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Two Up Across America: Western vistas colored with history, culture

Part 3 of motorcycle trip takes travelers from canyons to Pacific coast

POSTED: October 9, 2011 7:00 a.m.
Bryce Rezak/For The Times

Spectacular rock formations are everywhere in Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah.

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Editor's note: This is the third of a four-part series chronicling a trip Bill Rezak made across the U.S. on a motorcycle.

The next day we devoted to exploring wondrous Monument Valley, in extreme southeastern Utah about 30 miles north of Kayenta, Ariz. The valley is on the Navajo Reservation and is owned and operated by the Navajo, who have lived on it for centuries.

It is a stark, desolate place of magnificent beauty with enormous buttes and mesas rising vertically from the desert floor. The valley features more than 20 miles of poor quality dirt roads — no place for a street bike. We hired a Navajo guide and a lorry to squire us around.

While I was negotiating the fee with the operator, a couple of young French women touring the American Southwest as their first U.S. experience turned up, and we settled on a much better rate with them along. Their English was superior to my diminishing French skills. They turned out to be a hoot and we enjoyed a fun day with them prior to extracting a promise that they would host us in Paris sometime. Another item for the bucket list!

Anasazi people occupied Monument Valley about 800 years ago. No perennial streams run through it.

Small plots of crops were planted where the limited rainfall collected. The local sands retained an amazing amount of water, and crops like corn were more likely to survive. Seepage from sandstone aquifers also provided some water. The natives hunted bighorn sheep, antelope and deer.

We opted for a 2«-hour tour of the valley, but our Navajo guide, Lester, found us to be such an enthusiastic group that he kept us out for four hours. We learned much Navajo and Monument Valley history from him.

The Navajo are the largest Native American tribe, about 450,000 strong. Lester showed us their places of worship, caves and overhangs; explained their lifestyle (living in tepees and wandering); discussed their diet; and generally presented his ancestors and his people with great pride. He was a delight.

One of my favorite portions of our tour was Lester's knowledge of the Western movies filmed in Monument Valley. In 1935, a gentleman named Goulding, who lived in Los Angeles, was exploring the southwest corner of Utah when he came upon what is now known as Monument Valley. He was not an environmentalist or a naturalist; he was just touring.

He kept thinking to himself that the valley would make a marvelous setting for western movies. When he returned to California, he contacted John Ford, renown director of westerns of the day. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ford took the crew of the movie Stagecoach (starring John Wayne — who else?) to Monument Valley. The movie was released in 1938 and we have been beating a path there ever since.

Also, look for Monument Valley in "My Darling Clementine," "The Searchers," "How the West Was Won," "The Trials of Billy Jack," "The Legend of the Lone Ranger," "The Eiger Sanction," "Fort Apache," "Navajo Code Talkers," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande" and "Back to the Future III."

We got back to the Valley welcome center from our guided tour just in time to treat the French women to a late lunch. Then, we took a leisurely cruise back to Kayenta and another night at our no-name motel.

The next day we traveled west to Page, Ariz., and a peak at Glen Canyon and the dam that forms Lake Powell. Glen Canyon is a 200-foot deep trench in the red rock that looks like it was created by a giant ditch witch. Its sides are vertical and striated with different shades of red, purple and sandy-colored rock. It is a lovely formation.

From Page, we cruised south on US-89 to US-89 ALT, which crosses Glen Canyon via Navajo Bridge. We stopped for spectacular pictures taken from the bridge looking up and down the canyon. Then, we headed west again riding beside Vermillion Cliffs toward Jacob Lake, Ariz.

After lunch, it was south on Arizona Route 67 to the North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge, where I had made reservations months in advance. The North Rim is much more spectacular than the south, in my opinion.

We hiked out to Bright Angel Point (about a half-mile) and stood in awe as the sun progressed to the west. This vista has to rank up there with the most inspirational in America. It's hard to describe it and to do it justice.

Three tributary canyons converge around Bright Angel Point. The Transept merges into Bright Angel Creek, which flows into the Colorado River. The plateau at the top is just below 8,000 feet in elevation. It's over a mile down to the River and a mile across to the South Rim.

The colors are amazing with every shade of red, purple, green and brown. And the colors change as the sun and shadows move across during the course of a day. You just have to see it to believe it.

After dinner, we sat in recliners outside on the veranda with zero light pollution and watched the stars - the perfect end to a perfect day!

The next morning, we took our time departing and had another look at the canyon in the morning sun. We'd seen nary a cloud since eastern Kansas.

In the late morning, we shoved off heading north from the North Rim toward Kanab, Utah. Kanab also turned out to be a location for western TV shows and movies. "Daniel Boone" and "Gunsmoke" were filmed on location there, as were movies like "Windrunner," "A Spirited Journey," "Planet of the Apes," "El Dorado" and one of my all time faves, "The Outlaw Josey Wales."

After lunch and a look around, we headed north again to Panguitch, Utah, near the entrance to Bryce Canyon, the next stop on our national park tour.

Bryce Canyon was another wonderful highlight of our trip. The Paria River has carved a valley between Table Cliff and the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Over the next 10 million years, tall, thin ridges called fins emerged. These fins erode into pinnacles and spires called "hoodoos" of magnificent shades of red, orange, mauve and purple. The hoodoos look like clusters of people standing together across the valley.

Paiutes were the residents of the area when whites began to arrive in southern Utah. The Paiutes labeled the hoodoos as the "Legend People" whom Coyote had turned into stone.

After a marvelous morning exploring the park, we lunched at the beautiful Bryce Canyon Lodge, another 1930s era monument to the success of the Roosevelt Works Progress Administration. Then it was off to Zion National Park.

The Virgin River has carved the cliffs and towers of Zion. The river has created a series of abrupt steps and slopes known as the Grand Staircase. The colors are muted compared to Bryce, but the beauty is majestic. We rode through taking pictures and admiring the vistas. Then it was on to St. George, Utah, when stopped for the day.

Next morning we headed southwest on Interstate 15 to Las Vegas. I'm not a big Vegas fan, but Diane had never been there, so we rode into the center of town and left the interstate for a trip down Las Vegas Boulevard, otherwise known as "The Strip."

We enjoyed a quality lunch at the New York-New York casino while listening to the "ka-ching, ka-ching" of the slots, the shouts of the pit bosses and the bells signifying all the winners. We played a couple of slots which now cost several dollars each and which are electronic and print tickets instead of dispensing cash — how underwhelming!

We made our escape from Las Vegas and headed to Barstow, Calif., where we holed up for the night. The next day it was on to Los Angeles for a few days with daughter, Sarah. She and her husband, Chris, live one mile east of Venice Beach. The beach offers a strip of sleazy shops with a medical marijuana store in every other door. It is a place, however, to enjoy a people-watching extravaganza, to hear some good amateur musicians and to experience some good food.

Venice Beach also features miles of paved walking, biking and roller-blading paths; an outdoor muscle building gym; and a world-class skate boarding venue. The skateboarding is my favorite. The boarders range from daredevil 8-year old kids to 50-year-old skilled technicians, the older group featuring varying lengths of dreadlocks and beards.

Their feats flipping around the empty swimming pool venues are spectacular.

We hung out with Sarah for four days and enjoyed avoiding the bike, which I had serviced at the nearby Marina del Rey Harley dealer. Then we picked up the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica and headed north, hugging the ocean. This was a lovely ride along and usually high above the breaking surf below.

Bill Rezak is a retired engineer and college president who lives on Lake Lanier and enjoys riding the North Georgia mountains on his motorcycle. His first book will be published next year.



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