Wild West

Monument Valley From the Eyes of a Krazy Kat and John Ford Fan

John Ford and George Herriman were both changed by the Western landscape, writes Malcolm Jones.

Monument Valley is hard to reach. Sprawling across southern Utah and northern Arizona a little west of the Four Corners, it requires that you go up and then down or down and then double back. No matter what your point of origin, there is no straightforward route, and it is not really on the way to anything else. A mere 600,000 tourists visit every year. Compare that figure with the number of people who go to Yellowstone (3.4 million in 2011) or Yosemite (3.9 million in 2011) or the Grand Canyon (4.2 million in 2011), which is only 244 miles away, and you can see that Monument Valley visitors are a hardy few.

We approached it from the northeast, on roads that cut like yardsticks through a flat, sere geography of blond rock, scrub, and sand broken up only by the occasional gas station/diner/general store. Every mile looked like the mile before. Then, bit by bit, the ruler-straight angles of the high desert began crumpling into turns that divided and subdivided, forking and modifying their original trajectory like elaborately diagrammed sentences. And if the view through the windshield was wild, the view out the side windows was wilder yet, dramatic enough to prompt the question: are we there yet?

Not quite—the map said this was the Valley of the Gods. That majestic name is no exaggeration. This is natural real estate on a grand scale. But it ignores the obviously comical look of things. With those surreally sculpted red sandstone mesas and buttes flying at you like View-Master slides in overdrive—it’s straight out of a Road Runner cartoon—a Wagnerian scope, yes, but the execution is all kill-the-wabbit. Until I saw the Valley of the Gods, I never realized that the desert could be so funny. I was in love all over again. But this was not what my wife and I had come for, so we motored on, through the town of Medicine Hat and across the San Juan River. Once across the river bridge, the road uncoiled again, the landscape flattened out, and the immediately recognizable shapes of Monument Valley began shimmering on the horizon in the late afternoon’s honeyed haze.

This is a landscape that’s been filmed and photographed so many times—as backdrop for cowboys, cartoons, Marlboro men, and SUVs—that you recognize it quicker than your own backyard. For the next 20 miles or so, neither of us said much. We were too busy trying to take it all in. At that first sighting, the word “moonscape” popped into my mind—there was something not of this earth about the place. But not unpleasantly so. With its wide-open spaces interrupted only by a puritan symmetry of horizontals and verticals, it might have appeared forbidding, alien. Instead, it reeled you right in. Everything you saw made you want to get closer. At the same time, there was no sense of rush, no reason to be in a hurry. As we approached, I could almost feel my blood pressure drop.

Monument Valley is perhaps the only place I have ever been that excites you and calms you down all at once. The sense of peace is palpable, even during a drive-by. The Navajos, to whom this territory belongs, have a prayer that runs, in part, “In beauty may you walk. With beauty before you may you walk. With beauty behind you may you walk. With beauty above you may you walk. With beauty below you may you walk. With beauty all around you may you walk.” Monument Valley makes all that look easy. After a few minutes of driving in silence, my wife was the first to speak, and there was some awe in her voice when she said, “I really didn’t know it was going to be this big.”

She had, I admit, been humoring me up to this point. For most of my adult life, I have dreamed of visiting Monument Valley, without ever doing anything about it. Finally, last fall she called my bluff and booked a Western vacation for us that included four days at Goulding’s Lodge across the road from the Navajo park that includes the valley. When she arranged this, she admitted later, she was a little dubious, worried about how we would spend all that time, since in her mind the valley was just the Mittens, the most iconic formations in the region, with maybe a mesa or two thrown in, and not much else. So confessing that she didn’t know it would be so sprawlingly, engulfingly immense was her polite way of telling me that I wasn’t crazy after all.

