Canyon de Chelly October 2009

Looking for Jimmy-Part III

Yet another road trip for

Shadows on the Mesa-The Artists of The Painted Desert and Beyond

Scheduled for publication Fall 2011

 For my next outing I decided to take advantage of two scheduled business meetings in northern Arizona.

On Monday afternoon, October 26th, I met with Alan Petersen, art curator for the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff to discuss the possibility of an exhibition at the museum in conjunction with the publication of Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond. My next meeting was not until early the following afternoon in Show Low, so I decided to take a quick side trip to Canyon de Chelly to fill the hours in between.

Carl Oscar Borg-Wetherill Guest book entry June 1924
Carl Oscar Borg- entry in the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch registry. June, 1924

I know those of you familiar with the geography of northern Arizona are saying something along the lines of “Wait a minute…you tried to do all of that in less than 24 hours…you’re crazy!”  To which I would reply, “Yes, that’s been well established.”

But here’s why. It’s been over five years since my last visit to Canyon De Chelly, and every year since then I’ve had a strong desire to return.  Another summer/fall season was slipping away, so I felt the urge to seize the day. Also, I figured from a visual perspective late October had to be the best time of year to visit, so why not.

This project provided the impetus. As I discussed in Part II of Looking for Jimmy, I was intrigued by the fact that Carl Oscar Borg visited the Wetherill Lodge in June, 1924 (guest book entry shown in upper right) but did not paint the area. I have yet to identify any paintings by Borg of the Kayenta area subject matter I.e. Monument Valley, Black Mesa, Tsegi Canyon…  Yet Canyon De Chelly on the other hand, was clearly a source of major inspiration to Borg. In fact, based on the number of known pieces he created, I feel safe in saying Canyon De Chelly was clearly Borg’s favorite haunt in his “Magic Region”. Having researched so much about Borg and his life for my book, I was curious to know what aspects of the area he may have found so appealing. So after wrapping up the meeting with Alan Petersen, who had a very favorable response to my proposal, it was onto Interstate 40 and eastward ho!

That’s Carl in the photo below, looking like I just told him my travel plans after leaving Flagstaff.

Carl Oscar Borg
Carl Oscar Borg Circa 1905. Photo courtesy of Helen Laird

Here are some pictures from my first stop. If you’re thinking the photos don’t look anything like any part of Canyon De Chelly you’ve ever seen, you’re correct. It’s actually Canyon Diablo…well it’s the remains of the old Volz Trading Post, just east of Canyon Diablo. 

My reason for stopping here had nothing to do with my current writing project, but I’ve been wanting to see the place for several years now. This was the station where Kate Cory detrained in 1905 before heading north to the Hopi Mesas, where she ended up staying for seven years.  Kate was different from all the other artists I’ve researched who visited northern Arizona. Everyone else used Flagstaff as the “jumping off point” for the red rock country. It seems Kate was different from the rest in more ways than one.

Volz Trading Post-Canyon Diablo Photo by Gary Fillmore

Remains of the Volz Trading Post, Diablo Canyon, Arizona.

I did not know very much about the history of Diablo Canyon, but when I got home I did a little research. Wow!

Volz Trading post ruins-Diablo Canyon Arizona-Photo by Gary Fillmore

Supposedly for a brief span in the early 1880’s there were more violent deaths in Diablo Canyon than Tombstone, Dodge City, and Abilene, Kansas combined. For those of you not overly familiar with the history of the American West, let’s just say it was one crazy place.

This too was an impromptu stop.  I figured all I had to concern myself with for the rest of the evening was dinner and getting to my hotel room in Holbrook, so once again “Why not?” The ruins are only about a fifteen minute drive north of the Two Guns exit of I-40.  It is a rough road.  The pavement ends almost immediately after the exit, but four wheel drive or high clearance are not required. The road ends south of the railroad tracks and the ruins are on the north. The hardest part in getting to the ruins is climbing through two barbed wire fences which parallel both sides of the tracks (accomplished with minimal damage to my attire). Oh yeah, and don’t forget to look both ways for those trains…there are two sets of tracks as well as two barbed wire fences.

I was fortunate enough to show up just in time for the sunset, which resulted in some great photos. My arrival time was by coincidence and not design but, as I always say, better to be lucky than good.

