This May, my boyfriend got a new Mini Cooper S. After breaking it in for 2 months driving around Philadelphia, he and I packed it up and set out on a 6-week cross-country road trip. Although the trip offered a ton of great back-roads moments, the one that’s most worth sharing happened when we were visiting Monument Valley. We drove through the area on the highway, and then pulled into the visitors’ center to get a closer look. When we stopped at the booth to pay the $10 entrance fee, the Navajo woman in the booth looked the Mini up and down and paused before handing us the information sheet and road map. The park includes a 17-mile dirt road that takes you in among the massive red rock formations populating Monument Valley. The drive is supposed to take about 2 hours, since the road conditions aren’t great and the speed limit is 15 mph for the entire length of the road.
We took the map and told the woman in the booth that we were undecided about whether we’d take the whole drive. The woman looked down at the car again, and said, “you know, I’m not sure you should try it in that.” My boyfriend (perceiving her comment as a challenge) asked, "why not?” The woman leaned down and said “look, if you really want to do it, just be careful. Make sure you go slow – in a car that low, you shouldn't even be going 15 mph out there.” We thanked her for the tip and drove on to the parking area.
We hadn’t been planning on spending 2 hours driving around there (we were on our way to the Grand Canyon's North Rim), so I was ready to just take pictures from the viewing areas at the visitors’ center and then head to our next destination. But the woman’s comments had piqued my boyfriend's interest, so he convinced me to at least try the first half mile of the scenic loop. As we approached the start of the drive, we noticed that the cars coming back the other way were all huge SUVs or trucks, and all of them were completely coated in a thick layer of red dust. We also saw some people riding in an official tour truck, driven by a Navajo guide. When the tourists got out of the truck, they appeared to be dazed and out of breath.
But we forged ahead. Just before we got going on the dreaded dirt road, my boyfriend made eye contact with the driver of a truck that was coming off the road. The driver shrugged his shoulders and waved his hand back and forth at me, as if to warn us and say “I don’t know about that….” Within 10 seconds of getting on the dirt road, we could see why the woman at the booth and the other driver were concerned. This wasn’t just a normal unpaved road. It was a red dirt path that had obviously seen decades of use without any maintenance. As a result, it was basically blanketed with potholes. Actually, “potholes” doesn’t really describe these things – they were huge, and they were deep, and the Mini could have easily gotten stuck in one if we hit it head on.
The other problem with the road that we hadn’t anticipated was that the first quarter mile or so was a relatively steep and curving downhill stretch, and to exit the touring loop – no matter how far we went on it – we’d have to come back up that same steep stretch. My boyfriend managed to navigate a course down the hill that avoided most of the largest holes in the road, but it wasn’t easy, and it was slow going. The first spot we came to where there was room to pull to the side, we stopped. We took pictures of the Mini being dwarfed by the giant red monoliths, and then we decided to try getting out of there.
I wasn’t confident that we’d make it back up the hill. I hadn’t seen another small or mid-sized car come down the road in either direction, and even the SUVs were driving extra cautiously, sometimes spinning their tires. My boyfriend was confident, though. He knew that the Mini had a feature called "Sport mode" that gave us some extra "juice" and better "steering response" (I think those are the terms he used -- I'm no car expert…). With that, he was able to steer us back up to civilization, and the Mini escaped unscathed. Except for a hefty coating of red dust. A Navajo guard standing at the exit to the path seemed to be staring at the Mini in disbelief when we emerged at the top of the hill. When we got back to the parking lot, we pulled in alongside a string of 3 SUVs, all of which were coated in red dust too, like a road tripper's badge of honor. When we got out of the Mini and looked at it next to the other larger cars, my boyfriend was so proud that he snapped a picture of the line of cars with the Mini parked at the end.
Unfortunately, our digital camera’s memory card freaked out and our pictures from that leg of our journey got destroyed. We lost pictures of the Grand Canyon, Four Corners, and the Valley of the Gods too, but the most devastating loss was the hard-earned pictures of the Mini in Monument Valley.