In the morning, we dip below Skull Creek Rim and attempt to cross Monument Valley, a scaled-down version of the famed Navajo park on the Utah/Arizona border. “It’s a longer route, but there’s a lot more to look at,” says Molvar. If we get through.
“We’re cliffed-out,” Molvar calls out while peering over the ledge of a 100-foot-drop. From our perch, the landscape looks like a cross-section of an anthill. A byzantine tangle of slot canyons blocks our route. They are too deep and narrow to see bottom. We would likely wander for hours trying to find an unobstructed passage. Nevertheless, it’s a stunning spot for a water break and a view well worth the extra quarter-mile backtrack.
It’s getting late, and Camp Three is still at least fours hours away. To make up time, we plot a wide berth around Monument Valley and beeline across four miles of undulating sand dunes. “These are called stationary dunes,” explains Molvar. “There is just enough vegetation on them to keep them in one place.” This is good news for us because we’re trudging directly into a searing 30-mph headwind. A harem of wild horses trots to the top of a nearby dune and stops to stare at us. The extreme aridity desiccates my lungs, and after 30 minutes it reduces my voice to a whisper. We scrunch beneath a narrow ledge to rest in the shade before continuing onward.
Molvar is pleased when we reach Camp Three. It lies in a natural amphitheater protected from the howling wind. It’s harsh country, to be sure. But like the greatest wilderness areas, the Red Desert offers rewards commensurate with the effort. And I hope it always will.