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  • Sandpaintings
  • Don Lago (bio)

The sand was full of footprints.

There were lizard tracks, with a zigzagging line where the tail had dragged and swished. There were mouse tracks and jackrabbit tracks wandering from flower to flower, bush to bush. There were beetle tracks and spider tracks. There were raven tracks in a cluster where a raven had landed briefly. There were the tracks of rocks, rocks journeying across a quarter of a billion years.

For a quarter of a billion years this sand had been sandstone, hard and well buried. Before that this sand had been sand dunes hundreds of feet deep and hundreds of miles wide, sand washing down from distant mountains, sand blowing on the winds from a nearby ocean. Only geo-recently had this sandstone been unearthed. It felt the sunlight again, the rain again, the wind again. It dissolved back into sand.

When this sand had last felt the imprint of animal feet, they had been the feet of small lizards. This sand had never known the footprints of dinosaurs, for the dinosaurs hadn’t evolved yet. It had never known the footprints of mammals or birds, ants or butterflies. Now the sand was reading the news of a quarter of a billion years: Earth had flourished with new forms of life. The news included a creature who could look at sand and see in it images and meanings much larger than footprints.

I wandered off the trail to a slope of deeper sand, leaned down, and reached out my finger. I traced a line in the sand. I drew a spire, tall and straight and thin. I drew a larger monolith, taller than the spire. I drew the lower cliffs that connected them, and the slopes beneath them. I filled this outline with vertical lines to emphasize the skyward reach of the monolith and spire.

I looked up at the real landscape, at the real monolith and spire. My drawing was a nice little image of them.

I was looking at Monument Valley, full of spires and monoliths, buttes and mesas, rock and sand. It was full of empty space, without [End Page 142] which the monuments would not be themselves, defiant of high and empty space.

I was looking at the most famous monument of Monument Valley, an image seen in numerous movies, calendars, and posters. In his 1939 movie Stagecoach, director John Ford sent his stagecoach around and around this monument, pretending it was on a long journey across the West, leaving viewers imagining that the West held endless monuments like this. This monument is called West Mitten Butte, which is west of the similar-looking East Mitten Butte. The name “mitten” refers to the thumblike spire and the handlike monolith. These names were given by a Colorado-born, childhood-mittened, white pioneer, not by the desert-born Navajos who had lived here for centuries. Yet the Navajos did recognize the monuments as hands, the dormant hands of the gods. The Navajos have their own names for these monuments, names full of time and generations, living and dying, sun and wind and rain and sand, pinyon trees and horses, gods and ceremonies.

West Mitten Butte is the only part of Monument Valley that holds a hiking trail open to the public, a three-mile loop. Aside from a rough and sandy driving loop, the rest of Monument Valley is private, for it is still a home to many Navajos, who live in hogans among the monuments, herding sheep and weaving rugs and performing ceremonies as they have for generations. I was starting out on the hike, dropping from a ridge, down a sandy slope, and onto the valley floor.

I was being followed. I was being followed by footprints, deep and distinct in sand that had gone without rain for weeks. I was adding a new shape to all the other shapes that only cells, with their geometrical skills, could make against the formlessness of sand. Yet the wind was already quickening, this early in the morning, already starting to blur my identity, erase my journey. Already the wind was starting to erode my picture of the monument back into mere sand...


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pp. 142-157
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