The American West has to be seen to be believed and has to be believed to be seen

May 25, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

"The landscape of the American West has to be seen to be believed and has to be believed to be seen." - N. Scott Momaday


That quote sums up how I usually feel when I return from a west coast trip. Having been raised and lived all of my life in more eastern regions of the United States I know there are amazing and truly inspirational sights and historical places on our side of the country. Some are unmatched anywhere in the world – including in Washington, DC – my home for the last 30 years. That said, the mountain west also has its own unique history and lessons, but its natural beauty is just unsurpassed. Traveling through Utah in April I was reminded (again!) that we live in a diverse, resilient, and sacred place, when we allow ourselves to see it that way. I’ve posted on my social media a few of my favorite scenes from my recent Utah adventure, which I’m including in this blog along with their stories and some new images. I encountered incredible scenery, landscapes, wildlife, and great people throughout Utah, and the biggest impact was visiting Monument Valley – part of the Navajo Nation located in Utah, near Kayenta, Arizona. Let’s start there.




Monument Valley - "Sacred Land, Sacred View."


Sacred ViewsSacred Views


After spending about 48 hours in Monument Valley, witnessing the incredible rock formations and listening to native Navajo stories about creation and the significance of the land, I purchased the book “Sacred Land, Sacred View,” in a local shop. I read it front-to-back on the plane ride home and found that some of my photographs of the rock formations in and near Monument Valley - all on Navajo land - were talked about in the book. I had heard some of the stories I read about during my tour of Monument Valley where I had the great experience of learning about Navajo culture from Larry Team, a Navajo guide with Monument Valley Tribal Tours. One of the best descriptions I’ve read of how Navajos view the environment and land is: “Navajos read their environment as a spiritual text: the gods created the physical world to help, teach, and protect people through an integrated system of beliefs represented in nature.”


Larry Team - Navajo Guide, Monument Valley Tribal Tours

Larry Team - Navajo GuideLarry Team - Navajo Guide


The dramatic beauty of Navajo Land and its people left me, and still leave me speechless. The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, comprising about 16 million acres, or about 25,000 square miles, approximately the size of the state of West Virginia. Some of the most photographed scenery in the United States is on the reservation, notably Monument Valley.



Sunrise, Monument Valley


Some Navajo interpretations of the rock formations shown in the photo above -- specifically what are called the "Mittens" on the left and in the center -- say that these formations are two hands that were left behind by the gods as signs that some day they will return and rule with power from Monument Valley.



The photograph below shows Agathla Peak or Agathlan (Navajo: Aghaałą́, Spanish: El Capitan) which is located south of Monument Valley. It rises over 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the surrounding terrain. In Navajo tradition, this formation is believed to be a "sky-supporter", also described as a "transmitter", capable of communicating prayers.


Agathla Peak or El Capitan

Sky SupportSky Support


Anthropologists believe the Navajos probably arrived in the Southwest between 800 and 1,000 years ago. The Navajo people call themselves Dine', literally meaning "The People." After the United States defeated Mexico in 1846 and gained control of the vast expanse of territory known today as the Southwest and California, the Navajos encountered a more substantial enemy. Colonel Kit Carson instituted a scorched earth policy, burning Navajo fields and homes, and stealing or killing their livestock. After starving the Navajos into submission, Carson rounded up every Navajo he could find - 8,000 men, women and children - and in the spring of 1864 forced his prisoners to march some 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Navajos call this "The Long Walk." Many died along the way, and died during the four long years of imprisonment. In 1868 after signing a treaty with the U.S., remaining Navajos were allowed to return to designated lands currently occupied in the Four Corners area of the U.S.


Generations of Navajos were raised with the belief that what the natural world provides is sacred, greater than us, and essential for survival, harmony, and peace. Social media is loaded with incredible pictures of Monument Valley. But there’s much, much more, to learn and know about this place that the Navajo people see as sacred. They were taught to live in harmony with “Mother Earth”,” Father Sky” and other elements including people, plants, animals, and insects. Those beliefs have enabled the protection and care of natural resources for generations.


Monument Valley Mesas, Mittens, and Formations


A view of "Ear of the Wind", in Monument Valley Backcountry

Ear of the WindEar of the Wind


The photo below is another of many places we stopped during our backcountry tour of Monument Valley. Our Navajo guide told us to lay on our backs and look up at this formation. He asked if we saw the eagle? Some of us did. Did you?



Find the Eagle, Monument Valley


Do You See the Eagle?Do You See the Eagle? Seeing the EagleSeeing the Eagle



I could never do justice to the powerful stories Larry – our Navajo guide -- shared with us -- passed on to him from his Navajo grandfather -- or come close to describing the feelings evoked when Larry sang a Navajo song of love, sung over Navajo-born US soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress. But one thing Larry said clearly summed everything up for me..."when we pray, we give thanks to nature first.” This and so many other moments revealed a culture that reveres, loves, and respects the natural world.


