Monument Valley, that dreamy, spiritual, red-rock vista so lovingly exploited by automobile ad directors must indeed be an impressive sight at sunrise or sunset, when the warm light and strong shadows etch its soaring spires and buttes against the sky. But under the cover of high clouds on a hazy, humid October afternoon, with a blustery wind kicking up dust devils, the shadows and the magic are missing. Especially so after the outrageous spectacles of the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks observed near Moab. Perhaps I'm suffering from visual overload.
"If you ever plan to motor West..."
Moab's red rocks shimmer under clear skies as I spin south out of town on 191. But as I pass Wilson Arch and La Sal junction, a thin sheet of high cloud is drifting in from the east: a cold front. I'm also battling a strong headwind that buffets the FZ1 and whips up dust from the roadside. I top off with gas in Blanding. The FZ1's carburetor engine is thirstier than most fuel-injected bikes, and the headwind means we'll be sucking up more gas than usual with no towns marked between here and Kayenta, more than 90 miles away.
On the map there's an interesting looking road that detours through the Valley of the Gods, but the gas jockey says it's gravel with steep downgrades, so I decide to bypass it. The FZ1 is no dirt bike, especially when fully laden. I turn south on 163 into Monument Valley. For as long as I can remember, I've imagined riding through this evocative dreamscape, drifting between towering crimson castles of sandstone toward an orange sunset melting into the desert floor. Sadly, I hit it at the same time the cold front butts in, hazing the desert air with humidity and whipping sand into the air. And my old nemeses, motor homes, today's desert schooners, are droning across the valley floor in fleets. I park the FZ1 by the roadside and attempt some snaps, but the walloping breeze threatens to upend my tripod and send my camera skittering down the road.
Now inside the Navajo Reservation, I spin into Kayenta, a desperately shabby town of shambling manufactured homes randomly slapped onto a landscape of decaying automobiles. I remember reading once that only 60 percent of all cars ever manufactured in America are accounted for, the rest presumably rot away in farmyards, barns and riverbeds. A goodly portion of them found the way to Kayenta. Scrawny, mangy dogs howl at the tumbleweed bowling across the only signaled intersection. Sad-eyed Indians shuffle along the sidewalk with their heads bent against the breeze. I pull into a gas station alongside a couple of pathetic cars that may soon join the other wrecks scattered around town. Despair and decay are mirrored in the slate-gray sky above.
I'm glad to turn east toward Tuba City, although the steamy air is turbulent and sudden gusts push me across the road. I'm crossing sandy, scrubby rangeland that ought to be sheltered by Black Butte, a block of upland that lines the road; but instead the wind seems to whip around the butte's edges, and black clouds gather over it. Lightning flashes in the distance and brief but violent showers blast the drifting sand into rivers of red mud.
I turn south for Cameron on 89, then west again for the Grand Canyon, and when I stop for gas, I find out that the Navajo-run "visitor center" station curiously sells drinks but no food. Riding toward the park entrance, I also see that the enterprising Navajo have set up countless roadside stalls, which are run, claims one of the largest, by "friendly Indians." These are positioned strategically, at scenic overlooks where visitors are required to run the gauntlet of trinket stalls if they want to check out the view. Of course, these shopping opportunities vanish once one gets inside Grand Canyon National Park.
The weather is deteriorating fast, and as the FZ1 and I climb toward the south rim, a fierce wind chills the air. I take some photos at one of the viewpoints, weighting my tripod down with my camera bag and seriously worrying whether a sudden gust might topple the parked FZ1 and whisk me over the edge. Just like Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon is best seen at sunrise and dusk, when the angled light sharpens the contrasts and enhances the colors.
Even in late October, the visitor parking lots in the "Village" are crammed, and I make a mental note to visit the less exploited North Rim next time. South again out of the village, I'm heading toward a band of blue sky that promises better weather. I pause to snap a magnificent Lockheed Constellation parked outside the Valle Air Force Museum and vow to return for a look-see in the future.