26 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Monument Valley

For some reason, I wasn't expecting to really like Monument Valley. I'm not sure why, but think it's mainly because it seemed a bit clich├ęd; I'd seen so many photos and it was in hundreds of movies (at least 100, it turns out). It was on our route, though, so I thought I'd give it the benefit of the doubt.

I booked us to stay for two nights in a brand new cabin at The View, the only accommodation option in the park (which is on Navajo land; it's not a US National Park). All of the hotel rooms had been booked up, and it was only by chance that I clicked through to the camping website and discovered that I could book a cabin there, and that they still had availability. The cabins overlook the Mittens, iconic buttes - each with a separate "thumb". I'd read a few reviews and was advised to get one at the front, as the ones at the back overlooked the ones at the front. I emailed my preference, mentioning that we would be spending our wedding anniversary there, and was told that allocation worked on a first-come-first-serve basis. As a result, I was keen to get there as early as possible, hoping to nab a cabin with a good view.

We rushed across from Bisti, giving Four Corners a miss (who cares about standing on the edge of four states? - just seemed like a tourist-trap to me), arriving at 3.30pm, having half an hour before the official check-in time. The approach took us down the road that I've seen in hundreds of photos - the road going downhill with buttes on either side. We pulled over briefly for me to get a shot near the Mile 13 mile-post, but the light was harsh (I'd have to return at sunrise).

On arrival at the hotel I was told that we had to check in near the cabins themselves, so down the hill we went. It turns out that there wasn't a great deal of choice of cabins at all - many of them were occupied already by people staying multiple nights. We had a choice of two with views - Number 3 at the back, with no cabin in front, and Number 19 at the front, but with a flat unnatural area just outside; we chose Number 3 (which had been allocated to us originally) as I liked the angle of the mittens nestled together. The view was indeed spectacular, and I spent quite some time on the balcony, capturing the mittens, in various different light. The cabin itself was comfortable, but for some reason we couldn't fathom, they'd kitted it out with a proper kitchen but not one single item of crockery or cutlery (next to the coffee percolater were a couple of polystyrene cups and a plastic sachet with sugar, a tissue and a stirrer). I have since written to them suggesting that they take a little trip to the nearest Ikea or Home Depot! The other problem was the lack of wifi - some cabins had it, but it was patchy and didn't go very far. We could get it out the back, at the car, and occasionally in the bedroom, but generally there was none. Again, it was if they didn't want to pay for more routers - more cutting corners, resulting in a niggling feeling of things not being quite perfect.

Apart from the lack of kitchen accessories and rubbish wifi, though, the cabin and our time there was lovely. We relaxed on our balcony later on, watching the mittens and other distant mesas and buttes, as well as the other cabins, glow more and more orange as the sun set behind us. We shared our last remaining Eddyline Crank Yanker IPA out of plastic cups, toasting our 4th wedding anniversary (Navajo lands are dry, and a quick stop in a supermarket in Shiprock had confirmed this - not a drop in sight!).

The spectacle of the earth's shadow after the sun had set was equally stunning - the colours of the sky so ethereal, and the buttes seemed to light up and glow once again.

Later on we walked up to the hotel and ate dinner in the restaurant there - trying their fry bread and "famous" stew; it was okay, but nothing special. The portions of the bread were, as usual, enormous, but the stew was little more than a relatively tasty thin broth with a few bits of chicken in it.

That night I tried my hand at a bit of night photography. It wasn't too cold and I had enough outdoor gear to be outside for hours quite happily. I tried a few long exposures to capture star trails, and a few wide-angle portrait shots to capture the milky way (which was only just visible owing to the presence of a nearly-full and very bright moon). I was using my new 16-35mm lens, but realised that even this wasn't quite wide enough to capture the milky way, and also that it resulted in a huge amount of distortion in anything at the edges in the foreground. I was relatively happy with the results for a first attempt. Had I been further up the hill, with the line of photographers we passed on our way back from dinner, I could have captured the milky way over the mittens, but I was being a bit lazy and so had to make do with a couple of mesas to the north as the foreground interest.

I didn't have any star-stacking software, so couldn't see the results of the amalgamation of a series of 5-second shots I took. Once I got to Page and had some decent wifi I was able to download some software and have a look at the results. I'd made the mistake of not taking a black shot at the end, which the software then uses to remove the dead and hot pixels which you get when the camera's hot from long exposures. As a result, I had to go through and crop them all out (and there were a lot!). I used photoshop to try to correct the barrel distortion.