Larry Team - Navajo Guide -- singing Navajo healing song

Larry Team - Navajo GuideLarry Team - Navajo Guide


In the Navajo culture, medicine men perform ceremonial cures that are targeted at body, mind, and spirit. There are nearly 100 Navajo chants of varying range and intricacy. Originating from the Navajo Creation Story, a Navajo medicine man learns only one or two over many years of apprenticeship. Ceremonies last anywhere from one to nine days and include chants, songs, prayers, lectures, dances, sweat baths, prayer sticks, and sand paintings. In order for a ceremony to be effective, everything must be done as prescribed in the legends.


Monument Valley Backcountry

Back CountryBack Country



Near the end of the Monument Valley Tour, we visited a traditional, and working, Navajo hogan – the name given for a Navajo home or dwelling. These are humble buildings constructed with natural materials that all have significance, meaning, and function. Men and women live in separate hogans, and the hogans are sized and shaped differently for men and women. In the female hogan we met a native Navajo woman who showed us the traditional methods for spinning, dying and preparing wool for Navajo rugs. It's a completely all-natural, power-free, process.


Another traditional Navajo skill we learned about is basket-making. Little did I know that the design of Navajo baskets is deliberate and every aspect of the design has meaning.  Baskets are not only functional but are a symbol and reminder of Navajo beliefs. Many Navajo baskets have the traditional Navajo basket design with the red, white, and black colors. The black design symbolizes the darkness (night) and clouds that bring the rain. The white part inside the black design represents the sacred mountains. Usually, there are four or six points in this part to designate the sacred mountains. If there are four points, then they represent the four sacred mountains. If there are six points, then two more sacred mountains are added. The outside white area represents the dawn and is tied together with the outside rim which represents a person's thoughts, prayers, and values. The red part within the black design represents the life-giving rays of the sun. The photo below shows our Navajo guide explaining the basket design. A source for the background on Navajo baskets is here.


Interior of (female) Navajo Hogan, Weaving and Navajo Basket

Navajo CultureNavajo Culture



More Amazing Utah and Regional Scenery

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe BendHorseshoe Bend


On the way to Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend in Page Arizona is a somewhat newly popular tourist attraction. It’s part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and I like how the National Park Service describes Horseshoe Bend as a “social media darling.” At Horseshoe Bend, the Colorado River created a roughly 1,000 ft (305 m) deep, 270-degree horseshoe-shaped bend in Glen Canyon. It’s unique, and interesting to photograph. However, best to get there very early in the day or late around sunset to avoid shadows in your photographs (which I did not!)


There were other great sights along the short hike to Horseshoe Bend, including many buck moth caterpillars. I had to do my research on these since I’ve not seen them out in nature before. Everything I’ve read says that buck moth caterpillars will sting defensively and therefore people should avoid picking them up or touching them. However, it’s actually very hard to see their spines – and know that you’re looking at a buck moth caterpillar, as they’re crawling around. Perhaps the best advice for all, "not-a-bug-expert", (that's most of us!) is to not harass, touch or pick bugs up. The buck moth caterpillar is very showy and I’m always glad to run across new species when I’m in new places. They get the name buck moth because they hatch during fall and are seen flying in the fall around the same time deer are often seen.


Buck Moth Caterpillar

Buck Moth CaterpillarBuck Moth Caterpillar


Here's a few other new wildlife sightings while I was traveling Utah.  You can also visit my INaturalist profile, where I regularly post new wildlife sightings.


Mountain Bluebird


Golden Eagle

Golden EagleGolden Eagle


Antelope Squirrel

Antelope SquirrelAntelope Squirrel



Bryce Canyon National Park – Millions of Years in the Making


Sometime in the late 1800s, Scottish immigrant Ebenezer Bryce, was sent to Paria Valley, Utah by the Mormon church, which he was a member. While living in southern Utah, he oversaw the construction of a road to the rim of Bryce Canyon. During this time, the red rocks and hoodoos were referred to as Bryce’s Canyon. Due to its natural and geological significance in the area, Bryce Canyon later became a national monument in 1923 and officially became a national park in 1928. I took hundreds of photographs of Bryce Canyon; and if you’ve visited this area, you understand. Bryce Canyon National Park is simply a stunning geological sight, highly unique among the National Parks. It’s known for its “Hoodoos” (irregular columns of rock). While these exist on every continent, Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.


Bryce Canyon

Bryce CanyonBryce Canyon


Bryce Canyon


Bryce CanyonBryce Canyon


Bryce Canyon

Bryce CanyonBryce Canyon


Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National ParkBryce Canyon National Park


Bryce Canyon


Bryce CanyonBryce Canyon


Sources and Information:


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