Change slowly comes to beautiful, remote Monument Valley

From her perch inside a rickety hut facing the Mittens, two glove-shaped sandstone buttes that define one of America's most iconic vistas, Louise Rock has an ideal vantage point from which to monitor the comings and goings in one of the world's most dramatic landscapes.

So, what's new, Louise?

"Hmm," she says, considering the question. "Well, there's a slab that fell off of East Mitten back in June of '08."

Change comes slowly to this rugged land of pinnacles, mesas and buttes. And that's only fitting, given that it took eons of wind, rain and other forces to carve the magnificent spires, alcoves and monoliths that have come to symbolize the untamed West.

But change has come to Monument Valley. And more is on the way.

Just beyond the hut where Rock and other local Navajos book tours into the heart of the valley, a new $14 million lodging, appropriately dubbed The View Hotel, rises from a sandstone bluff. The hotel is the first ever to be built inside the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, a vast 29,816-acre tract that remains home to a handful of Navajo families who maintain grazing rights here.

Next door to The View, workers are building a new visitors center and museum, set to open in October. It will provide much-needed interpretive information (a scant commodity at present for those who opt not to hire a guide), and a museum honoring World War II Navajo code talkers.

And a few miles west of the park's boundaries, the sale of the venerable Goulding's Lodge is underway. If the sale goes through, plans call for convention facilities, a spa and an upgrade to four-star accommodations, says longtime manager Ronnie Baird.

The Navajo people have been in Monument Valley since the late 15th or early 16th century. But Harry Goulding and his wife, Mike, were the first Anglo settlers in the region and were responsible for sparking the tourism boom that took off in the 1930s and hasn't let up since.

When the couple arrived in the early 1920s, they bought 640 acres for $320 with the aim of ranching and trading with the Indians. Then, in 1938, Harry Goulding got wind that director John Ford was scouting locations for a Western starring John Wayne. The couple drove to Hollywood and convinced Ford that Monument Valley would be the perfect backdrop.

The movie, Stagecoach, won the 1939 Oscar for cinematography, and Monument Valley was firmly cast as Western icon.

This burnished red land tinged with the pale green of yucca, juniper and blue sage is populated by sleeping dragons, giant elephants, rabbits, bears and other fanciful shapes divined from the sandstone monoliths.

Goulding and early trader John Wetherill, christened many of them, which may have added to the allure of the place. (Navajo nomenclature is generally more direct. Pointing to a towering rock formation dubbed the "totem pole," guide Harold Simpson quips "in Navajo, the name would translate, 'skinny rock standing upward.' ")

Not that Monument Valley required a hard sell, even at the beginning of the tourist era. After Stagecoach, visitors trickled in. Ford returned to film other Westerns, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, and more visitors followed. The Gouldings hadn't set out to be innkeepers, but by the 1940s, tourism had become more lucrative than ranching. And so they began offering tours and built an eight-room motel, which over the years expanded to 80 rooms, along with a restaurant, campground, grocery store, gas station and a number of homes.

The new View Hotel adds 95 rooms to an area that is frequently booked solid in summer. (As an alternative, many visitors overnight 25 miles away in the unremarkable coal mining town of Kayenta.) The hotel's dramatic two-story lobby, dominated by a circular stone fireplace in the center, is decorated with Navajo weavings, Hopi kachina figures and Western bronzes.

But the true visual fireworks come via the floor-to-ceiling windows that take in broad views of the red rock monoliths. Guestrooms are spacious, with balconies overlooking the valley, flat-screen TVs, microwaves, refrigerators and more native art. Public balconies for taking in the sunset are on the west-facing side, and terraced patios outside the restaurant offer a front-row seat for watching the light play off the sandstone buttes at any time.

The hotel, built under a lease agreement with the Navajo tribe, is owned by Armanda Ortega, the 25-year-old granddaughter of Armand Ortega, whose rubber-tomahawk and turquoise-jewelry tourist emporiums are a fixture along stretches of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico.

"I understand Navajo culture," says Ortega, whose mother is a tribe member. "I understand that a (Navajo) employee may have to leave to attend a ceremony."

But not everyone in these parts is happy about the new hotel. Linda Jackson Rodriguez, one of 70 or so Navajos who live within the park's boundaries, passes The View each time she enters or exits the valley on the rutted dirt road that leads to her home, but she's never stepped foot inside. Nor has her daughter, Laticia, a university student home for the summer.

"A lot of people come here for the spirituality and tranquility of the place. Not because it's another Sedona," she says, referring to the New Age-y resort town north of Phoenix.

The Rodriguez women are members of the tribe's Folding Arms Clan and one of 17 families that maintain ancestral land rights within the parts of Monument Valley that were designated a tribal park in 1958. They have no electricity (save for a little they generate from solar panels), no running water (which they haul in in 55-gallon drums), and Rodriguez says she's not allowed to make improvements to the clapboard structure.

"It's unfair for residents here who want the luxury of running water or to be able to flip a switch and get light," says Rodriguez, a sentiment that burns more deeply since the construction of the hotel only a few miles away.

Still, their land is in a particularly lucrative spot overlooking John Ford's Point, a scenic rock outcrop named for the director, and a highlight on the 17-mile loop drive that is open to independent visitors. It's also a standard stop for the 12 or so tour companies licensed to operate in the park.

Extended family members sell handmade jewelry, beaded peace pipes and rawhide rattles laid out on folding tables under shade ramadas. And her father, Frank Jackson, 75, has made a living for 40 years, riding out to Ford's Point on his horse and posing for vanloads of camera-wielding tourists. Resplendent in blazing red pearl-buttoned Western shirt and turquoise jewelry — bola tie, fat rings and a bracelet with a stone the size of an orange, he indulges tourists who try on his straw hat and pose on horseback.

Visitors who opt for a guided tour get off-road into more remote regions of the park. One popular stop is at the home of Susie Yazzie, a nonagenarian weaver who demonstrates her craft out of a mud hogan, the traditional round Navajo dwelling. She wears the long velvet skirt and full satiny blouse favored by older Navajo women. Her long, elegant fingers deftly card and spin the wool, as a guide explains the process. Like Frank Jackson, Yazzie speaks no English.

A Scottish tourist muses that Yazzie must be very lonely here, not speaking English and all.

"You speak a foreign language," counters the guide Simpson, who like many Navajos use their native language with other Navajos.

Simpson hears a lot of naive questions. "Do you guys still sleep in teepees?" "When do we go see the chief?" "How many wives do you have?"

He doesn't take offense. After all, this place is exotic. And amazing. And timeless. Even to someone like Simpson, who played as a child in the shadow of these monoliths.

"These rocks are 25 million years old on the surface," he says. "My life is just a pinpoint on a very long timeline."