Having got up early to go down to Bisti we were pretty tired, so headed to bed early. I set my alarm so I could get up before sunrise - at least I didn't have to go very far (to the other side of the cabin and onto the balcony). I'd worked out where the sun would come up (from the photographer's ephemeris), just to the south of the east (far) Mitten. Sunrise was just after 7.15 am, but I wanted to catch the dawn sky beforehand. With the completely clear weather there wasn't much chance of particularly interesting skies, but I was fairly pleased with the view from my balcony as I set up my cameras and tripods - I was using both to capture the view with different focal lengths.

This was the view as I opened the door:

I looked to my right and saw other guests out on balconies, a few with tripods, others resting their cameras on the wooden railings. Eventually the sun peaked above the horizon. The glare was hard to avoid, given the sun was directly in front, so I decided to embrace it!

Most shots I'd seen taken from this place were taken up at the viewing platform of the hotel, where the distance between each of the mittens and the larger Merrick butte to the right were even; I liked the angle that the mittens sat together from my cabin, with the further one almost like a small but lower mirror image of the closer one.

We solved the crockery conundrum (we'd bought cereal and milk to eat there!) by using a tupperware box that some ham had come in, with plastic spoons donated by our equally-bemused German neighbours. We sat on the balcony, taking it in turns to eat our cereal, drinking tea out of polystyrene cups (made using hot water that had passed through the coffee machine - when will they start using kettles in the US?!). It was quite blissful. Eventually we got up and headed down hill on the Wildcat Trail, a 3.5 mile loop around the nearest mitten; I was glad for the new baseball cap as the sun was harsh. The hike was a pleasant one, along well-defined trails with pretty flowers and sage brush shrubs everywhere, and the odd photogenic sand dune. It was midday, so the light wasn't great, and the deep blue skies looked a bit unreal.

Similar to the one we'd seen on the Bear Creek Trail in Telluride, we passed a cairn garden, where passers-by had built their own little cairns. Again, I placed a small rock on the top of another - my little mark.

We got back to the cabin and relaxed for a while, waiting for the long sunset tour we'd booked earlier with one of the tour operators in the car-park of the visitor centre. We decided it was worth the extra $10 each to get an extra hour and to be out at sunset. We had the choice of an enclosed 4WD or an open-sided vehicle; we chose the latter, as it seemed a bit of a better way to see the surroundings. I packed my cameras in plastic bags, and only got them out when we stopped - I didn't want stray sand somehow working its way inside my beloved Canons!

The beginning of the trail is open to the public with 4WDs, so was quite busy. The driver didn't say much, just ferried us from viewpoint to viewpoint. The sandstone structures were already taking a more orange hue than their browny-red hue that shows in the midday light. John Ford's Point was bustling with Italian tourists, all keen to get photos of them with their hands wide in the air (everyone seems to do this, everywhere, when they're not taking selfies, that is). I let a rare shot of myself be taken by my husband, just to prove that I was there!

The tour continued, further into the valley, away from the majority of the crowds. Some of the scenery reminded by of the backside of Ayer's Rock - smooth red rock with eroded holes scattered across the surface - it wasn't just buttes and mesas.

The driver stopped from time to time, stuck his head out of the cab window and said "good photo here" and gestured out at the view. For most of these the views weren't the ones I would have chosen to capture, and often we drove past places that I definitely would have stopped at to photograph, had I been driving - but hey ho, that's the deal with a tour! And later on he redeemed himself...

We stopped at a few massive arches but the light was generally not that great. I played around with the circular polarising filter, which helped reduce some of the reflection on the red rock. This was especially helpful for photographing the petroglyphs.

As we drove further into valley the roads became sandier and hillier - in some places it seemed as if we were the first ever visitors! It was nice to get away from it all and see a bit more of the enormous, varied valley.

