Down in the valley of darkness


MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah-What we were looking for did not exist. Does not exist. Luxury was the cause of this. Luxury and comfort.

What we were looking for was called America by some-but to us, it was just called the “Old West,” and as far as the 21st century is concerned, the Old West is dead and buried.

But we would not accept such absolutes, and we would look anyway. All we knew was what we had seen in countless Westerns of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The Western is something that, for better or worse, once represented the American way-at least to those around the world. It was more of a mystique than a reality, perhaps-more a symbol of misguided idealism than anything else. But even that mystique, misguided as it may have been, was ours and ours alone. This was a civilization rendered obsolete by revisionism, postmodernism and just plain modernism-and maybe that was why it was so derned interesting.

But there are remnants to be found, or so we heard-bronzed trophies of an America that once was, a celebration of its former self. To find these, to find what we were looking for, we needed look no further than Monument Valley, Utah.

It came about as part of Netflix’s “Rolling Roadshow,” which offered a chance not only to see the classic Western “The Searchers” projected on film right in the great outdoors, but also an extended tour of the locations at which John Ford filmed his influential 1956 masterpiece (not to mention nine other films). The chance jumped out at us both. We did not know why. Perhaps it was nostalgia we were looking for. Perhaps it was boredom. Or, more likely, it was a means of escape from the massive technological orgy that our daily lives had become. Who knows why else we would trek to an abandoned pocket nestled deep in the southernmost part of this state, a place that didn’t even have cell-phone reception.

But naturally, if we were to become part of this cultural artifact-even if just for a day or two-we couldn’t do so in our current state. We would try to understand this lifestyle. After all, our collective experience with the Old West was limited only to furiously playing “The Oregon Trail” as schoolchildren. Other than that, we were clueless.

Abandon technology, we resolved. Brave the wilderness. Sleep under the stars and all that jazz. We would reject our luxurious modern birthrights. We would not shave our faces. This would provide us with the appropriate ruggedness for the occasion. We would be “roughing it,” as it were.

Khakis were out of the question.

Blue jeans, preferably Wranglers, only. Cowboy hats would be involved. Bandanas, too. We could pick up a pair of six-shooters and hold up a train, if only we got the chance. Roughing it, indeed. We liked the sound of that. Even if this were just a charade, it was going to be as authentic a charade as possible.

Of course, the plan broke down just minutes into the planning stages. The optimal means of transport, of course, was horseback. We would find a pair of trusty steeds and gallop the whole way down to our destination. We would ride like the wind. We would ride like a pair of weathered outlaws on the run from justice. We would ride like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. We would wonder what it would have been like if Clint Eastwood and John Wayne had ever teamed up in a buddy movie.

Yes, we would discover that riding horseback was the finest, most American way to travel.

However, we soon discovered that procuring such stallions wasn’t such an easy task, especially for two inexperienced riders. On a side note, the possibility of hemorrhoids gave us a terrible fright. Sure, a nasty case of the itchy anus may have given us a more authentic taste of what it was like back then, but we had to draw the line somewhere.

On transportation, we would have to compromise and drive down in a comfortable, well-equipped automobile, complete with air conditioning, power windows and rawhide seats. But no text-messaging on the ride down. At least the seats were leather.

We agreed that there would be no cell-phone use on this particular weekend. There would be no Internet. There would be no television or handheld portable electronic devices. Only, it just so happened, we realized the week before the trip, that on that very same weekend, the Red Sox and Yankees were opening up their five-game set (the results of which we will withhold for personal reasons). And so we agreed again: Technology was allowed-but only for the purposes of watching, listening to or finding out the score of aforementioned baseball game.

And that, apparently, was good enough for us-we allowed only what amenities we could stomach. The ground rules were set. We were ready to launch ourselves into a time capsule.


We should have had an idea of what was to come when we woke at the spry hour of 4:30 a.m., excitedly dashed to our car and immediately retreated back into the house upon the horrible discovery of a pre-dawn arctic chill in August.

That challenge behind us, with the help of a couple vintage, double-knit Old Navy-style polar fleece sweatshirts, we were soon bested by manufacturers of the 1996 Infiniti I30, who must have thought it amusing to place the trunk-opening button slyly underneath the driver’s armrest.

We were not amused.

Once we hit the road around 5:30 a.m., the magnitude of what we were hoping to discover hit us. Not just because we were looking for one of the indelible marks of Americana, but also because we had a long, long way to go.

Really long. Really, really long.

But once we cleared the suburban/industrial sprawl that defines the Wasatch Front, our eyes were wide open for the rest of the trip.

It only seemed appropriate that we were making a beeline for what organizers claim is the world’s largest Netflix envelope, because the Internet movie rental company has loomed so large in our lives.

Since 2004, Netflix has been our constant weekend companion. We’ve both rushed to our mailboxes on Thursdays and Fridays in anticipation of holding one of those distinctive bright red SASEs in our hands, only to tear it open for the pearl inside.

We have Netflix to blame for many a spoiled weekend and lost opportunity with creatures of the opposite sex, and in the quiet of the morning we could hear the powers that be laughing at us acridly, knowing that that same syndicate finally got us out the door to see the things we’ve always wanted to see.

In Utah, U.S. Highway 6 is a 373-mile long corridor that stretches from I-15 in Spanish Fork to I-70 near Green River. It covers eight counties and passes through several ghost towns, including Tintic, Thistle, Tucker, Woodside and Cisco.

Part of the nation’s main highway system, U.S. Highway 6 runs east a total of 3,205 miles from Bishop, Calif., to Provincetown, Mass. Utah’s portion, in many places, is just a single lane in either direction with nothing but a bracket of rumble strips and simple road signs as the only buffers between cars and cliff-side.

We spent the better part of three hours on that circuit and the majestic terrain that it cuts through.

You don’t really absorb the scenery of the highway’s early legs. More accurately, it forces itself into your baby blues and demands to be not only seen but also remembered.

We were more than willing on both fronts and kept returning to the inescapable fact that we simply had to this point been much too lazy, slovenly and apathetic to appreciate the stuff around us that’s free.

At least, that’s how we felt until we arrived in Monticello.

The place refers to itself as the “Home of the Hideout,” but that’s likely because the slogan “Monticello: The ‘Trainspotting’ Baby of Utah” probably wouldn’t fit on a sign or look very good as a logo on city-issued stationary.

The drive from there to Moab was typical Southern Utah-not much to see except juniper trees, sagebrush and the odd “If You Ride My Ass, I’ll Kick Yours” bumper sticker affix
ed to the rear of dusty Ford F-150s and other trucks operated by dusty men.

Moab is an interesting place, and one that let us down. We had heard a lot about its eclectic art scene and distinctive feel, but the only thing that we took away from our brief time there is that it boasts a lackluster sports bar and offers people a Pagan tour of the surroundings, whatever that means.

Sadly, the essence of the place seems to be one that has traded in its Western roots for the bottom line.

Moab’s business sector celebrates the pioneer spirit on which the city was founded by embracing the time-honored tradition of selling batik dresses made in Sri Lanka to bleary eyed, out-of-state tourists looking to score a souvenir shot glass or spoon for a sick relative.

And forget about trying to find a decent cowboy hat there.

The ride from there to Monument Valley was like a survey of the amazing rock formations that have made Southern Utah famous. Everything was a postcard; we felt like we were heading directly into some massive National Geographic production in which a set was being prepared for base jumpers, skydivers and other people far more adventurous than we.

If only somebody besides the two of us happened upon the region, it could be a great site for a Western.