Down in the valley of darkness

By Chris Bellamy and Adam Benson


Of course, none of this would have happened without titillating promises of cinematic glory. You think two city boys are going to make a six-hour ride into the desert just to, what, “commune with nature?”

What are we, hippies?

No, we are but men. And so, Friday night, while the rest of the nation was busy watching Samuel L. Jackson fight snakes on a plane-one forgets the title of the movie-we were killing two birds with one stone: simultaneously getting some fresh air under the clear night sky and watching a movie. We sat on the dirt; rocks dug into our backs and hips, and we didn’t care, which proved that we were men. Men of the great outdoors.

And then the film?well, we had seen it before, of course. Did you get the part about how we were film snobs?

John Ford’s “The Searchers” is widely accepted as the most influential Western of all-time, if not the best. The basic storyline has been recycled in such films as “Taxi Driver” and “Hardcore,” both, not coincidentally, penned by Paul Schrader. A young white girl gets taken, or runs away, and gets drawn into a dark world, seen by our protagonists as subhuman. In the case of Schrader’s modern settings, the underbellies in question are the depraved prostitution and adult film industries, respectively. In “The Searchers,” the “subhuman” element, at least as seen by its anti-heroic protagonist, is the Comanche Indian tribe. It’s that dynamic that makes the film so challenging-John Wayne, the All-American hero, as an unabashed racist, bigot, killer. In a post-Civil War America, his Ethan Edwards still swears allegiance to the Confederate army. His niece, Debbie, gets captured by the Comanche, and he embarks on a five-year odyssey to find her, along with the “half-breed” Martin Pawley. But he doesn’t intend to rescue Debbie-he intends to kill her. Because, as he explains, “Livin’ with Comanches ain’t bein’ alive.”

“The Searchers” was Wayne’s favorite of his films, mostly because of the complexities of the character and the overriding thematic darkness of the film as a whole. The film, which was largely ignored upon its release but re-examined in the decades following, took a more multi-layered approach to the traditional Western. It was steeped in moral ambiguity and a conflicted view of the “American character.” Considering its more nuanced, complicated approach, it’s no wonder that the likes of Schrader, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg cite it as a monumental influence. If “The Searchers” indeed signaled a new direction for the Western, or the myth of the Old West in general, that’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.



The demographics were not what we expected upon first setting foot on the ubiquitous red soil that fills the planes, rocks and air in Monument Valley. We expected to find film snobs like us, or other disgruntled Americans looking in vain for a nonexistent place and time. And there were those that fit the description. But, we soon discovered, it is not just Americans who come looking for a little history in southern Utah-the area welcomes guests from all over Europe, Russia, Asia and the like.

Why would they make such a lengthy expedition to some anonymous corner in the Western desert? They came, we were told, looking for John Wayne. The woman who checked us into our campground told us that foreigners from every country in the books frequent Monument Valley simply because of what they’ve seen in the movies. They come here looking for the Western.

They do not find what they are looking for. Nor did we.

The Western is the great American art form. Was. Working from a framework of outlaws and gunfighters, cowboys and loners juxtaposed against a slowly changing modern landscape, the Western was a wholly American genre that captured something?well, something that would bring a family of Eastern Europeans all the way across the globe just to see a few big rocks. The world they saw in those movies was a harsh one, untamed and lawless. Sergio Leone once said the Old West was “where life has no value.”

The genre, popularized on cinema screens in the early-to-mid 20th century, typically told stories taking place decades before, before movies even existed. Like film noir, the Western was something we could call our own-and so what if the Italians out-did us at our own game during the ’60s and ’70s. We still rightly claim it as our own.

But us? In this environment? We were out of our element. We had no appreciation for a culture in which “saddle sore” was part of the vernacular.

Thankfully for our modern sensibilities, such a lifestyle was nowhere to be found. The rocks and mountains in the valley stood out like a magnificent fortress hidden among thousands of miles of wires, cords and power lines. But what surrounded those monuments was just another 21st (or at least late 20th) century town. It wasn’t just this particular town, but stops along the way as well-from Moab to Arizona. They offer a glimpse of the past-and then you can take it home on a shot glass or a commemorative T-shirt. In celebrating their very Western-ness, they’ve become anything but.

