The Changeable Earth

An essay from the December 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Derek von Briesen

The Changeable Earth

I was alone the first time I went to Monument Valley. Nearly two years ago. Late April. The day was warm, but the night cooled the way night does when the desert remembers winter.

I’d been teaching at the high school in Tuba City, made the drive to the tribal park, spent the night, returned to Tuba City the next afternoon. After class, I went back to Phoenix.

It was one of those hasty, ill-planned trips that make a person’s head hurt a little and a heart want to be wherever it isn’t.

Still, when I set up my tent and watched the light wilt and die over the valley, behind those famous Mittens, I knew I was sitting in a postcard, in a photograph someone made a long time ago.


I’ve spoken recently to people who have had some sort of spiritual experience on tribal lands. One friend kept catching a whiff of pipe smoke on the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s land while he was fishing with his friend. There was no one else around for miles, but he sensed a man. A ghost. Someone somewhere. In reality, he probably just smelled some blooming tree, but he felt something moving from the spirit world.

For me, the movement comes in shadows.

Behind me on a trail to the Colorado River.

Ahead of me in places like Canyon de Chelly and the Chiricahuas.

In Monument Valley, I slept a sleep so deep I dreamed the first world of the Navajo creation legend. It came in colors like my daughter’s drawings. Four clouds — black, yellow, blue, white — moving into a world that was black as black wool. There were figures in the dream. Animals, too. If I think about it now, I don’t know why they haunted me, but I remember waking to nearly total darkness.

But then my eyes started to focus on the stars as they transitioned to the gray of pre-dawn. I lingered for a while, watching the sky change from gray to blue to pink to orange, then fade into the cream of early morning.

The sandstone warmed, and yellow light consumed the valley. The birds appeared. I drank coffee and watched them dart into and out of the scrub, as energized as I was from a night in the great dark.

Broke camp. Drove the long loop around the valley. Three Sisters. John Ford Point. Elephant Butte. Totem Pole. All of the landmarks made famous by those postcards and photographs and movies.

Every now and then, a dog would mosey across the road, casual as a cat around a corner. Stretch, yawn and mosey again. I’d catch myself laughing alone in the car and thought how strange it was to be in a place like Monument Valley without someone to talk to about the beauty of it all.

Now, I can look at it as sort of a lovely loneliness. Then, it felt emptier. Sadder, somehow. But by the time I was ready to go, the world was turquoise.


Months ago, Monument Valley again — this time during the summer season. The day was warm, and although the night cooled, the desert had long forgotten winter.

The valley was the first stop on our family road trip to Colorado. We spent the night in one of the cabins, my children bickering over who would sleep in the top bunk. Come sunset, my son and I lingered at the View while my partner, Christian, took my daughter to make photographs.

The world was the color of a hybrid rose I saw in a garden back home. I remember because I could nearly taste the fragrance of its orange-pink petals. Louis Armstrong played from a phone as I touched its stem, and everything was sensory and alive and beautiful.

Monument Valley is that way, too.

After dark, the children slept, and we sat on the deck and watched the stars wake up. When there were too many to count, Christian went to try to capture their trails with his camera, and I watched a few of them shoot and fall across the sky.

Come morning, we were driving again, back on the loop that felt so long before. I had missed the darkness before dawn. The night as black as black wool. Instead, the turquoise sky swallowed that valley again, and we spoke out loud the awe of the place.

Four spirits in the fifth world.