-Arizona border, is best seen on foot, as part of a tour, or on horseback, or even in a rental car to drive through the fine red dust of the 17-mile winding road, visor down against the bright sun. My rental car was like a small pony–I had to be careful on the rougher bits but it motored fine up and down the hills, and I was swabbing red dust out of the interior for days (duh–close the windows). See the Mittens! Elephant Butte! The Thumb! And John Ford’s point, where you can take a photograph of a Navajo man on a horse. (Kinda weird, but then New York has the Naked Cowboy, so…) There are pull-offs for that epic picture you need to take, but be prepared to pull off often because the flashes of deja vu are freaking disorienting.

Yes, your very bones know you’ve seen these ruby-red buttes and pinnacles and spires and strange mitten-shaped formations before. The brilliant blue sky, the white clouds and their shadows scudding across the valley. Seven Ford westerns, a number of other films, countless commercials. A metaphor for rugged individuals, mystic spirituality, heroic effort.

The place is huge. Not just Empire-State-Building big. Massive the way mountains are, with distances so far away that if you’re one of the puny humans whose eyes rarely focus past the computer screen, you’ll be hard-pressed to explain what this wide open space means. That big. The words “Monument” and “Valley” are meaningless here, so I’ve always liked the Navajo name for the place: Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii.

No, John Ford didn’t discover Monument Valley for his Hollywood westerns–Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, or “Mike” did. Let me introduce you to a real-deal westerner, the guy so authentically cowboy that he even intimidated John Ford, who was a true bastard to work for.

from Goulding's Lodge

The story is that in the middle of the Great Depression, with both the Gouldings and their neighboring Navjo neighbors suffering from lack of food and money, and livestock dying, he made a decision to go to Hollywood.

With archetypal Westerner can-do, Harry Goulding marched into United Artists with a portfolio of photographs of the landscape by his homestead. He’d heard that Hollywood agents were looking for a locale for a western that was to be filmed that year. Beanpole tall and no doubt dressed in his country best, he didn’t strike immediate respect in the hearts of the receptionists and was shown the door. Although practically illiterate he was shrewd as any of those Hollywood agents and threatened to camp out overnight until someone saw him. That did the trick; a sputtering agent saw his photographs and was awed, and the rest is cinematic history.

Monument Valley is on Navajo land, but Goulding had had a long working relationship with his neighbors, so when he told Ford about the site, he also made sure that Ford would hire the Navajos as extras. Yes, they do speak Navajo in some of the westerns they’re in, and no, they’re not saying what they’re supposed to say. Truly awesome subterfuge.

John Ford was notorious for bullying actors, even our hero John Wayne, but he never said a cross word to Harry Goulding. Ford knew the difference between real westerners and posers, and Goulding was the real deal.

Monument Valley–Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii. An American treasure.

See, I can’t even be snarky about it, such is its epic awesomeness. Basically, go there and fuhgeddabout Las Vegas, the Statue of Liberty, and getting cheese in Wisconsin.

Krazy Kat and Ignatz even visited Monument Valley

2 comments to Classic Western Setting 1; or, Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, Of Course

  • co

    There was a great article I think in Vanity Fair several years ago about Goulding. Love it when the real thing kicks ass.

  • bucko

    That was the article I’ve been thinking about since you lent me that Vanity Fair! Sounds like the guy was one of a kind.

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