We wonder?what would John Wayne have thought of all this? The souvenirs, the keepsakes. Maybe he’d be at just as much of a loss in 2006 as we would have been in 1906. It’s only fitting that “The Searchers,” as Roger Ebert noted in his retrospective on the film, came at a time when the old-fashioned Western was dying out, giving way to a more contemporary view of the West.

We found him, by the way-John Wayne. The Duke himself. He was immortalized in cheap cardboard, life-sized, with that old familiar expression on his face. He looked happy enough, and he was more than willing to oblige us with a photo op. Now that’s one for the mantle.


However reluctantly, we were ultimately able to take our bodies away from the den of high-tech gizmos and impersonal ecosystem that is our daily lives.

Our brains, though, weren’t such willing vessels. Adam spent most of the trip fretting about his bank account, wondering out loud who would pay for the next tank of gas.

Did Jesse James ever dwell on such things? Did Billie the Kid or Wyatt Earp or Annie Oakley? Did Red Cloud, Sitting Bull or Geronimo turn to Wells Fargo to make sure they were liquid?

Riding through the most rural parts of what is one of this country’s most rural states, a thought hit us: Are we less intelligent than our ancestors?

Sure, we’re much more informed, and the world is a lot less mysterious to us, but are we smarter?

Could we tell what direction the crow flies, really? Would we be able to find our tent relying just on the North Star? What if we had to hunt all our own food or lean on the local saloon owner to remove an abscessed tooth?

We’ve gotten so used to falling asleep to the soothing tones of “SportsCenter” and waking up to the soft smile of Katie Couric that it would have been fittingly appropriate for us to be scared of the silence of the night. We slept well, however, and even managed to avoid the inevitable “Brokeback Mountain” references that now follow any evening spent by two males sharing a tent.

We did not have sex.

It’s easy for us, vapid and judgmental creatures we are, to disparage the simple life as one that’s somehow lacking and incomplete. After our sojourn into the soul of the country, though, we think it admirable to not know who Paris Hilton is because one has instead spent his or her time living off the fruit of the land.

What we didn’t know before we set out for the far reaches of Utah was how profound an impact excess has had on our lives. We all like living in a world we understand and can rationalize. Strange noises outside our homes that weren’t there the previous night frighten us. When we run out of hot water in the shower, our day is shot.

Our lifestyles are patterned not on what we know to be true, but what we hope might be in the
future. This batch of humanity needs jingles with the products we buy. We need celebrities to reassure us that the cars we drive and the clothes we wear comply with an unknown seal of approval.

When once our schedules were set around the melting frost and traveling herd, it’s now dictated by our latest favorite television show. Maybe we didn’t find everything we hoped to on our short trip, but at least we tried to look.

We weren’t entirely successful at exhuming the Old West as we knew it to be (our Achilles’ heel being the Red Sox), but we at least discovered where part if it was laid to rest.

Yet in this day and age, when we demand our lives to be so micromanaged that corporations offer individually wrapped snack cakes and bread comes pre-sliced, we feel like the victors.

Not by any stretch did we conquer the land like the custodians of the past, but neither did we sully it with our ugly consumerist footprint. In the short time we spent in the natural world, we came to terms with how irrelevant it all is.

How meaningless our Netflix queues and iPod playlists and magazine subscriptions really are. How, no matter how often we try to convince ourselves otherwise (which is slightly more than always), we’ll never be able to control the landscape in which we live.

How a cowboy hat, bandana scarf and six-shooter is the West’s Gettysburg Address, its “I Have A Dream.”

More than 300 miles from where we stood, the allure of HOV lanes and overpasses and streetlights and off-ramps beckoned. A nameless suburb where soccer moms transport talent-less children to painfully mundane matches where they’ll be told, falsely, how well they played and that at least they tried.

A pattern of living so dreary and monotonous that it may as well be Cell Block D at Alcatraz.

That’s what we were so eager to return to. The message to both of us was clear: Search for something that no longer exists, and you can only find it in pieces.

But at least we left whole.