Scenes from central casting

Primed by a lifetime of watching John Ford's westerns, Kim Wildman rides into the sunset of Monument Valley.

I have a confession. I love westerns. From the age of three I would sneak out of bed, well after lights-out, to join my father in front of the latest shoot-'em-up cowboy movie. The gunslinging heroics of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood weren't the most appropriate viewing for his youngest daughter but I was fascinated by the seemingly simple storylines where the good guys - those usually wearing the white hats - always won. Besides, I felt safe by my father's side.

My all-time favourite western is John Ford's 1956 classic, The Searchers, starring the Duke himself, John Wayne. The story takes place in Texas in 1868 but Ford controversially chose to sacrifice geographic accuracy for the sublime myth-making majesty of Monument Valley, Arizona. Shot in wide-screen VistaVision against a vast turquoise sky, the valley's blazing-red spires and buttes never looked so awe-inspiring.

Considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films made, The Searchers is an emotionally complex tale of vengeance, racism and love. It follows the relentless search by the embittered Ethan Edwards (Wayne) to find his niece, Debbie (played as a child by Lana Wood then as an adult by her older sister Natalie), who has been kidnapped by Comanches after they murdered her family. Joining Ethan on his quest is Debbie's adopted brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). For five years this odd couple roam far and wide, though mysteriously never leave the silent beauty of Monument Valley.

I've seen the movie more than a dozen times and always imagined I would lay eyes on Ford's magnificent cinematic canvas one day - I just never envisaged it would be from the back seat of a rental car on a road trip with my parents. As the familiar monolithic sandstone buttes come into view on the horizon, I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. I glance at my father and I can see that he, too, is eyeing the horizon with excitement.

When it comes to iconic American landscapes, Monument Valley is in a league of its own. Straddling the Utah-Arizona border, it has starred in countless Hollywood films and looms large in Wild West road-trip fantasies. Of all the Hollywood heavyweights who traipsed through the valley, it was four-time Oscar-winning director Ford who immortalised the landscape in 10 of his classic films. Five starred Wayne.

We arrive at the valley late in the afternoon and head straight to Goulding's Lodge. On the Utah side of the border in the shadow of the giant Rock Door Mesa, Goulding's is an essential pit-stop for western movie buffs. Established as a trading post in 1923 by Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, this is where Ford and Wayne stayed while filming.

According to popular movie mythology, it was Goulding who brought Hollywood to Monument Valley. Trying to run a trading post in the depths of the Depression, he heard Ford was scouting for locations to shoot a new western. Determined to entice the award-winning director, Goulding showed up in Ford's office armed with photographs of Monument Valley and refused to leave - reputedly camping in reception for three days in a bedroll, until Ford agreed to see him. His stakeout worked and the result was Ford and Wayne's first collaboration, Stagecoach, in 1939.

Today Goulding's, which serves as a restaurant, hotel, store and campsite, is run by the local Navajo people, who often starred as the bad guys in Ford's films.

The original trading post, which appeared in Ford and Wayne's second collaborative effort Fort Apache (1948), is now a museum featuring a maze of memorabilia including location photographs of The Searchers and many of Ford's other movies, along with Navajo and Ancestral Puebloan artefacts.

Outside the museum I spy a life-size figure of Wayne tacked on a wall. Today is my father's birthday and I can't resist making him pose for a quick snap with his hero. "Come on, hurry up," he pleads through gritted teeth. His embarrassment doesn't end there. In the souvenir shop my mother discovers the perfect birthday present for him: a roll of John Wayne toilet paper, embossed with a grizzled-looking image of the actor proclaiming: "It's rough, it's tough and doesn't take crap off anyone!"

The next morning after a quick breakfast, we head to the valley, eager to make the most of our epic western adventure. Established as a Navajo Tribal Park in 1957, Monument Valley lies at the heart of the Navajo Nation; at 688,000 hectares, it's larger than 10 of the country's 50 states. A living national treasure, the valley is home to about 200 people whose simple hogans, traditional eight-sided Navajo houses, are clustered around the bases of the colossal monuments.

We pay the $US5 ($7.80) a head entrance fee and drive to the visitors' centre. At nearby Look- out Point we're greeted by the familiar sight of the East and West Mittens, with their rocky thumbs seemingly saluting us with a friendly "How". The view is certainly gobsmacking but we don't linger; it is only down in the valley basin that you can really appreciate the magnitude of the wind-sculpted giants.

You can hire a guide from the visitors' centre and tour the big-rock sites by foot, horseback or open-air vehicle. We choose to go it alone and drive ourselves along the 27-kilometre unpaved road that loops around the valley floor. Slowly descending into the basin, we pass rocks bearing names such as Elephant Butte, Three Sisters and Totem Pole.

The highlight of the circuit is John Ford's Point, a rocky outcrop that has a spectacular view of the northern half of the valley. One of Ford's favourite film locations, it's here that he filmed a pivotal scene in The Searchers in which Ethan and a small band of Texas Rangers plot their attack on a Comanche campsite below.

Today the point is guarded by a solitary Indian. His hair is braided and he's dressed in a navy coat, which to me looks suspiciously like a US Cavalry jacket. Perhaps it is a trophy from a long-forgotten war. For $US2 he offers to lead me out to the point on his horse for a photograph. The poor creature can barely pass for a small pony and would struggle under my weight, so I decline politely and instead wander out to the edge of the point to take in the view for myself.

Ford, of course, isn't the only Hollywood legend to have laid eyes on these parts. Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper came to the valley to film Easy Rider. Michael J. Fox was transported here in his DeLorean time machine for Back To The Future III and Tom Hanks ran below the buttes in Forrest Gump.

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon famously put the pedal to the metal here in Thelma And Louise, proving the valley's monumental movie moments are not the sole domain of Holly- wood's leading men.

We return to the visitors' centre just before dusk and stake out a box seat at Lookout Point to watch the reflective glory of the sun setting on the East and West Mittens. As the sun slowly dips below the horizon behind us, the red rocks before us intensify with fiery hues and cast long shadows across the valley floor, as if bidding us a final farewell. With our cameras drawn and ready, my father and I carefully take aim and finally shoot the Wild West of our imaginations.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Monument Valley is about halfway between Phoenix and Salt Lake City. The closest airport is at Flagstaff, Arizona. Qantas has a fare for $2234 from Melbourne and $2134 from Sydney, flying non-stop to Los Angeles and then a partner airline to Salt Lake City, Phoenix or Flagstaff. (Fares are low-season return excluding tax.) Australians require approval to enter before departing Australia; register online at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

The best way to see Monument Valley is by car. There is only one main road through Monument Valley, US 163, which links Kayenta, Arizona, with US 191 in Utah. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is 321km northeast of Flagstaff. Take US 89 north to US 160 and follow to Kayenta, from where it is another 37km north along US 163 to Monument Valley.

Goulding's Tours has full- and half-day four-wheel-drive tours of Monument Valley with a Navajo guide, giving you access to areas that are out of bounds to self-drivers. See gouldings.com.

Staying there

The View Hotel adjoining the visitors' centre is the only hotel inside Monument Valley. Each guest room has a private balcony with million-dollar views of the Mittens. Double rooms from $US95 ($147) in low season, from $US298 in high season. See monumentvalleyview.com.

Goulding's Lodge is north of the Arizona-Utah border and is next to the Navajo Tribal Park. Double rooms from $US73 in low season, $US180 in high season.See gouldings.com.

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