Krazy Theme Park

Posted by on April 30th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

George Herriman is not likely to turn over in his grave, but if he could, given the provocation, he probably would. The parched and sublime precincts of his beloved Monument Valley with its picturesque pinnacles and towering cathedrals of raw red rock have been invaded by a $14 million, 95-room, ultra-modern hotel. Monument Valley is a landscape like no other, a hauntingly desolate desert the pervading flatness of which is punctuated by giant outcroppings of red sandstone carved by wind and rain into silent hulks and spires, other worldly sentinels on a lunar plain, stranded there in the middle of nowhere for eons until John Ford discovered the Valley in 1938 and turned it into an iconic setting for movies like Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon thereby giving the airy mythology of the Old West a habitation and a name.

Others had been there before Ford. The Navajos lived on these arid sands for centuries, quietly herding sheep and weaving rugs from the wool. In the late 19th century, the Wetherill brothers established a trading post in the coal-mining town of Kayenta, about 30 miles south of the Valley, and in 1923 or thereabouts, Harry Goulding and his wife Mike (Louise) bought 640 acres of desert for $230, intending to ranch and trade with the Navajos. Later, hearing that a Hollywood director was scouting locations for a Western motion picture starring John Wayne, the Gouldings drove to Los Angeles and convinced Ford that Monument Valley would be the ideal backdrop his movie. Ford’s movies showcased the stunning vistas of the Valley and attracted attention, and before long, some tourists were brave enough to trek across the desert’s rocky roads to see the sandstone splendors in person. Tourism became more lucrative than ranching, and in the 1940s, the Gouldings responded by building an eight-room motel, just a few miles outside the Valley along U.S. highway 163. Later, they expanded it to 80 rooms, plus a restaurant, campground, grocery store, gas station and a number of private homes.

In 1958, Monument Valley was designated a Navajo Tribal Park, formalizing its 30,000 acres within the reservation of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona and southern Utah and assuring its continued existence as a scenic wonder rather than an amusement park, which is doubtless what it would have become. (And may yet.)  I drove through the Valley for the third time almost 40 years ago, taking my new wife on her first foray through the baked and nearly barren Southwest. The gravel road from Gouldings to the Valley’s visitor center shot through the desert straight as a spear, but it was a bone-rattling washboard all the way and shook the car violently at any speed over about 15 mph, so we drove slowly.

The visitor center, a humble adobe building perched on a bluff overlooking the Valley, wasn’t very extensive, but we learned there that if we wanted to photograph any of the Navajos who sit along the road selling jewelry and rugs, we should offer to pay them for the impertinence. Seemed sensible to me. One of the natives, Frank Jackson, age 70 last summer, has made a living posing for tourists for 40 years: astride his horse and wearing a blazing red pearl-buttoned Western shirt and turquoise jewelry, he provides local color for vanloads of camera-pointing tourists. Foolishly perhaps, I thought that making photographers’ models of the Navajos was insulting and so I took no pictures of them, paid no pittance for the privilege.

The road through the Valley is dirt, not gravel — or, rather, sand, red sand, parallel tire tracks more than a road. Virtually a one-way beaten path, it begins down a steep incline behind the visitor center and then winds among the yucca, juniper and sage, passing by drifts of sand and lofty redstone obelisks and the other towering rocky sculptural monuments for 17 miles in a circular route, returning, eventually, to the visitor center on the bluff. No sound shatters the desert hush; an ageless lucid stillness fosters a spiritual sense of appreciation and, even, awe.

I’ve been to Monument Valley three times; Herriman, many more. When he first went there, we don’t know, but it may have been at the instigation of fellow cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton. Like Herriman, Swinnerton was a Hearst cartoonist; like Herriman, he was treasured by William R. Hearst. “Swin” started cartooning for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner in 1892 and followed Hearst to the New York Morning Journal in 1899. Like most newspaper cartoonists of the age, he produced a daily assortment of comic strips and cartoon panels, among them, starting in 1904, a strip about a little kid named Jimmy who couldn’t do anything right, a failing he unfailingly revealed anytime he was sent out of the house on an errand.