Difficult as it is to get there, Monument Valley is even harder to see once you arrive—I said it was welcoming, I didn’t say it wasn’t complicated. Yes, for unobstructed vistas, the place is hard to beat. There are very few trees taller than the average man, almost no hills, and the desert floor stretches to the horizon in almost any direction. Red sandstone mesas and buttes jut up from the valley floor for hundreds of feet, and unlike, say, the Grand Canyon, you can walk or drive through the park with very little trouble (it’s part of the Navajo reservation and not a national park or monument, and there is limited access to certain areas unless you pay for a tribal guide, but even with those restrictions it’s fairly easy to get around). No, what’s hard about the seeing isn’t visual. For that, you just have to open your eyes. The hard part is seeing it fresh.

I learned about Monument Valley the way I guess most people do, through the movies, specifically the Westerns of John Ford, who shot seven movies there, beginning with Stagecoach in 1939. The newspaper cartoonist George Herriman, to whose Krazy Kat comics I am possibly even more devoted than I am to Ford’s films, beat Ford there by a couple of decades, making Monument Valley the landscape of Krazy Kat’s mythical Coconino County, or Kokonino Kounty, depending on his whim (there is a real Coconino County in Arizona, but it’s fur, fur away, as Krazy’s crazy lingo might put it, and bears little relation to Herriman’s enchanted land). So my pilgrimage was inspired in no small way by art. That is, even to me, a rather strange reason to go somewhere. What was I expecting? That a few thousand square acres would reveal to me some secrets about the vision of these two idiosyncratic artists? It was only as we drew near that I allowed myself to admit how important it was to me to make the trip. Even then, as the familiar mesas and buttes filled the windshield, I somehow could not say out loud what I was thinking: thank goodness, I’m really going to see this place before I die.

If you stay at Goulding’s Lodge, across the highway from the park, nearly every window in the place—the rooms, the dining hall, the gift shop—frames a film-worthy shot, which is not entirely an accident, since Ford and some of his crew stayed at Goulding’s when they were on location. The trading post itself appears prominently in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and the small building that was used for Capt. Nathan Brittles’s quarters has been turned into a replica of the interior of that set. The trading post itself houses a larger museum dedicated to movie posters and paraphernalia related to Ford’s Westerns, including a couple that were shot elsewhere (historical accuracy is a sometime thing in these parts). Behind the trading post is a smaller building where Ford films featuring John Wayne are shown each night. After supper, you can watch Stagecoach or The Searchers or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Cheyenne Autumn. If you’re a Ford freak like me, all of this is heavenly.

I have to admit, though, that by the second of our four days at Goulding’s, I was getting a little tired of seeing Wayne’s image every time I turned around. I don’t know whether it’s obliviousness or a dark sense of humor or merely a cynical lust for the tourist dollar, but the staff at Goulding’s, mostly Navajos, and the Navajos across the road at the gift shop in their own park seem perfectly content to sell posters of John Wayne, movies starring John Wayne, and every other Wayne-related piece of junk they can find, including John Wayne toilet paper. The man who epitomizes the white hero who vanquished Indians in dozens of movies still has a place of honor behind the cash register in the tribal lands. Weirdly, the one Ford movie made at Monument Valley that was being neither sold nor screened was Fort Apache, the one where the Indians wipe out the cavalry, Little Big Horn fashion, at the climax of the film. (The only mention I saw of Herriman during my stay was a line in an exhibit at the otherwise excellent Navajo museum inside the tribal park that misidentified him as an animated cartoonist.)

Never being a big Wayne fan, I resented his presence in my fantasy, but as we moved around, touring the park by car, touring it again with a Navajo guide in his open Jeep and again on foot and on horseback, it was Ford who gave me the greatest trouble. Whatever else anyone may say about him, he had probably the most painterly eye of any movie director. When he shot something, it stayed shot. Nowhere is that truer than Monument Valley. And if you have lived with his films as long as I have, those images have burned themselves onto your retinas. He doesn’t just teach you how to see, he makes you see it his way. So when I was out there in the supposed real world, walking through the sagebrush, feeling the sun on my face, kicking that red dirt under foot, I could never quite get away from the feeling that I was walking through someone else’s movie. It’s liberating when I reached parts of the park where Ford never placed a camera.

