Road Trip, Unleashed — On Sacred Ground

Editor’s note: After 15 years without a vacation, Phyllis Cohen, along with her husband and two dogs, embarked on a road trip from Pennsylvania to the Grand Canyon and Utah. This is the final article of a four-part series. Read the first feature, “Hitting the Road After All These Years,” the second, “A Ruff Start” and the third, “Land of Enchantment.”


I was feeling pretty brave by the time we were en route to the Grand Canyon. After a week of embracing  new places every day, my road trip had become more of a mind trip.

We had a few hours to kill on the way to our hotel in Flagstaff, Ariz., and turned at the sign for the dog-friendly Petrified Forest. I expected a stretch of desert with fossilized driftwood scattered among the canyons, but once we penetrated the border of the park the scenery became quite dramatic. Eons of dust and wind had carved out spooky formations, later named Devil’s Playground and Blue Mesa. In spite of the strong sun, I pictured Roland’s journey through the Waste Lands in Stephen King’s Dark Tower. The wind whipped at us menacingly but lately I’d gained more confidence in my hiking abilities.

The next day we arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Both spectacular and surreal, it was humbling to see what tectonic forces and the angry Colorado River could shape over millions of years. It was hard to believe this place had once been a subtropical habitat. It’s a tourist-heavy attraction, but when I looked down at the jaw-dropping painted canyon it felt like no one was there but me. My husband and our dog Bhakti stepped out onto cliff edges farther than my own comfort zone would allow.


It was hard to leave the Grand Canyon but we had reservations that evening at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border. We approached the town of Kayenta just before sunset. Was it a trick of light that turned the desert sand to red? When soul-stirring red buttes appeared out of nowhere, jutting into the sky, I decided this must be what it looks like on Mars.

This is Navajo territory. The Tribal Park has a self-guided, unpaved loop that winds through Monument Valley and made us grateful that we were driving in a truck. The land was the backdrop for many John Ford Westerns and is what moviegoers recognize as the quintessential view of the American West.

There’s an old quote about visiting a sacred site and letting it tell you its secrets. That’s how I experienced those mysterious, ancient buttes. It’s an act of respect to tread quietly on Navajo land and not insinuate yourself. The valley seemed to broadcast a message to me to be still as I entered its history, its essence, for a brief moment in time.

We had time after lunch to explore the Natural Bridges in Utah, but nothing prepared me for the road that would take us there. Part of the Trail of the Ancients, formations like Mexican Hat begged us to drive farther. An innocuous sign suggested that towing an RV should be avoided.

I can only describe this three-mile, staggering switchback road, carved into the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa, as a thrill for the driver. As for the passenger, myself, it was torturous. The gravel road was constructed in the 1950s to haul ore, but I couldn’t open my eyes until a parking area offered a breathtaking view of the Valley of the Gods.

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  • Helen Graber October 21, 2016 at 8:13 am

    Love the new website! Thank you for the great articles and information