I once remember reading a passage written by Marjorie Reed, where she commented on a sunset not too far north from this spot, saying it was the most beautiful she had ever seen. She described it as having “All the pastel shades of the Rainbow”.  I remembered thinking I had never seen a sunset with that color combination.   Now I have.  Another first…

After stopping for a great meal at the La Posada in Winslow (Yes, a great meal can be had in Winslow), I spent a very short night in Holbrook. I left Holbrook shortly after 5 AM in the hopes of catching the east side of Black Mesa at sunrise, but no such luck.  It was overcast.  I was disappointed on one hand, the clouds put a damper on not only the temperature but the visuals as well.  On the other, I know from experience overcast skies mean little or no wind, and this time of year that’s something to be grateful for.

When I arrived at Canyon De Chelly I found the cottonwoods to be in the full scale of their autumn glory. Even without the benefit of bright sunlight, the scenery was spectacular.

Fall cottonwoods Canyon De Chelly photo by Gary Fillmore

A Navajo guide is required to enter the canyon, so I signed up for a half day motorized tour through the historic Thunderbird Lodge.  I know it’s a real “tourist” way of doing things, but recall my tight schedule that I discussed earlier. It’s also a great way to see a lot of the canyon in a short period of time, so it was really the only way to go.

The Junction Canyon De Chelly and Canyon del Muerto by Gary Fillmore
Fortress Rock at the intersection of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. During Kit Carson’s “roundup” expedition against the Navajo many took refuge at the top of the rock in the center of the photo, thereby eluding the American troops.
Anasazi Ruins Canyon De Chelly by Gary Fillmore
Ruins in Canyon de Chelly
Canyon De Chelly petroglyphs by Gary Fillmore
Petroglyphs Circa 1750

Canyon De Chelly has been much written about, much photographed, and of course much painted, and all for good reason.  I won’t take up too much space here detailing all of the spectacular sights I witnessed. (Click the link here for a primer if you would like more information on the canyon.) As I stated earlier, the purpose of my expedition was to develop a theory on why Carl Oscar Borg found the area so compelling.  It was easily formulated.

Carl Oscar Borg Needle Rock

Borg was very much a scholar as well as a great artist.  His passion for archeology and history rivaled his deep love of art. In these subjects, Canyon De Chelly offers more of a comprehensive Southwestern experience in a smaller geographic area than any other location I’m familiar with.

An abundance of ancient ruins and rock art can be found among spectacular geological formations. The area is deep in recorded history too. Add all of this to the fact that, in Borg’s day, the canyon still had many Navajo families living in their traditional ways and it’s very easy to understand . Borg was thoroughly captivated by both the Navajo and Hopi people and cultures. To see the Navajo living as they had for centuries in one of the “the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America” would have likely been enough in itself to attract him to the area.

And, oh yeah, did I mention the scenery isn’t too bad either? Suffice to say by now it was easy for me to understand why Canyon De Chelly was Carl Oscar Borg’s favorite subject. Mission accomplished!

Hmmm. ..”Mission Accomplished!”  Didn’t a well known White House politician utter these words not too long ago, when in reality the adventure was just beginning?  Well that seemed to be the case with me with respect to this little excursion -the real fun had yet to start.

I patted myself on the back with this famous (or infamous?) phrase right about the time the tour made it’s last stop at the White House Ruins(a different White House from the one inhabited by the aforementioned politician. This is the one made famous by an Ansel Adams photograph).  Now keep in mind the White House ruins are several miles from the Thunderbird Lodge, where our tour began.

As shown in the photo below, when we arrived at the White House, our guide received a phone call that informed him there was another group waiting for him at the lodge. And so my utterance of “Mission Accomplished!” was followed shortly thereafter by “Oh Yeah! This might get interesting.”

White House ruins Canyon de Chelly by Gary Fillmore
White House Ruins
Canyon De Chelly guide
Thunderbird Lodge Canyon de Chelly Tour Guide. If this man is your guide be forewarned…you may want to bring your own seat belt and helmet, and maybe even a parachute for extra protection.

The Thunderbird Lodge’s web site describes their open air seating trucks as follows: “Heavy-duty six-wheel drive touring vehicles are equipped with padded seats to provide a comfortable and memorable experience.” Well considering the “road” into the canyon is predominantly no more than a large, dry wash with deep sand between one to two feet deep in some places, the seating was relatively comfortable -at least until the tour guide/driver received his phone call.

That must have been either one important or one impatient group waiting at the lodge . . .maybe both.  The trip back can be described by an excerpt from The Artists of Kayenta, where I describe the last fifteen miles of a Wetherill led Rainbow Bridge expedition in 1913 as a “winding, twisting, harrowing ride; in and out of canyons, across slick rock, dry sandy washes and through thick undergrowth.”  The difference is the Wetherill party was on horseback, we were on a motorized vehicle attaining speeds at times of upwards to thirty miles an hour.

