In this finalist for the Utah Book Award, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Thomas J. Harvey shows how the Rainbow Bridge and Monument Valley landscapes in Utah and Arizona have become iconic images representing all of America — in large part due to the films of John Ford but also, recently, due to Jeep Grand Cherokee ads. In the early 1900s, he says, the area saw a swirl of archaeologists, writers, movie makers, adventurers and tourists who shaped it into a 20th-century space. Its significance, however, is now exploited by 21st-century advertising and, to an extent, by contemporary Navajo-operated tourism.
Harvey writes that many Easterners, feeling confined in cities and offices, went west in search of a sort of Adventureland where the risks were real but not really life-threatening. Others, like the University of Utah archaeologist Byron Cummings, were led by American Indians to “discover” places such as Rainbow Bridge that the guides themselves already had long held sacred. (Harvey’s first chapter deals interestingly with how Rainbow Bridge was made into a Navajo space.)
Western writer Zane Grey features prominently in the book, his surprising sexual and mental abnormalities detailed, and his importance to the evolution of this region fully developed.
Monument Valley, Harvey tells us, had a history of filmmaking at least two decades before John Ford arrived to make “Stagecoach” in 1939. There was a silent movie called “The Vanishing American” (with cards for narrative and dialogue) and a number of Zane Grey Westerns, as well, that preceded it. But Ford is, as it were, the star here as four decades of his work in the area is thoroughly evaluated, all the way through “Cheyenne Autumn” released in 1964. Within a decade, Harvey writes, the Western genre was all but dead.
In 1913 use of the land of the Utah-Arizona border country was beginning to shift to tourism. That was when John Wetherill guided Zane Grey and later Theodore Roosevelt to Rainbow Bridge. He and wife Louisa had owned a trading post in Oljato, Utah, in the Monument Valley area, and in 1910 moved to Kayenta, Arizona. Louisa, a writer, guide and gifted amateur anthropologist/archaeologist, noted that first the prospectors, traders and settlers had arrived, “people who wrung a living from the earth or were dependent upon those who did,” followed by scientific explorers. Now this shrewd observer (who had of necessity learned to speak fluent Navajo) saw coming, she wrote, “the men who came to accept [the area] as their playground.”
Harvey covers the region’s environmental debacles too, outlining the lawsuits brought by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Navajo Nation and others during the 1970s, seeking, for their own varied reasons, to rid Rainbow Bridge of the waters backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam. “In contrast to . . . the preservationists, local Navajos saw Rainbow Bridge not simply as a beautiful natural phenomenon that inspired a spiritual attachment, but as a part of a whole in which spirituality was inseparable from those aspects of economic production that sustained them and their culture.” Harvey says the canyon country of the Utah-Arizona border “became the symbolic space of disappearing American nature.”
This is a book that will enthrall armchair and actual travelers; film buffs; those interested in history or American Indian studies; literature; environmentalism; and even tourism. It draws attention to how important Utah was to the formation of the mythical West of 20th-century American culture and of the Western book and movie — the dominant genre of much of the century.
It’s a selection of at least one Utah book club – and would be a good choice for others. There’s a lot of rich material here for thoughtful discussion on how this part of the West was won — or lost.
Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley is a 2011 Utah Book Award Finalist in the Nonfiction category. Winners of the award will be announced October 5.
Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley: Making the Modern Old West
Thomas J. Harvey
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
Now in paperback $19.95
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.