There are all kinds of artistic visions. Some are so strong that they muscle you into seeing things their way. Ford falls into that category. Whenever I tire of watching the actors in the foreground of his films, I’m perfectly happy staring at the scenery behind them. Herriman is the only other artist I know of who made Monument Valley equally central to his vision, but except for his enchantment with the landscape, he is not a thing like Ford. For Ford, the real estate in his Westerns is the thing you rely on when everything else seems fragile. With Herriman, the landscape changes from panel to panel in his strips. It slips and slides in and out of your sight. The more time I spent in Monument Valley, the more I saw things his way. Put another way, it may be Ford who gets you to Monument Valley, but it’s Herriman who teaches you how to see the place on its own terms.

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Krazy Kat ran from 1913 until the cartoonist’s death in 1944. Sometime in the late teens, Herriman, who lived in Los Angeles, began vacationing in Kayenta, Ariz., near Monument Valley, and soon thereafter the landscape of Krazy Kat took on the look of the desert. Before that its landscape had been indeterminate—there were even strips where the Kat goes to sea. But by the early ’20s, the waters had receded for good, houses in the background of the strips had morphed into mesas, and cacti had replaced trees, or been grafted into trees that only appeared in Herriman’s imagination, full of stripes and zigzags that had more to do with Navajo rugs than any known flora.

This imagined Coconino County was the last piece in the Krazy Kat puzzle. The foreground action had been in place almost from the start, and thereafter it never changed. Krazy loves Ignatz Mouse, who not only scorns the Kat’s affections but repays them with a brick launched at the Kat’s head, aggression that Krazy misinterprets as a sign of love. Krazy’s only protector is Offisa Pup, who vigilantly watches over the Kat and jails Ignatz at every opportunity. Other characters make appearances throughout the strip, but the essential plot revolves around the three principals. It’s a sort of shell game or three-card monte with the brick being the surprise element. Somehow Herriman found a way to keep this one-joke premise fresh for three decades.

The landscape is the secret, I decided on our trip. As buttes appear and disappear from one Herriman frame to the next, as trees rise up, shrink, go from potted plants to rooted and back, there is a never-ending visual variety in the strips. This is, strangest of all, probably the most realistic aspect of Krazy Kat. When you travel through the valley, even by so much as a few hundred feet, the landscape alters as you move. A mesa that looks huge and monolithic one moment becomes slender and almost frail as you change your perspective. A spot viewed at dawn looks utterly different at noon and again at sunset. It’s nothing but sun and sand and rock and scrub, but the combination changes by the minute, as inexhaustible as the love-hate triangle of Krazy, Ignatz, and Offisa Pup.

In this respect, the locale was perfect for Ford, too. We think of him as leaning heavily on the monument in Monument Valley, and he did. But after spending time in the landscape and thinking about those films in relation to what I was learning about the shape-shifting nature of the place, I became convinced that he, like Herriman, was just as surely attracted by the changeling nature of the landscape. His greatest films, a significant number of which were shot in Monument Valley, never resolve. Like the mercurial landscape against which they are set, they offer not one truth but truths that often contradict one another and at the very least insist on being seen from several different perspectives and by several different lights.

By going there and seeing what those two very different artists saw, I learned something about them both. (It is probably worth pointing out that at the time they were each in their prime, neither man was considered a great artist. Westerns and comics were the Rodney Dangerfields of film and art—no respect allowed. Sure, Ford won four Oscars as Best Director, but none of them were for his Westerns (his peers, of course, knew better: in preparation for Citizen Kane, Orson Welles screened Stagecoach more than 30 times). My journey also made me realize the uniqueness of this pair. I can think of plenty of artists and writers and filmmakers inspired by their native locales, but I can think of almost no one, except Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Gauguin, who went somewhere he or she had never been and had their interior mechanisms so rearranged as Ford and Herriman when they laid eyes on Monument Valley.

