Life as it should be, a 1st Nation Peoples Experience. 

Last summer while touring Monument Valley, I met Ron, one of the tour operators. Since I opted to stay the night in The Valley that night (with requires an escorted stay by a Navajo (Diné) as it’s on their land), we were treated to a pow wow after dinner. My, of course, having had to photograph this event I ended up send Ron prints of he and his wife dancing in their full Diné Regalia. Since keeping in touch, he told me about an annual event that bring together many native nations for a huge pow wow. I thought little of it and stowed it away as a future ‘maybe’ thing to do.
For some reason, as karma would have it, I received an email that had an advertisement for “the largest pow wow of the year”. I thought … is this the same one that Ron mentioned. Curious forced me to click through the ad. It took me to a website called The Gathering of Nations. After perusing, I found that it was coming up in a couple of months. Almost immediately after leaving the site, I emailed Ron asking him … well you know … yep, same one! So, my quest began. During this quest, I ended up being sponsored as a photographer for a local magazine in New Mexico! With media pass secured, it was time to begin plans around the event.
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Ceremonial pray to kick things off.

Growing up in America, all we learned about in history class was how the new settlers from Europe traded and later fought the natives and how the aggressive and warring Indians fought the US Army in various battles. Our history paints “them” as savages. This is what we all mostly grew up believing. Further, Hollywood depicted Indians in similar light which further supported what we learned in school. Sadly, this is the complete opposite in reality. Here we have an ethnic race of proud people having foreigners stealing their land, treating them as second citizen people all b/c the new settlers wanted what they had (their land). Ugh. History aside, what I’ve come to know (now), that the First Nation People have band together in solidarity preaching love, tolerance, respect for once another, a deep commitment to their respective cultural importances to carrying forward to their future generations.
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I digress … Fast forward months of waiting … and arriving in Albuquerque for the first time, I quickly got my bearings and found myself readying my gear to shoot the event. I entered the event to a familiar sound. The sound of a Native American flute song. If you’ve never heard this before, the sound is emotionally moving and soothing. Such a powerfully peaceful sound reverberating off the walls of this large hall, oddly transforms you to a spirtual place. More native music ensues. Then, it’s time for what’s called “The Grand Entry” – a large procession of First Nation peoples dancing to the beat of drums. Arrrgh … the DRUMS. The arena was encircled with no less than a dozen different tribes from all over North America. Each tribe had 8 drummers sitting in a circle around their sacred drum pounding the it in near perfect uniscent with all their might while chanting in their own tongue. That alone sent me spiraling to a different place. If this wasn’t enough for the senses, in come streams over 3000 Native Americans from all over the US and Canada from some 300+ different tribal nations – dawning their tribal Regalia. It was an explosion of color, not to mention a sensory overload that was both exhilarating yet spiritual all at once. I didn’t expect this to hit me the way it did.
Just after a Grand Entry, I struck up a conversation with a tribesman sitting at his encircled drum. He said to me, (while glancing at a female next to me) “Would you like to sit, pointing at a seat next to him in the circle), it’s ok for you”. Come to find that this drum circle a sacred place for men only – no women allowed. Noticing a few things within the circle, I asked many questions and got some very interesting perspectives into what this circle entails. I was honored to be invited to his circle as he shared much knowledge with me.
These brief 3 days felt like 7 as it was a party and spectacle for 12 hours straight. I befriended a couple of folks both from the local area and neighboring states who helped clue me into snipets of Native culture & rituals that helped enhance the overall experience. I was told that once I set my belongings down, that it was completely safe as to no worries of it disappearing – it was against he spirit of the event. More over, everyone whom I interacted with in conversation of otherwise were the friendiest most generous I’ve experienced in the US. I felt like family in an odd sort of way – like they were taking care of me. It felt what I’ve experienced in Asian cultures – which I draw strong parallels from and think the two cultures are somehow descendants of one another.
I left with a few key messages that were both felt and spoken in Respect, tradition, spiritual awareness and forgiveness – all strongly taught to all generations within this proud nation of people. I am humbled once again.

HooDoo HooNu?