In 1906, Swin was diagnosed with tuberculosis; Hearst, anxious to save one of his star cartoonists, sent Swinnerton to Colton, Calif., a haven for TB sufferers, in the hope that Swin would recover in the dry climate. And he did: In one of the profession’s legendary performances, Swin lived another 68 years, most of them in the dehydrated stretches of Southern California and Arizona, making only occasional business trips to San Francisco and New York.

In the course of his recuperation, Swinnerton took up painting and traveled around the Southwest capturing its majestic panoramas on canvass. He lived for a time in the Grandview Hotel, then a Hearst property on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and from there, he made numerous sketching trips, camping out wherever in the deserts he foraged for a view. He met John Wetherill and went into Monument Valley with him. Swin often organized painting safaris into Arizona for his cartooning and painting friends. On one such, in August 1922, George Herriman and Rudolph Dirks were in the party. They followed a route familiar to Swinnerton: first to Flagstaff, then to Kayenta and Monument Valley.

But Dirks and Herriman had been to Monument Valley long before that 1922 summer. In his book about Herriman and Krazy Kat, cartoonist Patrick McDonnell speculates that Herriman may have been prompted to visit the Valley by a 1913 article Theodore Roosevelt had written about his trip there. But McDonnell found reference to Coconino County in Herriman’s strip as early as 1911, when Krazy Kat was still in its formative first years. (The Kat appeared as part of The Family Upstairs in 1910, getting stand-alone status in 1913.) But the first appearance in the strip of a recognizable butte from Monument Valley was on a weekend page in the fall of 1916, the first year of Krazy Kat “Sunday” strips. (Krazy Kat in Sunday format was initially dated for Saturday publication, and the strip wasn’t published in color until June 1, 1935.) On September 17, 1916, we see in the distance of the opening panel the “Enchanted Mesa where Joe Stork lives,” as rocky a rampart as any in the Navajos’ enchanted Valley.


With the looming evidence of the Enchanted Mesa before us, it’s clear that Herriman had, by the summer of 1916, been to Monument Valley.

The landscape that served as background for Krazy’s antics had always been whimsical. Much of the time, it was barren, a flat horizon line with, occasionally, a single tree, sprouting in solitary splendor like a giant asparagus or a celery stalk crowned with just a sprig of foliage. But the Enchanted Mesa introduced a new element of background hilarity. The horizon was still distant, and flat, but it was now subjected to regular eruptions of buttes and mesas and other soaring rock piles imported directly from Monument Valley.

Herriman and his wife and daughters went to Monument Valley every summer for at least 20 years. They stayed with the Wetherills at “the ranch of serenity” in Kayenta, and Betty Zane Rodgers, the Wetherills’ adopted daughter, remembered their visits for McDonnell: “His stay was to escape from his routine in the city, and he visited, relaxed, and did a little work when he felt like it. … He rarely talked of his work. … George was concerned about the Navajo people and listened while my mother, Mama Lu, talked of the Navajo. He often went to the ceremonials with my folks.” Mike Goulding also remembered Herriman’s visits: “We met George Herriman in Kayenta. He always stayed with Mr. John [Wetherill] and was very interested in the Navajo people and wanted them to know some of the things we did out in the world, so he sent in the first movies they had ever seen. Once a week at the old sanitarium we could all gather and see Tom Mix or some kind of movie. Great fun — the Navajos always laughed at the sad scenes!”

Images of Navajo culture appear in Krazy Kat as often as the taciturn sandstone pinnacles. Said McDonnell: “He made use of their designs and motifs, which may appear on a piece of pottery, as elaborations on the border of a strip, as the ornamental trim on a house, as the decorations on the mesas and the foliage of the trees, and also as the overall design of a Sunday page.” But it was the ephemeral topography that imparted to Krazy’s world its distinctive aura.

