The sun creeps up behind the giant stacks of red rock stacks but the small rock I am currently sitting on is really freezing my butt – as they say around here.
We have made it to the desert just before dawn.
I stand. Red earth sinks softly beneath my feet but the tiny succulents in it hold their ground.
Slowly, as it blesses us, the sun makes our desolate surroundings sing. Colours glow on the great towers and spires of red surrounding us. We are completely alone. It is magical.
This is why, on their family holiday, we dragged our three moaning, sleepy boys out of their warm ‘Holiday Inn’ beds at 3.30 am.
Now the two eldest and their father are dotted around ‘The Valley of the Gods’ taking photos.
As the sun touches them on this new day, the sandstone stacks are so deliriously beautiful that they eat into my soul. I can’t help wondering which spirits are here with us – I just can’t help it.
The earth seems to be littered with dead branches where no god-like gardener has pruned the old growth, yet when I look closer I see that they have tiny, optimistic, green leaves.
The stillness presses upon my ears making me calm. I am aware of the vastness and utterly at home.
Surely each new day should be celebrated in this way? Perhaps the school run, packing lunches or getting on a train aren’t the way for humanity to go after all? Perhaps we should all simply stand in an ochre amphitheatre and worship the sun.
The warmth penetrates my bones, the sun now high enough to glint off my pen as I write.
Our little one joins me on the sunlit stones, still sleep-deprived and grumpy, still dwarfed by his Dad’s warm fleece, yet seduced from the car.
‘Why are the rocks here?’
None of us know but we all ask it, as we stand and witness the sun peer over their magnificence.
The great orb’s new angle points out the jagged profile of the peaks and I realise that they look like some awful large scale dentistry work has occurred. They are cracked, some are missing.
Boulders, bigger than our car, balance ridiculously as if they might fall any second, yet their position is perfect. It is easier to imagine that they were placed there by a mad artist and a put-upon engineer than to imagine that all this could be caused by erosion.
The whole landscape is built on fragmentation; splitting, layering, striation.
It is familiar – road runner country. Those boulders are just waiting for wily coyote to push them when he hears the familiar ‘beep-beep’ of that pesky bird. These landscapes are the real stars of those old cowboy films.
The sun moves with the silent seconds. The light intensifies the colours around us with every creeping inch.
The boys are going photo crazy, the only way they know; try to capture it – copy what Dad does.
When we told them we were headed to Monument Valley all the boys asked, ‘What are monuments?’
‘Darling, They are huge geological coincidences standing the test of time, monumental monoliths.’
How could I have known? How could I ever have described this to them? I am grateful that they can feel it.
So many of the landscapes we see on our adventure are comforting, perhaps because it is so still; reassuring in its longevity and scale.
As the sun’s light brightens it shines through holes, I realise there are long lines of perforations right through some of the rock layers, just like toilet roll but hundreds of thousands of years old and there is no one on earth who could rip it off.
There is no sound. And three boys are here. I realise how thirsty I have been for this silence.
‘Is there some water around so that I can make the Snake river?’
‘I don’t think so – this is the desert.’
In the course, orange sand at my feet, Arthur has begun making a model of the Gros Ventre junction, a place we have left far behind in the Grand Teton national park.
We have left lots far behind, suddenly I find I am thinking of kissing our dog goodbye, of leaving my Mum, of weeping when I walked away from a hilarious history and loving friends at our primary school, of the wrench when my son said he didn’t know where home was any more. It is the nature of going on an adventure.
Sometimes it seems like a stupid thing to do, to leave all that we hold dear, but we wanted to show the boys how big our world is and perhaps ourselves, to find monuments to remind us to wonder.
A bird of prey, a Harrier, lands on the scree slope above us. Grey breasted against the red earth and green clumps of grass. It comes only to sunbathe after the cold desert night; for the sun to warm its heart.
Today I love road trips.