The light was beginning to fade, with the red rocks becoming more orange by the minute. One place I particularly wanted to visit was the Totem Pole, a huge rock spire left from an eroded butte. I'd seen pictures of it with beautiful rippled sand in the foreground, and hoped that we would get that close. We drove to a viewpoint, with the pole seemingly miles away. Even with the zoom lens on the 60D it still seemed too far away. We drove away and I felt disappointed that that might be the closest we got. Fortunately I was wrong. We meandered through sandy tracks, up some very steep and bumpy bits, with the Totem Pole always a bit in front of us and to our right. Eventually the driver took a right hand turn that said "residents only" and soon after he pulled off the track and parked. He beckoned for us to go with him, so we set off across the scrubby desert.

I felt a little nervous, oddly, perhaps because we were in the middle of nowhere with a stranger, and I was laden with expensive camera equipment. What did I expect? That he was taking us somewhere to be robbed by bandits? I haven't even watched any of the many movies set there, so I could hardly blame it on watching too much TV. I was hoping that instead he was leading us to a patch of untouched sand. I stopped from time to time to photograph the Totem Pole, together with a few other spires nearby, which were now a beautiful soft orange colour. We continued for ages, a good ten minutes, perhaps more. Eventually we reached our goal - not, thankfully, a group of bandits, but the hoped-for untouched sand dunes, ripples accentuated in the low sun. It was absolutely spectacular and I felt my face beaming! We wandered along the edge of it, the guide suggesting good spots for photographs. Now I was feeling very grateful to him for bringing us there, off the official tourist roads, to this special, unspoiled place. I could have spent longer there, but we soon turned around and headed back to the car. Even without the ripples, the scenery was out of this world.

We drove to a last viewing point (Artist's Point) to catch the end of the sunset - a tiny bit of last light on the buttes and mesas back where we started before driving back to The View. It was a brilliant trip, mainly because of the divine rippled dunes!

The day was far from over. We drove up to Goulding's Lodge (a few miles away over in Utah!) for dinner before heading back home for my second attempt at astro-photography. I finally got out the intervalometer that I've carried twice to Iceland but haven't used, and set it up to capture five ten-minute exposures. I remembered to take the dark one at the end, with the same settings, the lens cap on, and the viewfinder covered by the rubber piece on the strap. The star trails worked okay, but I didn't particularly like the criss-cross of aeroplane lights that are inevitable (barely visible on a small photo). I used the 24-70mm lens this time, on f/2.8, to avoid distortion and focus in on the mittens. The moonlight helped to light up the mitten closest to me. I chatted to the Germans next door, who told me how amazingly dark the sky had been in the middle of the night the previous night - great for milky way capturing. I woke up to go to the loo at about 3 am and looked outside, but the stars weren't as bright as I'd hoped, so I went back to bed for a few hours.

Another early morning for me, as I dashed to Mile 13 to capture the approach road at sunrise. When I arrived there was a huddle of Chinese photographers with tripods, dashing into the road, back to the side when a car came, then huddling together again in the middle. I joined them, and eventually we moved further down the road, past a small squished ground squirrel that wouldn't have looked nice in the photos! The light gradually came, illuminating the buttes and mesas and the road that stretched out beyond us. As it got brighter, we all ditched the tripods which made the whole thing a lot easier, and we were able to squeeze a few of us at a time right in the middle spot of the road, some crouching down, the taller ones upright. "Car!" someone would shout and we'd run to the side again, giggling, eventually staying in the road for a little longer as the cars seemed to take ages to reach us (it's a very long straight section of the road). The group was from Guangzhou, but they spoke little English, so the conversation ended after the "where are you from?" question. I took lots of shots, but I think this one is my favourite, as it sums up my experience there.

I said my farewells to my new friends and drove down that iconic road back to the cabin. I stopped in at the administration office to pick up and pay for a commercial photography permit (usually you have to pay by post, by US cheque or money order, but they allowed me to pay in person, in cash, unlike the folks at Antelope Canyon who seem to want to make it impossible to get one if you're from outside the US...). Once that was done I drove back to the cabin, woke up my husband and we had our last breakfast on the balcony as the sun rose higher, taking turns to eat our Oatmeal Squares out of the tupperware container. When we arrived in Monument Valley forty-two hours earlier I'd had strangely low expectations, but I left feeling overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place. It wasn't just the rippled sand dunes and the glowing Totem Pole spire, it was the sheer scale of all of the massive sandstone structures, each eroded in a unique way. I could see why so many movie directors chose to set their films there. Quite monumental! Here is a montage of the views from the balcony at different times of day:

Next stop: Page, Arizona

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