I’ve always heard about Hoodoo’s or toadstools as they are more commonly called. On our last day in the Page, AZ area, it worth the early morning short drive to the Rimrock Hoodoo’s. It’s located right off Hwy 89 towards Kanab just after the 19mi marker on the very southern tip of Grand Escalante. There, apparently, are more spectacular Hoodoo’s in other areas not far from Rimrock, but we were running out of time as we were leaving for Phoenix in a couple of hours. Once parked in the lot not far from the highway, just follow the wash towards the mesa before you and you’ll run right into it – can’t miss it.

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Only the shadow knows.

You’re first greeted by the red toadstool standing high and proud above the multicolor badlands below. Getting up the the plateau closer to the mesa wall affords you to climb around a large flat area with other smaller Hoodoo’s. From there, head westerly along the red colored mesa to find more Hoodoo’s of various sizes and shapes. Once you’ve found a few, keep going and you’ll be treated with an entirely different rockscape that changes from the typical cinnamon colored sandstone to a sugary white wonderland that appears like snow. As you sit and set gaze in your surroundings, the curious Hoodoo’s have white stalks with red colored tops.

It is believed that the Hoodoo’s are formed through nature’s erosion of wind and rain with it’s pillars giving way for their soft sandstone properties. Their capstone counterparts precariously balance themselves perfectly as the erosion process begins. It’s sort of a freak of nature if you will and definitely a special sight to see firsthand. Having gone when the sun was just beginning to rise over the mesa, allow me to play around with the morning’s sun against a (too) perfect cloudless brilliant blue sky in and around the Hoodoo’s themselves. Backlighting and pinching the sun against the Hoodoo’s is just another way to gain different compositions. When doing so, take care that your exposure isn’t too dark or too overly done no the highlights – take the middle ground and adjust in post a little bit.

Spend a bit of time relishing in and amongst the white Hoodoo’s in the peaceful and well protected cove. Going early in the AM afforded a quiet solitude as we were the only humans there. I don’t believe this is all that popular of a place, but definitely worth the visit.

Vermillion Remoteness

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At the edge, then becomes desert again

Said to have been formed back in the Jurassic period and plunked down in the middle of nowhere somewhere on the Paria Plateau in the Vermillion Hills at the southern border of Utah is in good company with the likes of Wire Pass Canyon, South and North Coyote Buttes, including much visited “The Wave”. Unlucky in obtaining the daily issued BLM permit for The Wave (only 20 per day), I was a bit bummed as this was yet another place that I’ve been wanting to witness firsthand. The tightly monitored Wave, from what I understand, is permitted the way it is mainly for crowd control. The delicate structure that it is, the BLM wants to help preserve it by limiting it daily visits. I think the 3.5mi trek to this location is plenty to stave off the casual tourist.

My disappointment quickly wained when we were informed that permits were granted to the South Coyote Buttes – an upcoming blog post for sure and as a bonus, this magical place that is protected by its soft rust colored sandy moat. This is White Pocket.

The journey here is one best left for the willed photographer or trekker who enjoys the unusual in a solitude that only speaks to itself. The drive out crosses a number of washes – many dry at the time, but mushy due to the occasional rainstorm in its deep sand. Evidence of how tough a ride it is, turning one corner, we see a human form frantically waving his arms in the air like someone trying to signal an airplane while lost at sea. In this case, we couldn’t miss him as he was smack dab in the middle of our way. On closer approach, muddied from knee to toe, the look on this poor stranded persons face (and his equally muddied girlfriend) were one of relief. It could’ve been hours if not the next day

until he would potentially see another living soul driving by this desolate road as he had expertly lodged his little 2×2 sedan into one of the deeply muddied ruts in a failed attempt to cross a wash. The rule of life in the desert – even stuck cars (with people in them), you leave no person behind and do the right thing … tow them out. Our being in a 4×4 (not a weak AWD) Suburban, it was easy work to get him out of our way so we can continue.

Doing our good deed for the day, we pressed onward along unmarked trailheads, “roads”, washes and a few gates (for what I’m not quite sure). There must have been cattle that roamed out here before as evidenced by Cattle Gates – strange finding these in the middle of remoteness. As we drew closer, you can see what the prize will be off into the distance as it’s like no other. Not easy to miss for it’s brightly color shades of white as the sun beams hit its peaks surrounded by the rust colored desert moat, we finally arrive.

