I recognized Monument Valley long before I saw the road signs. Mesas and buttes rose like cathedrals from a dusty red floor, and in the midday sun, they appeared to be bleached white. In the five years since I moved to Denver, I have hiked and camped in the red rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau—along a perennial stream as wildflowers came into bloom, deep in the canyons of the Green River, and in an unexpected winter storm that left snow on our tents and on the budding cottonwoods. Before I came to Denver at twenty-two, I had not stepped foot in the vast landscapes of the American West, though I had seen pictures of the Rockies. This desert, with its endless light and rock, diminutive plant life, and vistas that scorched red to the horizon, had been a revelation. But by the time I came to Monument Valley, a part of this landscape had already seeped into me. The scale of the view no longer jolted me as it once did. It was instead a kind of homecoming.
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Monument Valley was something else altogether. After a hundred or so miles of desert at seventy miles per hour, the views began to blend into one another. I thought of Edward Abbey’s rant: “A man on foot, on horseback, or on bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” The Colorado Plateau is Abbey’s country after all. He may have been cantankerous, and he used the environmental impact of population growth as grounds to argue against immigration, but he loved this desert and wanted us to experience it slowly and fully. As I drove over the last hill, I saw three buttes rise from the wide-open valley, giant sandstone columns atop ruffled skirts of dark mudstone. The word monument came to mind and I said aloud, “That has to be Monument Valley.” The landscape stood out, but I also had an uneasy sense of déjà vu, as though the image had already been imprinted in my memory.
I knew the valley had been the setting for John Ford’s 1939 western Stagecoach, the film that gave John Wayne his breakout role as the Ringo Kid. Here’s the thing: I grew up in Singapore, fourteen time zones away on the other side of the globe, a crowded island unimaginable in this red rock desert. The western has been exported around the world; as a child, I had watched my share of these films, though between my dissociation at the time and the tropes of the genre, in my mind they collapse into a sea of mountains, deserts, gunfights, and chases. The only film I distinctly remember is Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. To this day I am still unsure whether I had seen Stagecoach in those years. Evidently, my parents did, for it was them who wanted to visit this shrine to Hollywood.
When I got back to Denver, I checked out Stagecoach from the library. The film is predictable and yet compelling, as the best of the commercial genres tend to be, reinforcing tropes so deeply embedded in the culture that they appear natural and inevitable. A motley group of strangers—a pregnant young wife on the way to reunite with her cavalry officer husband, an alcoholic doctor and a prostitute both driven out of town, a banker who had embezzled the payroll, a whiskey salesman, and a southern gambler—rides a stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Before they leave Tonto, the cavalry tells them that the Apache warrior Geronimo is on the warpath, but they all have to get to Lordsburg without delay, and the stagecoach leaves. Along the way, they encounter the Ringo Kid, who has broken out of jail and wants to avenge his father and brother, but his horse is injured. The marshal, riding shotgun, recognizes him and takes him into custody. No prizes for guessing what happens next.
The scenes in which the stagecoach runs from one town to another show as the backdrop the Mittens and the Merrick Butte, the three monoliths at the center of Monument Valley, and after a while, I imagined the stagecoach running in circles around this place. In the film, the landscape is stripped of its history and memory—for one, it is located in the Navajo Nation, itself a legacy of settler violence against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, a story that Stagecoach not only elides but turns on its head to portray the Indians as the menacing other—and presented instead as solely an aesthetic phenomenon. It reflects the rugged masculinity of the hero, at once silent and stoic, his strength derived from the voluptuous austerity of the desert, even though John Wayne seemed to me more like an awkward kid than a paragon of manhood.
Like this American desert, the Ringo Kid is located outside of civilized society, without ties to family or culture, loyal only to a higher sense of honor. And in the paradigm of the movie, this is a virtue, the soul of a great man. As expected, he is the only one who treats the prostitute Dallas with dignity, and they quickly fall in love. At a stop before the final stage to Lordsburg, she helps him escape, but when he rides out into the landscape, he sees Apache smoke signals and turns back. The stagecoach leaves despite the warning signs, and a band of Apaches ambushes it. The marshal removes the Kid’s handcuffs and hands him a gun, and the Kid rises to the occasion. He rides into Lordsburg in the driver’s seat, the ostensible hero of this adventure, but I thought the landscape is the central character of the film.
