MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah - I thought I knew Monument Valley. I'd seen the westerns John Ford shot here, as well as the Isuzu car commercials. I'd read the books and devoured the documentaries. I knew that John Wayne had referred to this remote region of Navajo country as the place "where God put the west."

So what would be the purpose of coming here?

What if, like many major stars, it was less impressive in person than on the big screen?

What if I wished I'd stayed home?

The man behind my dilemma was, of course, Ford. He shot seven movies here, and the shadow they cast is long and persuasive.

The argument could be made that from 1939's Stagecoach through Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, those magnificent seven (My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge are the others) created the 20th century's image of the heroic, romantic west, showing us what it ought to look like, though it so rarely does.

To see Ford's Monument Valley westerns is to see scenery - what one guide vividly describes as "great mesas, buttes, sandstone pinnacles, spires, fins and arches, all monuments to 500 million years of giant earth uplifts and the perpetual forces of erosion" - raised to the level of iconography.

Not only are these cinematic landscapes magical in and of themselves, but they also simultaneously dwarf and exalt the men who occupy them. They raise the actors who inhabit this space - Wayne is the most notable - to heroic status simply for being as casually at home in this matchless terrain as the Greek gods were on Mount Olympus.

Go to Monument Valley? Hadn't I already been here?

No, as it turned out, I had not.

Monument Valley surprised me not once but two times over. Like the canals of Venice or the Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, it is a place that insists on being seen in the round to truly be appreciated.

I soon remembered one reason I had stayed away so long. Whether you fly into Phoenix or Albuquerque, Monument Valley is a six-hour drive away.

Those distances define one of the paradoxes of Monument Valley. Despite its pedigree and its knockout beauty, it gets relatively few tourists: 500,000 a year, compared with 5 million for nearby Grand Canyon. And most of those who come are from overseas. Top honors go to German tourists, followed in numerical order by French, Japanese and Italian before Americans appear on the visitor list.

If you want a hotel room in Monument Valley, there is only one place to stay: Goulding's Lodge, a low-slung, 62-room establishment nestled at the foot of the massive Big Rock Door Mesa.

Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, arrived in the valley in 1923. The land then belonged to the Paiutes, not the Navajo, and when it became available for homesteading in 1928, the Gouldings bought 640 acres for $320 and built a trading post with living quarters on the second floor.

Like many Hollywood tales, there are several versions of what happened next.

The official one, which might even be true, has Goulding, hurt by the Depression and hearing that Ford was looking to shoot a western on location, going to Los Angeles. Armed with a book of professionally shot photographs, he was determined to get Ford to work in the valley, which had been the site of a 1925 silent called The Vanishing American.

Goulding may or may not have laid out his bedroll in the production offices and threatened to wait as long as necessary for a meeting, but Ford was persuaded to shoot Stagecoach here. He considered it "the most beautiful place on Earth" and visited the valley so often that he eventually acquired the Navajo name of Natani Nez (Tall Leader).

Although Ford's cast and crew members and the Gouldings are long gone (brothers Gerald and Roland LaFont own the establishment now), the lodge and each room, complete with small balcony and orange plastic chairs to complement the red sandstone mesa, continue to offer the spectacular views that attracted Hollywood.

In 1954, Time magazine called Goulding's and its eight rooms "one of the eight most luxurious hotels in the world." The lodge is bigger now; in fact, it's a mini-city warmly dedicated to the worship of the cinematic west. The front desk rents John Ford DVDs; a small theater shows one every night. The bookstore offers a range of wares: Pendleton blankets, Tony Hillerman novels, even a Navajo dictionary. The Stagecoach restaurant serves "hearty meals just like the Duke loved," including various cuts of steak and ample portions of Navajo fry bread.

The highlight of a visit to Goulding's is the original trading post, which looks as it did in Fort Apache in 1948. Now a museum, it features memorabilia, the swinging saloon doors from My Darling Clementine, and pages from Goulding's celebrated guest book, in which Wayne wrote in 1945, "Harry, you and I both owe these monuments a lot."

As fascinating as Goulding's and the museum are, they are not enough, so my wife, Patty, and I drove a few miles into Arizona to the visitors center of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

The center, which charges a $5-per-vehicle entrance fee, includes a museum of Navajo accomplishments, a store with a fine selection of Navajo jewelry and rugs, and the View, a small restaurant that couldn't be more appropriately named.

The buttes and mesas of the valley, imposing yet delicate and romantic, are always ready for their close-up, and several companies offer tours. Since we were staying at Goulding's, we booked one of the half-day tours. Twenty people filled up what looked like a converted school bus placed on the bed of a pickup truck and headed for a closer look at monuments named Mitchell, Merrick, the Mittens, Grey Whiskers, King on His Throne, John Wayne's Boot.

Because the valley is on reservation land, all tours are guided by Navajos. Tour buses are the only vehicles allowed to explore the valley's back country, stopping at natural arches and ancient Anasazi petroglyphs and offering glimpses - including an incongruous basketball hoop - of places where people make their homes.

All tours stop at John Ford Point, the director's favorite camera location, where numerous cavalry charges and Indian attacks were committed to film.

The next day, we decided to see the area from another angle - riding in a Jeep Wrangler. This customized tour cost $185, but it offered the chance to go places we couldn't otherwise reach.

We cast our lot with Sacred Monument Tours, and our guide, David Lee Clark ("a good Indian name," he joked), suggested a drive around Mystery Valley. The area just south of Monument Valley was a revelation - a completely different world just next door.

We saw rock formations that looked uncannily like flying saucers and Mystery Valley's most celebrated attraction, its Anasazi ruins. We drove back to Monument Valley across a seemingly trackless landscape in the growing twilight, the sun setting gorgeously behind the buttes.

"When I was growing up, the sun came up, the sun went down; I never noticed," Clark said as a group of horses materialized like magic and then disappeared. "When I started doing tours, I started noticing."

I knew just what he meant.

Visiting Monument Valley

US Airways flies nonstop to Phoenix from Philadelphia International Airport. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $390.

From Phoenix, drive about 300 miles to Monument Valley on U.S. 160 and 163.

Places to stay

Goulding's Lodge

1000 Main St.

Monument Valley, Utah

435-727-3231

Doubles from $73 to $175.

Valley of the Gods B&B

Valley of the Gods Road

Mexican Hat, Utah

970-749-1164

Stone house with 75-foot porch, exquisite views. A double with breakfast is $135.

Desert Rose Inn

701 West Highway 191

Bluff, Utah

435-672-2303

Doubles from $69 to $109.

Places to eat

Cow Canyon Restaurant

163 Mission Rd.

Bluff, Utah

435-672-2208

Open April 1 to Nov. 1. Entrees, $12 to $18.

Twin Rocks Cafe

913 E. Navajo Twins Dr.,

Bluff, Utah

435-672-2341

Dinner entrees $8 to $17.

For information

Navajo Parks and Recreation Department

Building 36A,

East Highway 264

at Route 12

Window Rock, Ariz. 86515

- Gregory McNamee

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