From the moment you start down the short walk from the parking lot … yes, oddly, there is a parking lot here! … you get a sense that you’ve been transformed or in Star Trek terms “beamed” to another planet. Firstly, the ground beneath your feet now stand on firm pale grayish colored terra littered with potholes both big and small. Being that it hadn’t rained in some time, they were dry (we are, after all, in the desert). As you continue up the gentle mounds of gray matter – think of brain contours of a brain, you eventually realize that the gray matter soon gives way to its more natural rust colored sandstone only a few centimeters underneath. What you are treated to are waves upon waves of white, various shades of gray and a reddish colored landscape that is absolutely stunning. On first

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Life on the rocks

arrival, the dark clouds began to loom ever closer towards us. Thunder can be heard in the not too distant hills and as I stand atop one of the brainy mounds, our Guide gently reminds me that I might want to get to lower ground if I didn’t want to be (potentially) electrified meat … good advice indeed as I lost my head with all of the beauty before me. As the storm was fast upon us, we made for safe cover to our car, now a makeshift cafe as we sit eating lunch almost alfresco until the rains came and went. Local knowledge is king as our Guide called it right – waiting it out until after the storm passes will reward us greatly (instead of calling it for the day and head for home). After about 30 mins of a light downpour, we explored more and were treated to what gave White Pocket its name … pockets of water in those potholes mentioned above! Here we stand in the middle of vast nothingness, on brainy like rocks with hole punched into them that with only a few minutes of rain to semi-fill them with water!

As you can see, I couldn’t decide which was a more powerful image – color or black and white. I love b/w as stripping away color affords you to look deeper into the image itself and find little gems that would otherwise be lost, but on the other hand, color presents its own beauty and allows us to appreciate the world as we see and experience it.

Whilst traipsing around this red and gray conclave, you see these odd dark colored bumps or pimples stuck to the walls; come to find out that these are little iron and sandstone mixtures that eventually break off and and form into little rocks or pebbles. After the rains and wind blow them about, they become perfectly shaped into small little egg shaped rocks. These rocks are called Moqui Marbles and they’re scattered everywhere. Very curious looking indeed. I am told, over time, these marbles turn into sand completing its lifecycle with new marbles dropping and forming to continue the cycle and replenishment of what forms White Pocket in the first place – how cool is that?

Every turn, every mound ascent & descent was pleasing to the senses (aka eye candy) as you are treated to Mother Nature’s curious way of presenting something strange, something never scene before – be it terra compressions, striated sediment swirling around massively curved walls or deep bowl shaped washes. Photographically, like most things, it’s difficult to convey the depth, breadth and remoteness of this magical place. Use of wide angle lens is a must if you want to capture anything close to what you’re standing in the middle of … and even then (at 16mm), it still doesn’t capture the essence of this place. Of course, zooming in to grab some detail leaves you with abstract lines and swirls that begs the question for recognition.

My only wish is to return and stay overnight to capture this place under the Moon and stars, but that’s for another time … so much more to witness when I return to this part of the world. I believe this place will soon be under strict crowd control soon as it’s worthy of protection – but then again, the drive out here is probably enough of a deterrence for the casual tourist.

Eye Candy

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Greeting Teepee

Unlucky in The Wave lottery. The consolation was South Coyote Buttes (SCB), equally requiring a day permit to visit. Bonus? It was breathtaking. Unearthly. Surreal. Deep into the Paria wilderness, SCB stands on its own in beauty for its colorful display of sandstone swirls from millions of years of layered sediment and erosion from fierce rainstorms and relentless winds. Permitted, like its cousin The Wave, it seeks to preserve and control the amount human visitors – we were the only humans there during our 3 hour walkabout, not to mention the roughed 4×4 journey here.

Upon our egress from the parking lot, it’s about a 1/2 mile trek through a winding sandy trail. You’re first greeted with a ginormous teepee shaped or inverted ice cream cone that screams rainbow sherbet. The swirling and striated lines criss-cross each other in opposite and curious ways that makes one wonder how something like this can be formed. Traversing along side of the colorful sandstone walls in a bowl-like fashion, you finally make your way to the top only to be greeted with yet another gorgeous view of more swirling bowls that resemble caramelized bacon. Yum … a feast for eyes and all of your senses.

