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This is a ceremonial Navajo dance in progress. We found ourselves here unexpectedly at the end of an off road tour of Monument Valley, the iconic parkland on the Navajo reservation whose massive rock monuments evoke thoughts of cowboy movies and the wild west to anyone who has watched American western movies. We had stopped here with our guide after taking the tour for a dinner of Navajo flatbread.
Once the dance was finished, we hoped in the open van we had been traveling in and started barreling down dirt roads through the middle of the desert in the moonless dark. We are seated in the back holding on for dear life. The only other passenger is our driver who is doing his best in the cab up front to set a land speed record and get us back to the Monument Valley Lodge in record time.
This was the culmination of a long deferred trip to northern Arizona and southern most Utah. We got to this night ride by booking an off-road tour through Monument Valley with a local tour group. We expected to be part of a group but bookings were off on this Spring day so we had a private tour instead.
We are deep in Navajo country, in a very small town with an other-worldly view. It's 2022, so we are not far removed from the Covid pandemic which decimated the Navajo community. Many died and more suffered from the loss of tourist revenues from sites like this. Masks were still mandatory in public places. And, the crowds are sparse.
This is the iconic view that greets you from the lodge parking lot and it's where we started our tour off road into the Valley. Our journey started on asphalt but quickly broke off onto dirt paths through the sage brush into the country surrounding these monumental structures.
While we had seen glimpses of this landscape in movies, this was our first visit. Made famous in Westerns staring John Wayne and others in the 1930s and 40s after a local hotelier took photographs of the area to director John Ford in a pitch to get him to film movies there.
The Valley has served as the backdrop for dozens of movies. Think Stagecoach, Fort Apache, The Searchers, How the West Was Won, and The Greatest Story Even Told. Newer films include, Easy Rider, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Back to The Future Part III, and Thelma and Louise. Others still include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Lego Movie, and Transformers: Age of Extinction.
This spot, in particular, was featured in several of the earlier films shot by John Ford. Several contained scenes with a horse and cowboy standing on the ledge looking out at the dramatic landscape.
Today, for a few dollars you can do as the sign says and rent a horse to pose with you for a photo. Or, you can shop in one of the open air stalls for Navajo jewelry.
There are several Navajo families who live in this desert, off the grid, for parts of the year. Driving through this harsh land, it is hard to understand how they manage. Or how their ancestors managed before. Pictographs like the ones above, however, evidence much earlier settlement in this area.
It's undeniably beautiful. And, on a Spring day not that hot either. Cold, even, after the sun sets.
If you went to high school when I did, you can forget what your learned about dinosaurs going extinct. Sure, the grounded Jurassic Park version of dinosaurs are gone and mammals, including us, rose to fill their ecological niches. But the world's paleontologists, employing sophisticated modern tools and methods, have concluded over the past decades that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. Specifically, birds descend from the bi-pedal, meat eating theropods of Velociraptor and Allosaurus fame.
Like their theropod ancestors, birds breathe more efficiently than mammals using a lung and air sac system employed by their Jurassic for-bearers. The hollow bones that keep them light for flying come from their dinosaur predecessors, perhaps answering the question of how dinosaurs could be so big. And, if you have ever wakened to the raucous cawing and screaming of a blue heron rookery, you can easily believe that the otherworldly sounds you are hearing come from some distant Jurassic past.
You could even argue, notes Mark Norell, the paleontology curator for the American Museum of Natural History, that "we still live in the age of dinosaurs.” Bird species far outnumber mammal species. There are about 18,000 species of birds in the world, but only about 4500 of mammals.
So hiding in plain sight outside your window is the modern Jurassic world you thought was gone, flying in the air, nesting in trees, and visiting your backyard bird feeder.
So, imagine my delight after years of trying to photograph the magnificent pileated woodpecker, to find this young male (yes the red cheek strip gives him away) feasting on black ants around a fallen tree. He stayed just long enough for me to salvage my camera out of the car and attach the long lens needed to capture his image without disturbing him.
Yes, I had seen pileated woodpeckers before and heard them more often yak-yaking away in the trees or as they flew over head. Once, from the seat of a kayak, I got to watch a parent chase three young ones up a pine tree on an island in a north Georgia lake but I didn't have enough camera to capture the moment.
So, here the big fella is lunching in the mountains of north Georgia.
All photos and text are copyright Clinton Richardson. If you like these posts, please tell your friends about the Venture Moola blog. And, feel free to share this blog. Click here if you would like to get a weekly email that notifies you when we release new entries.
Travel, history, and business with original photos.
Clinton Richardson - author, photographer, business advisor, traveler.
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