The drive to Monument Valley was fairly uneventful, except for our gas stop. While Danielle was filling up the Highlander, I went inside to buy a coke and use the restroom. On my way out, I picked up the soda and went to stand at the checkout counter...and the other six people inside, two groups of three, simultaneously walked out the two exits, leaving me completely alone inside the convenience store. I don't really know why, but I found this incredibly creepy; coupled with the fact that there was no attendant in sight, and it took all of about 30 seconds for me to pull a $1 bill out of my wallet, drop it on the counter, and scurry out the door. It was just...creepy.
We managed to get to Monument Valley several hours ahead of time (Danielle had built a lot of padding into the schedule throughout the trip, making sure we were never truly rushed), catching a view of The Mittens from the car (which was kind of cool, since of all the attractions in the entire southwest, the author of our guide book had chosen to grace his cover with the same view). Now, we had a choice to make. The plan called for us to go on a Moon Light tour, but neither of us was convinced this was the best thing to do. It was scheduled that way because it was really the only way she could make it fit into the schedule. Now that we were arriving around 6pm, it seemed like a sunset tour, during which we could actually see the valley, might be possible. We drove to the visitor center and Danielle went inside to see what our options were.
Twenty minutes later, Danielle came out of the visitor center/lodge/hotel/maze more than a little frustrated. She apparently got two things; lost, and inconsistent directions on where to find a tour guide (if you followed them on the way back out, you'd basically end up driving into a ravine). We deduced that "left" actually meant "right" and found our way to a small building (a shack really) where a Navajo man approached our rolled down window. By this point we had learned that you had three options for seeing the valley; you could drive yourself and see some of it, take a half day tour and see more of it, or take a full day tour and see almost all of it (it being 2.5 hours from sunset, this was not an option). The man who approached our window was clearly used to visitors attempting to see it themselves, and was already in full sales pitch mode before we said our first sentence, which was "Yes, we'd like to go on a tour". For $65 each (yeesh), we were told we had time to go on the sunset tour, which would be leaving in a few minutes and on which it looked like we'd be the only people. This sounded great to us, and 10 minutes later we were inside a 1985 Chevy Suburban bouncing down what had to be the bumpiest road either of us had ever seen.
Our tour guide's name was Ernie, and he was a very pleasant gentleman in his late 50s. He'd been giving tours for several decades, and explained that he used to do hiking and camping tours back in his younger days, but that his legs were no longer up to it. The tour started out down the main road of the "see it yourself" option, and at first Danielle and I were both more than a little disappointed. We had just paid this guy $130 dollars (and were probably going to tip him on top of that) to take us on a tour. Standing on an overlook we could have driven to ourselves was not really what we had in mind. After our first two stops, however, we turned off the main road (and I use the phrase very loosely here) and onto an even less maintained one with a sign forbidding entrance to anyone without a certified Navajo guide. Then we started to see some cool stuff.
As we wound our way through the valley in Ernie's Suburban, he answered all of our questions and pointed out all the interesting "monuments" in the valley. Everything in the valley looks like something if you stare at it long enough, and he was able to point out just about everything. There was Elephant Butte, along with the Indian Head and the Sleeping Dragon (shown below). We also saw the Eye of the Sun, the Ear of the Wind, and Big Hogan.
Our tour also wound past an oasis (which Danielle and I were able to predict the presence of after seeing a cotton wood tree, which we had learned only grew near water and were actually incredibly helpful to early settlers for this exact reason; if there was a cotton wood tree, all you had to do was dig a little bit and you'd find water), near which we saw a Navajo woman with her three children having a picnic dinner of some sorts. We also ran into some cows, and even a group of horses, both of which Ernie explained belonged to local farmers and were allowed to roam freely in the valley. The tour also has a musical tilt, with Ernie singing a funeral song for us in the Suburban (which lasted for what seemed like almost 5 minutes), and another tour guide playing some sort of Navajo traditional instrument inside of Big Hogan (we were lucky enough to be there at the same time he was playing for his tour group). We saw petroglyphs from the 1300s, and passed an old fenced off dwelling that looked oddly out of place. Ernie explained that the Navajo custom from long ago was to simply abandon a house once someone who lived there died. The person was buried under the house, and the rest of the family had to move on, building a new dwelling elsewhere. "We don't do that anymore," lamented Ernie. "Now we use cemeteries." Our last stop brought us right to the base of a large butte, which we walked around on foot to catch one of the more stunning views of the entire trip (and from which you could also see the area where part of Back to the Future 3 was shot).
By now, as you can see, it was getting on towards sunset (we were in a time zone where this happened just before 9pm), and it was time to get back. Ernie drove us back to our starting point, passing some of the same monuments and giving new meaning to the term "long shadows." The tallest formations in the park were over 1000 feet high, and as you can imagine something of that size casts a pretty hefty shadow just before sundown. Eventually we made it back to the parking lot/shack area where we had picked up Ernie, thanked him profusely (and tipped him) and drove the Highlander back up to the visitor center/lodge/restaurant. We went inside and eventually decided to buy another Christmas Ornament (we garnered four throughout the trip) and decided to pass on food; tonight, we would dine on trail mix. We had a long drive ahead of us to Chinle, AZ, but were a few hours ahead of schedule and therefore had time to watch the sunset to one side of the building, then the moon rise over a butte in the park.
After a noble, if relatively unsuccessful, effort to capture the moonrise with our $90 digital camera (there were lots of photographers out with cameras that were probably worth almost as much as my car), we were on our way to the Days Inn in Chinle, which happens to be right next to the Canyon De Chelly, which we were staying right next to but weren't actually going to see because of the more pressing business of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. We ate trail mix in the car (specifically, I poured some into my hand, ate it, then poured some more and handed it to Danielle while she drove the Highlander). Eventually Danielle got too sleepy to drive (remember, we started this drive around 10pm, which had been admirably serving as our bed time for the past week) and I had to take over. Eventually we made it to the Days Inn, and were asleep within minutes, ready for the final push of our 11 day excursion.