Pinks turn to orange and orange back to pink and just about every color in the spectrum. Curious boulders sticking up out of nowhere in the flat surrounded by strange looking hoodoos, balancing rocks, beehives and more striated beauty. Recent rainstorms during this monsoon season have treated us to settled water in low points along the rocks amidst the usually arid terrain.

As you walk along the marbleized sandstone, the further you venture into different sections of SCB, the terrain changes again, then back again. From smoothly shaped bowls sporting hues to calm the senses, you quietly step into the ruggedness of Cottonwood Cove area where brightly colored orange and rust predominate the rockscape against the wildly sea blue sky. Delicate sandstone fins scale from their walls jetting out in louvered fashion that defy gravity.

Photographically speaking, it’s easy … go wide. Wide angle lenses afford you to get up close and personal as their focal distances are macro-like, they accentuate leading lines while capturing the expanse of the scene. And, with this, find the sweet spot in your aperture (usually b/n f8-f16), just set it and forget and shoot away like there’s no tomorrow! For us on this day, another bonus was we were the only humans around. We had the entire  place all to ourselves = peace and serenity. All you hear is the whirling winds and your own panting from the next summiting rock formation that takes your breath away. A colorful feast for the eyes, mind and spirit. South Coyote Buttes. Onward to White Pocket

HORSE Anyone?

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Classic view

This is yet another location I’ve been dying to see firsthand … did I mention there are many firsts this week? Upon discovering this was very easy to get to from Page, AZ it was a must to see. As I’m sure you’ve seen, Horseshoe Bend is a 180* bend or U-turn in a portion of the Colorado River that’s absolutely a sight to witness in person. Upon arrival at the parking lot from the main road, it’s an easy 1/2 mile walk up a little mound, down the backside before reaching the cliffs edge. When I say cliff, that’s pretty much what it is. No railing, just a shear drop-off that’ll make your palms sweat in nervousness as you shimmy yourself closer and closer toward the edge. The drop is about 1000ft.

When I arrived at the cliffs edge, there was a stiff wind blowing in all different directions making it even more intimidating to creep towards the edge to get an unobstructed view of the entire bend – not to mention being pelted in the face by sand (that was being kicked up by the wind). I managed to setup my tripod back from the edge, take meter readings for exposure and set the tripod near the edge to fire off a few frames before pulling back from the edge. It got windier and windier so I sat for a bit to wait for it do die down. I continued, but without the tripod by shimmying my body army crawl style towards the edge and hung the camera over the get a clear view … no strap … if my sweaty palms let go of the camera … oh well, be it then me, right?

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Narrow view

The weather wasn’t the best for making stunning images, but you just have to take what’s given to you and be happy with it – unless you’re there for a few days. Waiting for sunset (as the sun sets directly behind the U-turn), the clouds began to form heavily on the horizon. After waiting until near sundown, I bagged any hopes of capturing the sun lower itself below the far off plains of the Grand Canyon and just left for a good hearty dinner in town.

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Sheets of then sandstone at cliffs edge, not recommended to stand on!

If you ever find yourself there shooting with a proper camera, I would recommend bringing and using your widest angle lens in your bag. I used my Nikon 16-35mm and felt that 16mm wasn’t quite enough and wished I’d brought my Rokinon 14mm, but I wanted to keep my overall camera kit weight down to a minimum. Also, once there, walk around left and right of center to see other angles that you can shoot from.

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Framed view

Where the Antelope Play …

… ok, they may not be able to play here.

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With sand floating, the light beams light up!

Still in Navajo Nation, there’s another spot called Antelope Canyon that I’ve been dying to capture for years – I finally made it, but with the limited time to only do one canyon. The upper canyon is the more travelled and famous one whereas the lesser known lower canyon nearby fights to become a worthy equal. After much pictorial research, I chose the lower canyon (it didn’t help that all of the upper canyon tours were completely full). Both canyons are tightly controlled by the Navajo as you must be part of their tours instead of being able to wander about by your lonesome – this is a recent change over the years.

What so special about these canyons is that both are subterranean. Born as cracks in the Earth and millions of years of erosion as rushing waters underground seek their way on to a spillway leaving behind these deep fissures or crevasse’s. Even today, during the monsoon season, flash floods are the norm which halts tours into the slot canyons for obvious reasons. The wonder and beauty of nature’s made carvings is truly a sight to behold.

