One thousand and sixty six miles to the west and 4,000 ft higher than where I am currently writing this lies an area of Utah desert known as the Valley of the Gods.
Last week David and I drove the rough gravel road that traverses this area of red rock, dust and wind from the east entrance from U.S. Route 163 seventeen miles to the west exit on Utah State Route 261.
We had a specific aim. To find the location used by the film crew of the long-running science fiction TV series, Doctor Who. The Valley of the Gods had been featured in the 2011 episode called Day Of The Moon in an opening scene where Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) is apparently gunned down.
We carried with us a hand-held global positioning unit with the coordinates preprogrammed from the Doctor Who Locations Guide website plus our own memories of how the scene played out on television.
After a two hour drive south from Moab, we found the entrance to the valley (aided by a route map picked up at the Visitor's Center in Blanding) and headed out into the desert. We got about 20 yards in before we stopped behind another car that was pausing in the center of the road. Reconsidering the journey perhaps? The car moved to let us pass, and we continued on to the first parking area and overlook. As I looked at the notice board, our automotive companion rejoined us and the driver left his car to chat. He was from Vienna, Austria, and was in love with the American southwest. I understood why. There is something utterly elemental about these wild landscapes. Nonetheless, the rough state of the road seemed to concern him and he wanted us to go ahead of him.
That was fine with us. We had the GPS unit out now and were tracking our approach to the Doctor Who location. Two miles to go.
Rising out of the desert these extraordinary weathered buttes dominated the landscape. Almost impossibly red, they seemed the antithesis of the warm green hills that formed the landscapes of my youth, yet seemed just as tranquil and compelling.
Onward we drove, dipping and rising and kicking up clouds of orange dust. We weren't the only things disturbing the dry desert soil. All over the expanse, I could see little tornadoes – dust devils, desert whirlwinds known as chiindii to the Navajo. To these native Americans, a clockwise rotation revealed a benign spirit, an anti-clockwise a malevolent ghost. I video-recorded one that subsequently rolled right over me – clockwise or anti, I'm not quite sure…
As the whirlwind moved over me, I heard a roaring sound and I felt a wind tug at my clothes, but this was a very gentle tornado. Perhaps it really was a good spirit after all.
Under a mile now. David and I were scanning the landscape for a recognizable landmark. We turned past Rooster Butte
and came to area dominated by a larger butte with a small gorge to the side of a parking area. This was it – even though the GPS indicated we were 0.3 miles off. But I recognized this clearing.
This was the spot where Canton Delaware raised his revolver and pointed it at Amy. The small pool of stones towards the center of circular lot was exactly as it was in the TV episode. We'd found it.
Here were the rocks where Amy halted just before nearly falling into the little gorge below – not a calamitous fall, although you would not know this from the show.
With this find David and I had completed our quest to visit all the Doctor Who locations filmed in the United States – earlier we'd been on the Glen Canyon Dam, in Monument Valley and on Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell (renamed Lake Silencio for plot reasons in the show). It was a satisfying moment.
Now it was time to explore the rest of this 17 mile track.
The road wound round, with alarming dips and rises that, unknown to us, were rapidly wearing out our back tires.
Well worth it, though. Eventually we reached Utah State Route 261 and here I decided to head north, figuring it would be an easy shortcut back to Moab.
A shortcut it was. Easy, no. After driving north about a mile, we came across the Moki Dugway, a hair-raising series of tight hairpin turns on a gravel road that rises 1,100 feet directly up out of the valley floor.
When we reached the top, I stopped the car and we gazed into the valley we had just left.
Below I could see the gravel road and some of the buttes, small and insignificant in this great panorama.
A journey to treasure.
And an excellent resource for exploring the southwest Frank and Anne's Canyon Country Notebook.
Another telling of this story at Cowbird here.