The Valley of the Gods

doorI moved 5 hours from the nearest city, 11 miles from the nearest town (Dolores, pop. 1,500), and one mile from the nearest paved road. Until recently, my nearest neighbor was a ¼ mile away. But nooo, that ain’t far enough.

In order to meditate properly, I have to go out and get CD’s of Eckhart Tolle and Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jay Krishnamurti, then I must drive 2 ½ hours past the final stoplight of the world down a winding road without proper pavement, where the open range puts cattle and horses first, and so they browse with their asses up in the middle of the road, unconcerned of my presence. “We’re first here. Deal with it,” they seem to think as they eye me with side glances while I pass them at 3 MPH.  I finally make it through to Montezuma Creek. A rez dog begs scraps at the gas pump.

Snowcapped peaks soar just above ruby Cedar Mesa sandstone in every direction, but at great distance: Sleeping Ute to the southeast, the Carrizo due south, the Abajo to the north, and the La Platas to the east. Their frosting a cooling juxtaposition to the violet and ivory cliffs.

Coming into the artist’s colony of Bluff, I skirt the San Juan River on the west. Two things you’re always skirting out here on the highway to Bluff: Navajoland and the San Juan River. They’ve both been with me ever since I spit out of McElmo Canyon near Aneth. In mid-February, the unseasonable warmth has melted the snow in these low, wide canyons, but the Fremont cottonwoods still sport their dry and dusty, winter gray crowns in groves that spread wide on either side of the braided river.

The road climbs through Comb Ridge, a serrated monocline nearly 80 miles long that rises through northeast Arizona and southeast Utah, with a strike valley yawning on its western margin.

On my CD, Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds me how to breathe. Yes, I’ve forgotten how to breathe. I wonder where I’ll land in my muddied Xterra, a virgin no longer. I have no cash to pay the man at the gatehouse at Goosenecks State Park, so I decide to take the next left to the Valley of the Gods.

Described as a Monument Valley in miniature, the Valley of the Gods spreads out from the base of Cedar Mesa, a vast plateau carved with canyons and dotted with ruins. The Valley of the Gods loop road takes you 17 miles across washes on its ways toward the edge of Cedar Mesa. Spires and buttes intersperse with remnant mesas on a sage desert floor that laps up to the cliffs of Cedar Mesa.  To avoid the soaked washes that cross the road (or is it the road that crosses the washes?), I park right off Highway 163. I get out and scramble through the sage and ephedra, and I make my way for the point of a crimson chain mesa, the Seven Sailors, to see if I can get a better view of the valley.

Its February, but I’m sweating. I’m asking the Great Infinite what I should do with my life, with my career, with my love life, with everything. Then, I practice what Kabat-Zinn and Krishnamurti call choiceless awareness, the nonselective experiencing of the infinite field of awareness. I’ve graduated. I’ve gone way beyond breathing by now, man. Eckhart Tolle had told me the last couple Saturdays not to identify with mind content, with name or future or past or form. Oh, I am so out of my friggin’ mind.

What would you have me do? Where would you have me go? I ask the field of infinite awareness as I huff and I puff, making my way across the floor of the valley, avoiding thorns and scooping fine sand with the toes of my winter boots, totally inappropriate for the conditions. That’s me: totally inappropriate for conditions. I take off my shell and wrap it around my waste.

Where will I end up?  The powdered sand – some red and some white – bares the tracks of dung beetles and kangaroo rats.  The cliffs of the chain mesa at which base I tread are vertical, and I’m not much of a climber.  The sun in the cloudless sky dances with me, pivoting with my motion behind the crown of a cherry sundae butte named Bell.

As I round the southernmost point of the mesa, the valley opens up and I spot a way up the first tier of the stepped mesa that adjoins the Seven Sailors a mile away. I cross the intervening space, which is  spiked with agave plants.  At the base of my ascent up the mesa, a fine sand slide about a ¼ mile in length reminds me of the Lake Michigan dunes I’d climbed as a boy. It’s a Stairmaster, a walk up the down escalator, as I pant and sweat up the slope of talc-like sand. I make a half-step rise for every two steps I slide down. I reach a layer of flaky siltstone, then trudge up to a gravelly, russet hogback that connects up two towering sections of the mushroom capped mesas called the Seven Sailors.  The multiple-headed beast is domed with white sandstone caps that fan out from thinner pedestals like bereted giants. Caprock formations like these are called mushrooms.  I am, after all, not far from the formation known as Mexican Hat, just across the highway.