From what I’ve been able to gather, the main difference b/n the upper and lower slot canyons is that the upper slot is much more family friendly. Firstly, you must be driven to the canyon (which hikes up the cost). Access into it is much more simpler and once your underground, the slot itself is 2 to 3 times as wide with more light shafts beaming through the surface of the Earth. Contrary, the lower slot is within walking distance from the parking lot, but has a number of fairly steep stairwells to negotiate during your descent to its floor and unlike the upper, this is a narrower canyon.

Having chosen the lower slot canyon, I reserved a 12:20pm time slot specifically for photography. Being that we arrived a couple hours earlier to check-in, they informed us that the 10:20am photo tour was much better this time of year to capture more nightshifts beaming into the canyon – so, we switched to this time slot. You pay better than double the price, but totally worth it as all of the Guides work together in holding back the massive amounts of crowds so you can make images without people in your frame. This said, however, you’re giving 2 minutes to shoot a scene while the regular tour watches and waits. Once time is up, the crowd is released and you wait again. All in all, you have 2 hours (regular tours just walks right through). The colors bouncing off the walls from the openings at the Earth’s surface overhead is a treat to the eyes. You mainly see rust colored walls, but the camera is able to distinguish much more! Oranges, red, yellows, magenta, purple come to mind. The Guides also clue you into best angle locations, camera settings (if needed) and toss sand up into the air to light up the beam of light raining from above.

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Details details … what do you see?

I highly recommend to not change lenses once underground b/c it’s dusty down there – which will surely cause havoc with your camera sensor and required a good cleaning afterwards. I shot with 2 cameras, one wide angle lens mounted on a tripod and the other with a zoom range from 24-200mm handheld. Handholding down there isn’t too difficult, just bump your ISO up a bit (I set mine to 400 and had plenty of light with it). You also want to keep your aperture in the mid-range of things. I ranged from f4 – f14 depending on what affect I was going after for the falling sand in the light beams according to my desired shutter speed. Some of the image above have similar scenes – one with and without light beams … which one do you prefer?

 

It’s Monu-mental

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Classic valley scene of the West & East Mitten’s and Merrick Mesas (Spearhead Mesa on far right)

For years I’ve been telling myself “one of these days” after seeing TV commercials, print ads and movies featuring this part of the SW’n part of the US. For some, it’s the old westerns like Stage Coach or countless John Wayne classics, while for others it may be more recent favorites such as Back to the Future III or Forest Gump, whichever it inspires you to make the journey here … do it. Since I didn’t have much time, I hired a tour

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Wild horses, God of Rain Mesa as the backdrop in the distance

company to take me around the valley for a day. Wait … where am I going? The majestic Monument Valley of the Navajo Nation or Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks). Everything has a price though. Before entering the official portion of the area (aka Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park), there is a flat rate of 20$US. From there, you have full range of the valley – so long as you stay on the fairly maintained loop drive in the valley itself. Being that the loop is dirt … or rather sand, be ready for a filthy car afterwards. The fine reddish sand is from the surrounding sandstone

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Ear of the Wind Arch

monuments that have eroded over the millenniums. Only about 5 square miles in size, there’s plenty to marvel on your own. Going it alone is perfectly doable, but if you really want a fuller more richer experience of the valley, you need to get off of the public loop and explore the more worthwhile monuments up close and personal – this is only accessible if you hire a Navajo guide and of course, means shelling out yet more money.

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Let it rain!

From all public accounts, the atrocities that the “white man” put upon the Natives centuries ago far outweighs the reparations around the various tax-free liberties that have been granted to Native Tribes in the the USA. I fully support a small payment for anything on and about these proud people of North America. Firstly, I am genuinely interested in their culture of the past and present – asking even the simplest questions in their thoughts around how life is today. Being of Asian descent myself, over the years I’ve been asked

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Micro-climates all around the valley over Sentinel Mesa

many things in what I would rather be called (as a ethnicity or bundled ‘race’ label) – everything from knowing that the word ‘chink’ is offensive to the more gray area of ‘oriental’. In my curiosity, I had a couple of opportunities to as what they (being of Navajo descent) thought of the proper way of addressing their race. I got a mixed response, but ‘Red Skin’ was not a good thing, ‘Indian’ was a gray area (dependent on age) and ‘Native’ was the most acceptable. Another thing I found interesting was one young Native’s opinion that the Native race as a whole likely came from western China (Tibet) during a mass migration to the North America; I have drawn a similar assumption in recent years during my travels to the Tibetan regions of China, but to hear this from a Native was a first! One thing was consistent was they acknowledged, appreciated and praised my asking the question in the first place. I guess you just gotta’ be sensitized to certain things without presumption, right?

