MONUMENT VALLEY, San Juan County —
Hollywood's love affair with this landscape of stunning sandstone monuments that many call Mother Nature's finest work will continue this summer with the release of Disney's "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp, shot on location here last year.
"The Lone Ranger" is the latest in a long line of Westerns made in Monument Valley. They've filmed so many of them they're now doing remakes. (The first "Lone Ranger" movie was shot in 1956).
But if Hollywood wanted to do something original, it need look no further than the love story that brought the movies to Monument Valley in the first place.
Search the annals of Utah history and you'll find no finer romance than the one between Harry and Mike Goulding.
And nope, it's not what you think.
He was a 26-year-old cowboy working as a sheep inspector for the federal government. She was a pretty girl named Leone from Durango, Colo.
They met in 1921 not long after Harry returned from Europe fighting in World War I. His new job took him and his horse across the wide expanse of open spaces in the Four Corners region. While he was away, he would write his girl letters from his campsite. The problem was he didn't know how to spell Leone. But he could spell Mike, so that's what he took to calling her.
They were married 12 days after she turned 18, on Feb. 19, 1923, in Gallup, N.M. Harry kept talking to Mike about this place he'd seen on one of his rides, an indescribable area filled with dramatic buttes that rose abruptly hundreds of feet off the desert floor. If they could start a sheep ranch and trading post there, it would be like heaven. But they couldn't, because the land was part of the Paiute Indian Reservation and not for sale.
Then, as fate would have it, that very year the state of Utah swapped the Paiutes better farmland farther north, and a few parcels from the old Paiute Strip were put up for public sale. For $320, Harry bought 640 acres, one square mile, on the southern tip of Utah, just across the Arizona border and the vast Navajo Nation.
One hundred and eighty miles from the nearest railroad station, the newlyweds pitched a tent and started their ranch and trading post. Their only neighbors were the Navajos. The couple learned their language, solicited their business, became friends. When the Navajo Nation was expanded north across the Utah border to include the old Paiute Strip in 1932, the only exception was Goulding's square mile — a sovereign empire surrounded by another sovereign empire.
Not everyone could live in such a situation, let alone thrive, but by all accounts the Gouldings did both. This handsome young couple (pictures of them conjure up images of contemporary movie stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed) got along famously, with each other and with everyone around them.
Then came the double Ds: drought and the Depression. A year devoid of rain in 1934 was followed by another in 1936, this in the midst of the Great Depression that dropped the prices of lamb and wool through the basement.
In desperation, Harry and Mike got in their car in the summer of 1938 and drove to Hollywood. On the backseat was a binder of 8-by-10 photographs of Monument Valley taken by their friend, professional photographer Josef Muench.
Harry's scheme was to find the office of noted director John Ford, show him the pictures, and talk him into filming his next Western in Monument Valley.
As the story goes, Harry walked into the United Artists studios with the photos and his bedroll. When the receptionist, appropriately appalled, told him he certainly could not see Mr. Ford without an appointment, Harry said, fine, he'd wait, and rolled out the bedroll.
Security was summoned, but before they arrived, the location manager for Ford's new movie "Stagecoach" happened to walk through the office.
"Where exactly is this?" he asked, noticing the photos Harry had propped up on the couch, and the next thing Harry Goulding knew, he was making his pitch to Mr. Ford.
Within weeks, the entire cast and crew of "Stagecoach," more than 100 people, found themselves living in a tent city outside the Gouldings' front door. Ford stayed in the Gouldings' spare room. John Wayne, the film's star, slept in a tent.
Hundreds of Navajos were recruited as extras, getting $5 a day (and $8 on horseback). The resident medicine man, who proved uncanny at forecasting the weather, was hired as the official weatherman.
Released to wide acclaim in 1939, "Stagecoach" made John Wayne and Monument Valley cinema superstars.
The movies transformed the Gouldings' homestead. More and more film companies arrived, providing more and more jobs, and more and more tourists arrived, boosting the economy while turning Goulding's into a lodge as well as a ranch and trading post.
In 1962, when Harry turned 65 and retired, he and Mike gifted their Monument Valley homestead to Knox College in Illinois (the president was a World War I buddy of Harry's) and moved to Page, Ariz., where they lived until Harry died in 1981. As for Mike, at the kind invitation of the LaFont family, who bought Goulding's from the college in 1981, she returned to Monument Valley in 1987 and lived there again until her death in 1992 — to her dying breath she lauded the magnificent land and the magnificent man she got to share it with.
Last month, I visited Goulding's. I was several months too late to see Johnny Depp or anyone involved with the filming of "The Lone Ranger."
They told me I'll have to wait to see the movie when it's released around the Fourth of July this summer, although I could watch "Stagecoach" or "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" or any of the other John Ford movies shot in Monument Valley that play continuously in the little movie house next to the dining room.
Goulding's is where it always was, only bigger. The lodge now has 82 units, counting suites, and is in such demand in the high season (April-October) that you'd better make a reservation. "The Lone Ranger" crew made that mistake and had to commute from Kayenta and Flagstaff in Arizona.
So it's all changed since 1923, but then again it hasn't. I woke at sunrise and opened the curtains in my room and was greeted by the same stunning sandstone monuments Harry and Mike saw every morning.
Their old house and trading post, by the way, is a museum now, carefully reconstructed. Walk through it and it's like Harry and Mike never left. Out front there's a marker to them both, erected in 1992 shortly after Mike died.
The latest monument in a valley that's full of them.
Email: [email protected]