There were no seat belts so there was a significant amount of bouncing and rolling around. I was in the back seat and had to catch the hat of one of the women seated in front of me on at least three occasions. I don’t know which suffered worse, my kidneys or my lower back, but I do remember thinking something along the lines of “Hey, who needs an ATV when you have this?”

In my younger years I would have considered the ride quite the idea of a good time. I might have even been yelling at the driver to speed it up: “Get this thing off the ground! Catch a little air!”.   Those days are long gone.

Of course, right about then the sun broke clear from the clouds, which in this part of world this time of year almost always means “Here comes the wind!” It wasn’t long before I felt like one of the troopers in the famous Frederick Remington painting, Cavalry in an Arizona Sandstorm.

I’ll give the Thunderbird Lodge credit for a half truth in advertising with their “comfortable and memorable experience” claim.  It certainly was memorable. Miraculously, the group arrived back at the lodge in one piece. It was a small group, just me and two other couples, every one of whom apparently possessed a well developed sense of humor since there were no formal complaints filed against the driver.

So by now you’re probably thinking this will be the first blog entry where that doesn’t have anything to do with Jimmy.  Not so fast, my young readers!

Since it was a small group there was plenty of conversation and social interaction.  By the time the trip was over at the bare minimum we all knew where everyone lived and what they did for a living. One of the other tour members,Rob Yelland, asked me for one of my business cards, and I gladly complied. As I was walking to my vehicle to get one of my cards, I remembered something my great uncle Roy used to say on several occasions: “I asked you for a verse and you gave me a chapter.” So I thought to myself “Why not act in character?”  I took the opportunity to show the guy not only my business card, but one of the books I had already written as well as a rough draft for Shadows on the Mesa.

The Fortress-Canyon De Chelly

The Fortress-Canyon De Chelly

The guy was from the Oakland, California area, so I showed him photos of Jimmy and Maynard Dixon, and explained they were good friends who met in art school in San Francisco in the 1890’s.  Then he told me about his great uncle, who was an art instructor for one of the more well known art schools in the 1890’s.  Well it turns out his great uncle was Raymond Dabb (R.D.) Yelland, who was not only one of Jimmy’s favorite teachers at the Mark Hopkins School of Design, but a major influence in Jimmy’s development as a landscape painter as well.

Just when the trip was about to end, I had stumbled across yet another connection to Jimmy!


To date, I’ve been so intrigued by the fact the Carl Oscar Borg and Gunnar Widforss (The Swedes, as I call them) both traveled all the way to Kayenta in the 1920’s and yet neither one apparently painted anything of the surrounding area.

But let’s look at it from another perspective.  Jimmy made the trek to Kayenta every year for over four decades.  He painted the region extensively, but yet he never painted anything of Canyon De Chelly.  After traveling all the way to Kayenta, the extra distance to Chinle was a relatively short jaunt.  Why not?  The more I thought about this, the more it became stranger than Borg or Widforss not painting anything around Kayenta. Then again, one could easily point to the fact that Maynard Dixon never painted the Grand Canyon as twice as strange all these other tid bits put together.

What’s the takeaway from all of this?  Well nothing too profound that I can come up with, other than to say artists are like every other human being in that they’re creatures of habit, and they have their likes, dislikes and favorite places to visit.

Jimmy was partial to Monument Valley; Gunnar Widforss, the Grand Canyon; and Carl Oscar Borg, Canyon De Chelly.  In the case of all three, it’s easy to understand why.

Swinnerton at Stendahl Galleries-1927
Jimmy admiring some of his favorite paintings in 1927 in Los Angeles…Not a Canyon De Chelly in the bunch…

After a quick stop in Show Low to check out the progress of a large custom furniture order with Dalton Owens, it was back to Cave Creek.  It was a busy two days, but once again it was worth it.  Mission Accomplished for now.  Keep checking back for updates on the publication date of Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond.

If you or anyone you know has any paintings by these artists or old photographs that you believe would make a good addition to the book, I encourage you to contact me.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to order your copy of Desert Horizons-Images of James Swinnerton’s Southwest (shown at right). Over fifty color plates of Swinnerton’s paintings and original cartoon art along with a dozen never before published personal photographs.   A good read too…the guy was a real character.   Your purchase will help to fund these trips.

James Swinnerton Desert Horizons Cover

Desert Horizons-Images of James Swinnerton’s Southwest

Now available for purchase



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