We were driving through Arizona, although we were passing through states so quickly I found it hard to keep track, especially with all the lack of sleep and the bottles of wine I was putting away at a rate that would draw a lopsided smile and thumbs up from Gerard Depardieu. Over endless miles of highway we sang songs and played games and drew on the windows with wipe clean pens. We laughed at each other’s gaping mouths when we took naps, and we disagreed on who should get to be in charge of the radio. (Nobody else wanted Meatloaf, dammit) The rocks around us steadily turned red as we headed south. We stopped at a deserted little settlement, some depressing metal huts in the arse end of nowhere. Navajo people sat in the huts, browsing magazines with disinterest, all kinds of Native American bric-a-brac stacked around them. Daggers, bows, arrows, necklaces. I hobbled straight past all of it and found a bathroom; the first we’d had passed in hours. Thank god.
We piled back into the minivan and rumbled on, the huge mesas on the horizon growing all the time. I felt almost bashful, star struck by a landscape I’d seen so many times on TV. We pulled up at an information centre. Our guide, Nando, had been vague about the day ahead, except for telling us it was his favourite part of the trip. Eventually, an adapted jeep rolled up, canvas roofed with no sides, just three rows of seats and bars to hold onto. Out climbed our guide for the evening, a grim faced, surly Navajo named Cody. He bid us to hop into his truck, and we headed off down a dusty track into the valley.
From inside the driver’s cabin, Cody was reeling off facts about the landscape. We couldn’t hear a word he was saying over the distorted intercom, just vague crackling yells about rocks. We jiggled as the truck bounced down the rack; if it wasn’t for the seatbelts I’d have been hurled flailing onto the road a dozen times. We stopped off at various formations and Cody told us about their Navajo names with vague random loathing. One of us asked a question at one point and he looked furious. At one point I got to sit on a horse and hold an old rifle while someone took my photo against the stunning backdrop. I looked a bit like John Wayne if he had a fuzz of blonde hair, shit posture and a beer gut. Actually, he did have a beer gut so… I kind of nailed it.
Down in the valley, blasts of sand whipped into our eyes as our truck carved through. We hopped out and filed over to a colossal half-cave rock formation with a hole in the roof, which Cody said looked like an eagle’s eye. He told us to lay on our backs, staring up at the ceiling, and told us an elaborate story about the formation of the world involving eagles and foxes and the fox being hated by everyone for some reason, I don’t remember. I was too aware of Nando’s sniggering at Cody’s solemn, humourless storytelling.
After, Cody drove us to a space clear in the low gauze bushes that season the valley floor. We gathered and ate a Navajo meal on rickety tables. Another few groups were already there, so there was maybe 60 of us. After eating, Cody informed it was time for dancing, in the kind of grave tone you’d use to break bad news to a soldier’s wife. Great. As someone who doesn’t feel comfortable dancing until he’s had 12 pints of rum, being told that I will soon be enduring forced dancing is about as welcome as being told I will have to waddle through my office, pants around my ankles, genitals tucked into a mangina – and expected to enjoy it. Shit.
Cody slipped away while we ate, and emerged from behind a bush dressed head to toe in traditional Navajo party dress, all coloured feathers and bells and wild headdress. He looked like a mad peacock, albeit still with a face like a slapped arse. A few of Cody’s Navajo mates appeared with tambourines. The sun had begun to set as we ate, and Cody placed an electric lantern in the middle of the dusty clearing. His friends began yelping and chanting, hammering their instruments, and we stood watching in a semi-circle as Cody began to leap and hop and skipping around the lantern, offering the occasional ‘whoop’. It was very surreal.
Then it was time for us to join in. I was randomly selected from the crowd, of course, because I bloody always am, and was marched out to join the sulking rave turkey that was Cody at the front. He partnered me up with a girl on my tour, a mad Welsh girl, and along with a few other couples we had to follow him in a tottering conga line, following his moves and yelping when he did. It was a kind of dosey-doe, mixed with plenty of knee patting and crouching and random screaming. Then we formed a huge circle and one by one each couple had to run into the middle and freestyle dance for around 15 seconds. I watched with dread as every other couple skipped into the centre on their turn, prancing merrily to the tambourine. I couldn’t think of a move, so ended up doing some weird hip-thrusting arm-twirling Carlton-esque jig.
When night fell, we thanked Cody and his pals for their show. Despite my intentions to hate it, it was good fun. The other tours buggered off, leaving only Cody, Nando, and us 12 backpackers. We began to unpack the van of our gear. I threw my tent and sleeping back onto the dirt, and my roomie Freddy and I started the usual arduous but familiar process of assembling our canvass home. The air was still, and red rocks crunched underfoot as we hammered the pegs in. It was getting late, the sun was long gone.