As a draughtsman, Herriman hit his stride with the Sunday Krazy Kat strips in the ’20s, precisely the time he would have been feeling most at home in the whimsical corner of the Southwest desert he knew best. These black-and-white, full-page strips are playgrounds for his eccentric wordplay and equally eccentric sense of humor, but more than anything they showcase his prodigal skill with a pen. He was never more relaxed and never more baroque. Reading these strips, looking at the artwork, then looking some more, amazed at what he could do with ink (and there was apparently nothing he couldn’t do), you become overwhelmed with the drawingness of the images, how ink combines and recombines to become Kat, then tree, then brick, but yet always remains ink.

Herriman never tries to hide that inky reality. If anything, he revels in it. The result is art so full of life that you feel as if it were being drawn even as you look at it, the energy in each panel suggesting nothing so much as the energy of a pen that’s just left the page. Standing back from that page, staring at the overall design, watching how those panels lock and unlock the action, you immediately start working back, trying to figure out how he came up with the whole idea in the first place. There’s nothing unfinished looking about these pages, but there is something hospitably open-ended about them, as though the builder had constructed an enchanted castle and then walked off, but only after having made sure to leave the keys under the mat.

It can’t be coincidence that Herriman flourished as a graphic artist at the same time he was cementing his love affair with the surreal territory that bestrides the border of Arizona and Utah. Monument Valley not only inspired him, it challenged him to find artistic equivalents for its shape-shifting nature. So from panel to panel, the desert becomes a lake and the moon a boat floating on its surface. Rooftops on the horizon turn into mesas, and then the horizon itself becomes a fence over which Ignatz peers malevolently at Krazy plucking an instrument that resembles, from strip to strip and sometimes from frame to frame, a banjo, a mandolin, a saz, a tambur or a samisen, and has anywhere from one to three or four strings (Herriman courted his wife on the mandolin). Night turns to day from one panel to the next, storms gather and then evaporate, faraway volcanoes puff smoke before turning into the chimneys of nearby houses. Only the brick, zipping toward the Kat’s cranium, is solid and unchanging.

Monument Valley has never been treated better. Herriman was not a realist, but he was resolutely faithful to the spirit if not the exact look of the place that won his heart. Whether you have heard of Monument Valley or not, reading a Krazy Kat strip makes you want to go there. Once you’re there, the strip’s balance of majesty and whimsy seems the perfect interpretation.

Near the end of our trip, I took a horseback ride, mostly on a dare from a friend who stared at me incredulously when she discovered that I was going to Monument Valley and not planning to get on a horse. So we bought one of those tours that combines a Jeep ride with a Navajo guide and a horseback ride. My wife begged off the horseback ride (wisely, it turned out), pleading a headache. So early one morning I mounted up with a half dozen other tourists and off we rode into the valley. For most of the trip our mounts went untaxed as they plodded down into the valley and around one of the Mittens. We stopped, posed for pictures, then resumed our slow progress. Sometimes our guide urged us all into a trot, and we bounced across the desert floor, me learning just how hard a saddle can feel.

Early into the journey I discovered that my horse knew the drill so well that I didn’t have to do anything. So I sat back and enjoyed the ride, or most of it. As we were climbing out of the valley, the trail narrowed to single file. I brought up the rear. Near the rim, we looked up and saw we were being observed by a few tourists up above. I thought nothing of it. Lulled by the midday sun and the slow steady motion of my horse, I remember distinctly thinking of nothing at all. The next thing I knew, everything—me, horse, landscape—was in motion as my horse erupted into full gallop, tearing up the slope, passing the other horses and riders, finding a trail where there was no trail. Did I grip the reins, dig my legs against my horse’s heaving sides? Whatever I did to stay in the saddle must have worked. Adrenaline and sheer terror shut down my brain, and I just glued myself to the back of that horse as hard as I could as we crested the rim and made for the corral at a hard gallop.

Dismounting, I received congratulations on not dying from a couple of stragglers in our group who had seen the whole thing unfold. One of them asked me what had happened, and I said I had no idea. The other rider filled us in: one of the people watching us from the rim had chucked a rock behind my horse, spooking him. She sounded very sure of what she had seen, though as time has passed, I am convinced she was mistaken. Surely it was a brick.