Some have called Krazy’s environment surrealistic; the poet e.e. cummings said it was “a strictly irrational landscape”; Italian author Umberto Eco spoke of its “improbable lunar landscape.” But they are wrong: Krazy lives in Monument Valley. Herriman imported into the strip fairly accurate representations of the rocky outcroppings of the Navajos’ fabled Valley. In the strip, the landscape changes behind Krazy from panel to panel, imparting to the proceedings a dream-like ambiance. The changes — and the dreamscape — are Monument Valley, as McDonnell observes: “The perpetual metamorphosis of Herriman’s settings can, in part, be attributed to the changing light playing over the huge rock formations. These ‘sculptures,’ though unchanged for millennia, appear to alter in color and shape with each blink of the eye as they pick up every gradation of the rays of the sun, passing across the heavens from dawn to dusk.”

Krazy doesn’t seem to notice the changes taking place behind his back. He behaves as if it’s normal. But the landscape, his world, is as quirky as Krazy: It is as much a part of him as he is of it. Together, they are one — one vision of life. The topography of Monument Valley as depicted in the strip emphasizes the universality of Krazy Kat’s vision: We see in it our common bond, the community of a baffled humankind, united in the oddities of custom and language as perplexing as the ever altering landscape where we wait for and rejoice in any sign of love. In this setting, even a thrown brick will do to justify our faith in each other.

When Herriman visited the Valley, he didn’t make paintings of the enchanted mesas before him, McDonnell says; he just looked. And I think I know what he saw. He saw in the stark and burnished red sandstone monuments on their unrelievedly flat plain a mystery, a majesty and a miracle, what John Muir often saw in vistas before him: “The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere … Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls. … Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence; you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature. … Here you may learn that the miracle occurs for everybody doing anything worth doing, seeing anything worth seeing. One day is as a thousand years, a thousand years as one day, and while yet in the flesh, you enjoy immortality.”

Herriman was somewhat less metaphysical, writing: “That’s the country I love and that’s the way I see it. I can’t understand why no other artists ever use it. … I don’t think Krazy’s readers care anything about that part of the strip. But it’s very important to me and I like it nearly as well as the characters themselves.”

It seems to me that a person must be alone in nature in order to feel a sense of oneness with all life and eternity, in order to lose consciousness of your own separate existence and blend with the landscape. The new hotel in the Valley threatens the otherwise pervading sense of solitude. The hotel, while not an eyesore by any means — it was designed to meld with the natural geology—is an intruder and a harbinger of future change. Goulding’s Lodge was sold last summer, the new owner planning convention facilities, a spa and an upgrade to four-star accommodations. And work was under way to build a new visitor center with an interpretive adjunct and a museum honoring World War II Navajo code talkers — scheduled to open in October 2009.

The new hotel, named, with unintended ominousness, The View, infringes upon the essential solitary serenity of the Valley’s desert mythos. Is it possible to blend with the landscape while viewing it through a ceiling-to-floor glass window from an air-conditioned room? You are an observer in that ritual, not a part of the thing observed.

Linda Jackson Rodriquez, one of the 70 or so Navajos who live within the Valley’s boundaries, passes the hotel frequently but has never set foot inside it. “A lot of people come here for the spirituality and tranquility of the place,” she says. “Not because it’s another Sedona.”

But another Sedona, a New Age-y resort town north of Phoenix, is exactly what seems, now, inevitable. I’m sure Herriman won’t turn over in his grave. He probably would if he could, but he can’t. In accordance with his wishes, when he died in 1944, he was cremated and his ashes scattered over the sands of Monument Valley.

All landscape paintings by James Swinnerton.

All cartoons by George Herriman.

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One Response to “Krazy Theme Park”

  1. Caro says:

    This is a marvelous, delightful piece; thank you for writing it.

    I Googled for pictures of the Goulding’s lodge and it’s charming. It blends right into the environment, so we pay attention to the beauty of the natural surroundings instead of the hotel. The new development sounds awful.