Nando advised us not to bother getting in the tents, save for if it were to rain. The girls were too scared to sleep outside. My friend Mike and I stretched out our matts on the dust while Nando slung his hammock around two trees and collapsed into it, one leg hanging out as he rocked gently. I lay on my back in the enormity of Monument Valley, drinking in the ancientness of it. I had that feeling you get when you’re a kid, when you stand and bend over so your head’s between your legs and look out at the upside down world, and your confused brain panics, expecting the impending rush of falling into the sky. I lay on my back staring up at the clouds, a speck among the eternal cacti and looming rock, and suddenly wanted something to cling to, in case gravity corrected itself and I fell spiralling into the yawning clouds. I nodded off.
It’s a funny thing, being woken up by the rain. It enters your dreams first, and your extravagant nocturnal exploits are suddenly interrupted by spattering cold. Each raindrop pounds you back into reality, until your eyes open to see tumultuous clouds and a million droplets falling towards you. I wiped my face and sat up; nobody else was awake yet. The clouds rolled over stretching to the horizon, coursed by white sheet lightning. There was no thunder. Fine light rain was peppering the tents. After two weeks of camping, this was the norm. I wasn’t usually sprawled outside the tent, though. Not sober, at any rate. I watched the clouds, and through a small gap I saw the night sky. I tucked my head into my sleeping back and lay back down, listening to the rain hit me, too tired to care. As I dipped in and out of sleep, through half-closed eyes, I caught glimpses of the clouds dispersing. I woke again, it must have been 3am, and sleepily peered out of my damp sleeping bag.
Now. Words will never, ever do this justice. But I’m going to try, because… well, otherwise the article would just end here. And… you know… that’d be a bit shit.
Imagine the black night sky. Now, in your mind’s eye, fill it with as many stars as possible. Be liberal, lob stars across the night’s canvass, go full on Jackson Pollock. Go berserk, fling those glittery bastards at the sky like a furious chimp flinging faeces at gawking zoo-goers. Hurl stars into the void until it gleams. Are you picturing it?
Now despair, because no matter what, it won’t come close to the sky that night. So many stars. So many that the sky wasn’t black, it was silver. The monuments were lit up. I lay on my back staring out at the abyss. Since I was a kid, I’ve been scared of the night sky. It’s always made me uncomfortable. I don’t see pretty twinkling lights, I see gigantic balls of flame that are suspended in an infinite void a billion miles away. I’ve never been overly keen on that thought. But, my god, it was beautiful. I lay there bathed in their brilliance, the sheet lightning flashing over distant mesas, highlighting thin fine rain streaking down over faraway plains.
“Mike?” I whispered, “Are you awake? Have you seen this?”
Mike rolled over.
“Yeah mate,” he hissed in his Irish drawl. “It’s fucking majestic.”
“Beautiful, isn’t it,” Nando murmured, from where he was laid in his hammock, hands behind his head.
Suddenly, a zipped up tent shuddered angrily and a voice boomed from within.
“’ERE CAN YOU SHUT UP PLEASE? SOME OF US ARE TRYING TO SLEEP”
The three of us offered our apologies to the furious Jen, who refused to take a peep out of her tent and therefore missed the entire once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
After being scolded into silence, we merely lay there and gazed around. I dozed in and out of sleep, and was woken at one point by a familiar sound. Wait, no, that can’t have been real. I must have dreamt it. I began to doze, then heard it again. A dog’s bark. And another. Then hundreds. It was a pack of wild dogs, roaming the plains. Their barks echoed crystal clear, distant, but not bloody distant enough. I panicked, and sat up. I needed the toilet, but I didn’t want to leave the tent circle. I grabbed my torch and tiptoed away, expecting at any moment to be savaged by fifty snarling Cujo’s. Cody seemed to know something we didn’t; he was sound asleep locked in the safety of his truck’s cabin. Bastard.
I had a terrified, urgent piss in a bush, then dashed back to slither inside my sleeping bag. The dogs carried on barking all night, sometimes going further away, sometimes getting nearer. At one point; while the lightning was flashing and rain was dappling my exposed forehead and the slavering pack of wolves was busy howling and stalking the undergrowth; a horse, yes, a bloody horse, started neighing. Frantically neighing. What the hell. Where is this horse. Why is it here. Is it being eaten by the dogs. Is it leading the pack of dogs. Is it Ghost Rider. Why is nobody else bloody awake. Many questions floated around my head as I lay there.
Cody prodded us all awake around 5.30am, and marched us onto his truck. The sky was that sickly pale blue colour that you only ever see if you’re up way too early or way too late. I was lolling around in my seat on the truck trying to stay awake when we pulled up at a vast expanse of rolling plain, emerging from the midst of eponymous Monuments and stretching to the horizon. We sat on rocks, bleary eyed, and waited. Slowly, slowly, the sky reddened. It was utterly silent, save for the clacks of the few bouncing pebbles I was throwing at the ground in frustrated exhaustion. Faint redness turned to brilliant orange, and the sun scape engulfed the Valley. The clouds glowed golden, sheer brilliant light pierced them at their thinnest spots, and fantastic searing outlines of their forms burned into my retinas as I stared through my sunglasses. It was astonishing.
We watched the sunrise in silence until the fierce watery orb was several inches above the horizon. Weak daylight reached our faces. It was hot already. We piled back on the truck and drove back to camp. We packed up our stuff and headed on to the next State.