I climb a couple more layers of the crumbly, red sandstone. Then I decide: I AM HERE.

Far to the southwest, the stacks and plugs and buttes of Monument Valley, among them the Seven Sisters, seem delicate, almost impossible in their gracile, thin stands against the hard desert wind. The unyielding southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa wanders in and out, defining the desert floor to the north. To the east, the buttes and plugs of the Valley of the Gods, a sacred place to the Navajo where warriors freeze in stone. They can be sought out for protection. Names like Battleship Rock, Castle Rock, Pyramid Peak, Rooster Butte, Setting Hen Butte, and Lady in a Tub give you some idea of their shapes.  Yet their dimensions are enfolded by the light into the backdrop of the Cedar Mesa cliffs. Now camouflaged by light, as the sun reaches the western quadrant of the weak blue sky, the monoliths will spring out from the cliff faces behind them like cardboard castles from a foldout book.

Across the highway, a massive monocline called Sugarloaf, followed by  Raplee Ridge, is faulted with runnels from runoffs. It seems like sculpted, purple sugar with zigs and zags woven into the stratigraphy. Somewhere across the highway, the San Juan River carves cliffs on its way to its own goosenecks, incised meanders carved when the wending river cut down through the rock layers as the microplate of the Colorado Plateau corkscrewed up over a thousand feet. Sugarloaf and the Raplee anticline soar to heights of a near mile, higher than Cedar Mesa far across the Canyon of the San Juan, but lack its pinyon-juniper forest cover.

Like the pattern of an afghan knit, the zigzag deposition of the anticline is crazy and wandering, like the entrenched meanders of the San Juan miles west. I search with my eyes for Moki Dugway, a cliffside road carved in spinning switchbacks to the top of the plateau to the north, but can’t find it.  I give up, and study the seven mushroom towers that crown the top of the mesa to the west, connected to me by a flat, red saddle dusted with wintering sage.

What do you want to tell me? I ask the great What Is.

A voice deep within answers: Nothing I wouldn’t have told you if you’d stayed at home.

For the rest of that hike down the layers of stone and slides of sand, I remembered not to seek, and not to not seek. And then the answers came, in the form of tears of gratitude:

I want to be out in this place, I realized as I washed the bottoms of my boots in a clear stream at the bottom of the valley.

I want to live where I live already, far far from airplane noise and interstates and orange city grid light. I felt joy as I drove back toward home and saw the San Juan canyons yawn toward horizons cut with mudstone bluffs by wide, flat water, grazed by horses saddled with Native men.

I want to serve where I already work, I envisioned as I scanned the razored top of Comb Ridge, its bottoms escorted by treed washes east and west. And I wanted to spend time with the people who already surrounded me.

I didn’t need to drive and walk all all the way out here to arrive at that answer. Didn’t need Jon Kabat-Zinn or Eckhart Tolle or  Jay Krishnamurti to tell me how to breathe or which direction to head in. What they said was that I already knew. And the only direction to which they pointed was inside. If you really want to find, you can’t seek. If you really want to see, you can’t look. If you really want to know, then don’t know anything.

And yet, I’d never have found out it among the distractions of online and DVD’s and Doritos. It’s when I first search, then stop searching, that answers come. I knew that to be the way, as I surveyed the flat topped hills that were not quite buttes and not exactly mesas on Navajoland, on my way back toward places called Aneth and Ismay.

Yet not to surrender with the expectation of receiving anything in return for the surrender. For it never comes that way. And it never even really comes. It’s just always there, just below a sand surface stripped clean by winds to become the bones of the earth, the stone skin of the Valley of the Gods.

How to get there: The Valley of the Gods loop can be accessed from either Utah Highway 261 (about 10 miles northeast of Mexican Hat, Utah) or U.S. Highway 163, about 15 miles west of the town of Bluff, Utah, and seven miles east of Mexican Hat, Utah. Driving time is approximately one to two hours around the loop.

© 2016 by Michael C. Just