My parents are not walkers, so they took a drive around the valley, and I went to the Mittens alone. A woman on foot, all that. I wanted to experience the landscape and inhabit the textures of this place, even if fleetingly. On the trail, I came to a dirt road. In the glare, I made out the silhouette of a house. I knew I was on Navajo land and that a few families continue to live here. A few more steps and I was glad to find the trail again; I did not want to trespass into another person’s home. Or perhaps, as yet another Hollywood pilgrim, I was already trespassing. The Navajos call this place Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii, of which I have heard a number of translations; a Navajo guide I asked said that its emotional meaning cannot be translated, but it approximates “White Light Shining on Rocks.” Unlike the name Monument Valley, it is descriptive rather than prescriptive, concrete instead of abstract, grounded in the senses—in the lived experience—instead of in lofty ideas.
At the far end of West Mitten, far from the shade of the mesa, I looked out into the desert. Cliff roses, Mormon tea, and sagebrush dotted the sand. The air was still. The folds and crevices of the rocks belied the ancient processes of uplift and erosion. I thought of this moment when I later saw the trailer for Stagecoach again. The trailer begins with scenes of airplanes and trains in motion. The voiceover says that before this current era of industrialization and acceleration, the stagecoach was the way to travel—a precursor, in a way, to Abbey’s rant about industrialized tourists. The visual then cuts to a stagecoach running through Monument Valley. In contrast to the machines, the horses that power the stagecoach represent the primitive forces of nature. The western appeals to this timelessness, this nostalgia for a primordial world.
In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that the frontier, with its land free for the taking, shaped the American spirit of innovation and democracy. The settlement patterns described in the 1890 US Census indicated that the frontier had disappeared in that most of the usable land had already been claimed by white settlers and thus civilized, so to speak. (The Indigenous peoples who called and still call this land home did not factor into this calculation, other than as savages to be feared and destroyed.) The western was a reaction to this closing of the frontier. It mythologized the ideals of individualism and adventure in the cowboy hero. He is often an outlaw, a man of courage and honor despite, or perhaps precisely because of, his outsider status. When I watched the westerns again, I finally understood the appeal of the Harvard and Yale boy turned brush-clearing Texan cowboy George W. Bush. He wore the mannerisms of an ancient hero.
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In the westerns, modernity is equated with culture, which is in turn associated with the degradation of the spirit. In Stagecoach, only the Ringo Kid treats the prostitute Dallas as an equal, while the others shun her. Culture is conformity and the status quo, while nature represents the individual conscience, authority, and morality, which curiously echoes the ethos of transcendentalists such as Thoreau and Emerson, as well as their spiritual descendant Edward Abbey. Nostalgia is powerful; it erases what is inconvenient for us to see. Ironically, it was in film, a technology that, like trains and airplanes, allowed us to transcend the limits of nature and obliterate the sensory experience, that the western found its apotheosis. Film combines the narrative drive of story with the visual qualities of photography, which is to say, it allowed us to frame the hero’s quest in a magnificent landscape.
There is something to be said about walking, putting one foot before another in the sand, the desert heat on my back, and nothing between my skin and sky. I learned this when I came out West—to slow down and look around me carefully, taking mental notes of the plants that have adapted to this harsh climate, the rocks that change from pink to purple depending on their mineral content, and the quality of light that have drawn painters and photographers alike for more than a hundred years. As much as I take issue with many of Abbey’s stances, especially his insular views toward immigration, I also learned how to inhabit a landscape from him. It is a privilege to be able to walk in these wild places, and almost all of us arrive here in some motorized form anyway, but in walking, I learned to name and describe my surroundings. I learned to put words to my experiences. In walking, the most primordial form of locomotion, I taught myself to own what I plainly saw and felt, to access truths I had been raised to find elusive.
At the Mittens, I watched thunderclouds gather in the distance. The celestial drama of shifting clouds and light fascinated me, but I was also trying to time its arrival. The buttes were taller than I was, but the land was open enough that I had nowhere to hide in a lightning storm. I kept walking, imagining myself itinerant in this landscape, the petty concerns of everyday life receding, and nature a bodily encounter without the mediation of a lens. The speed and disembodiment of modern life often feel overwhelming, not to mention the unspoken cruelties with which we put up in the name of civilization. It is easy to find solace in a nostalgic ideal of nature and heroism, to choose not to see beyond the fantasy, to fear that which contradicts our deep-seated beliefs. As much as I sometimes yearned to inhabit a simpler world, I also saw the seduction of this vision, and I knew it had been planted in me long ago.
Reprinted with permission from the University of Utah Press. An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Rumpus.
Teow Lim Goh is the author of two previous books, “Islanders” and “Faraway Places.” She writes essays and poetry from the nexus of people and place. Based in Denver for the past decade, one of her ongoing projects is to recover the histories of Chinese immigrants in the American West.