Again, I digress … I found the only tour that included an overnight stay within Monument Valley itself (by a stroke of luck or mouse click as it were). Wayne, our drive and Guide throughout the valley was an interesting fellow with a storied past within and outside the Navajo Nation, but that’s another story in itself. Taking us off the public access roads for different views was worth it. We had a traditional Navajo Taco for dinner – which as a doughy round flat bread (flour) topped with beans, diced tomatoes, onions and your choice of meat poured over it. Not the most thrilling or exotic, but fulfilled the hunger. Speaking of hunger the image above (of the rainbow over

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Big Dipper in full view

After dinner as the full moon began to rise, we huddled around in a semi-circle for a traditional Pow-wow. The beat of the drum and singing in Navajo tongue echoed in the bowl shaped mesa high above us all the while having an explanation of what each dance ritual was for. It was quite interesting the say the least. I bring with me wherever I go a small portable flash head (Fuji EF-X20) that works with both my Fujifilm and Nikon; it’s a tiny little block that’s packs a punch. It being dark now, flash was a necessity. Controlling

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From inside a traditional Hogan (my abode for the night)

flash is an art form for sure – one of which I am learning every time I have the chance. I don’t use all the bells and whistles (aka automation) that TTL gives you as I’ve found better results in full manual mode. Doing close up work (within say, 10 ft), I try to not go above 1/16 power for both quality of light and output power as I just want to send out a”kiss” of light instead of blasting it and quicker refresh cycle (time it takes in between firings). I started out with the flash mounted on the camera – I knew this wasn’t going to produce great outcomes, but I had to try. One frame lit too much of the ground (I am

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Sunrise over the famous Totem Pole

shooting low —> high) so I scrambled and ran for my remotes in the car. With transmitter and receiver, I am able to independently move camera and flash around randomly to achieve the right lighting angle. Last thing … it being dark out, autofocus was totally useless, so I just estimated the general distance b/n me and the dancer, flipped to manual focus, set the distance focus and shot away – kind of a set it and forget it thing. it worked like a charm!

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Teardrop Arch with the Mitten’s in the background

After the Pow-wow, we head for the sleeping area in the valley that’s protected by 2 large mesa’s. We were given a choice to either sleep under the stars or in a Hogan – a traditional Navajo dwelling. I chose the Hogan … why not right? I can sleep under the stars just about anywhere. The Hogan was as basic as you can get – complete with dirt flooring. The Hogan is built in an octagon shape using skinny logs and covered in mud from the surrounding red, iron-rich sandstone dirt. It being a full moon, it was good and not so good. Good: nice a bright to light the valley up and night, not so good: doing star trail photography a virtual impossibility (it being too bright). Slept well as it as a full day of trekking around the valley (not to mention a 5+ hr drive up here from Phoenix).

The trek from the above Teardrop Arch wasn’t difficult, but not easy at the same time to get to – especially when it’s hidden from plain view from below the mesa in which it sits. I asked our tent site attendant how to get here. He said we can only get there by a Guide. As he tried in vane to find one, he finally said to just go up there yourself – not a common thing b/c it’s Navajo land saying that if we do find it, the fee would be $20 (the guided tour is $60). So, he drew a map, gave it to me and we were on our way. With plenty of water (it was around 98*f out in full sun) trekking across a couple of washes before having to scale up the side of the mesa some couple hundred feet high. Halfway along this dog came racing up and walked beside us for a while. Then, she began to lead the way. It appeared that she knew the way as she kept looking back at us as if to say, “well aren’t you coming?” I followed and she led us right to the arch! I had to reward her with half of my water as she was panting for water in the hot summer sun.

Gorgeous views, gorgeous people. I can now see why Hollywood is so enamored by the valley …

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Run Forest Run!