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The Discovery of Monument Valley

by Martin Green

Last October, my wife Beverly and I made out first trip to the American Southwest, taking a ten-day bus tour starting in Scottsdale, Arizona. The impetus for the trip was my desire to see the Grand Canyon, which we reached on our second day and which was as impressive as advertised. I’d expected the rest of the trip to be something of an anticlimax but the next stop on our tour was Monument Valley and I found this to be in its own way possibly even more interesting than the Grand Canyon

As others have written, most people seeing Monument Valley for the first time find it familiar as it has been the scene of countless Westerns, especially those directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, and even now you’re likely to see its buttes used as a backdrop to numerous television commercials. 

Just a few facts about Monument Valley:  it crosses the Utah-Arizona state line; it’s on the Navajo Indian Reservation, the country’s largest reservation; it’s a Navajo Tribal (not a State) Park. Its red sandstone buttes and pinnacles have been carved by wind and water over the course of centuries. 

Our tour stopped at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley and we could see the valley’s buttes from the balcony of our room. The Lodge had a small museum and another building, called John Wayne’s cabin, whose walls were lined with posters of movies filmed in the valley. I recall seeing a director’s chair, presumably used by John Ford.

According to the little booklet we received at the museum, Harry Goulding and his wife Leone, whom he called “Mike,” came to Monument Valley in 1923, gained the confidence and trust of the Navajos, and established a trading post there in 1928. The next day our tour guide told us this story about how Hollywood discovered Monument Valley. In 1939, Harry, with a collection of photos he’d taken of the valley, drove to Hollywood. He tried to get an appointment to see the director John Ford but with no success. So he barged into Ford’s office unannounced. Two men grabbed him and were about to throw him out when the director himself entered the office from the back. Goulding waved what he thought was his best Monument Valley Picture over his head so Ford could see it. John Ford saw the picture, looked at the rest of the pictures, and told Goulding to get ready, he’d be there in three days to start filming “Stagecoach.”

I don’t know if this story is absolutely authentic. In fact, looking at various websites I found one saying John Ford had discovered Monument Valley and another saying it was John Wayne. I like the story about Harry Goulding much better and the booklet mentioned above tells the same story, a little less colorfully. In any case, Monument Valley was discovered by Hollywood and, after “Stagecoach,” other Westerns filmed there included “My Darling Clementine,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers,” and “Cheyenne Autumn.” More recent movies include, “Back to the Future” and “The Windwalkers.”

Another story we heard was that John Ford and John Wayne rode through Monument Valley and gave names to its various formations. I don’t know if this is true, but some of the names are “The King on his Throne,” “Three Sisters,” “Left Mitten” and “Right Mitten.”

Hi Martin
Here's Martin at Monument Valley
Hi Bev
Here's Beverly

Since we returned from our trip, reminders of Monument Valley keep coming up. On the shuttle back from the airport, the lady driver told us she had all of John Wayne’s about 200 movies, except one. She knew all about Monument Valley and the Gouldings. The first week back I saw a commercial with a car on top of one of the Monument Valley pinnacles. In a video store, I saw a fairly recent Western (which I’d never heard of) with a Monument Valley picture on its cover. I’ve been searching the video stores for old John Wayne westerns. So far I haven’t been able to find any, but I’ll keep on looking. Meanwhile, I’ve started reading Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, which are set in the same area and whose two main police characters are Navajos.   Monument Valley definitely made an impression on me!

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