Betatakin Ruins-September 2009

Note: This is a “rerun” of my very first blog post back in October 2009.  It was originally posted on the Blue Coyote Gallery website because Looking for Jimmy had not yet come into existence. I am “re-blogging” this entry because it will tie in nicely with the next post, which will be about my trip to the Keet Seel ruins, also in Tsegi Canyon. 

The Toes-Kayenta, Arizona
Jimmy Swinnerton entry in Kayenta Guest book August 1922
Swinnerton’s August 1922 entry in the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch

In August of 1922, James Swinnerton (aka “Jimmy”) was part of a John Wetherill led expedition from Kayenta, Arizona to Betatakin Ruins in Tsegi Canyon. Just past eighty-seven years later I attempted to re-trace the route traveled by Jimmy and his cronies.   Some other members of the 1922 “safari” included legendary Western artists Maynard Dixon and William Robinson Leigh, well known Depression era photographer Dorothea Lange, Lillian Wilhelm, illustrator for more than twenty Zane Grey novels, and George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip.

All of the Swinnerton party members stayed at the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch in Kayenta, near the present day Wetherill Best Western Inn.

Because the Hampton Inn, the only “pet friendly” hotel in Kayenta was booked solid, I was forced to travel alone into the wilderness and take a room at the Holiday Inn. I might have missed the full effect of the lightening over Navajo Mountain, but I was able to catch my favorite football team, the San Diego Chargers win a dramatic last second victory over the despised Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football. I’m sure John Wetherill, discoverer of Rainbow Bridge and several major ruins in the Southwest, would have been quite impressed with my ability to “rough it”.

Lillian Wilhelm Smith at Kayenta

Lillian Wilhelm Smith-Kayenta, Arizona. Circa 1925 Courtesy of John and Louisa Wetherill Collection



James Swinnerton at Kayenta 1922 sketch by Maynard Dixon
“Jimmy Swinnteron at Kayenta City, Arizona” by Maynard Dixon. Graphite on Paper. 1922. Courtesy of Picerne Collection of Arizona Landmark Art.


Swinnerton created most of his paintings in his studio based on field sketches he had drawn years or sometimes even decades earlier. This seems to be the case with Agathla Needle(El Capitan). As shown on the two photos below, I made a couple three hundred and sixty degree traverses around the monolith, during which time I was questioned by one of the locals as to whether I was lost, confused or just not very bright.

I must confess, the lack of No Trespassing signs on the Navajo Reservation is quite refreshing on one hand, on the other it makes for some interesting situations. You never know if that dirt road is a trail to one of the most beautiful scenes you’ll ever see or someone’s driveway.  Just remember to bring your smiling face and always present good attitude, and you’ll probably make some new friends. I know I usually do. I was not able to find a view point which offers the exact profile represented in Agathla Needle in Shadow, shown below.

The field sketch for Agathla(second image below) was most likely created in the early 1920’s and possibly even during the August, 1922 trip.  The first photo below offers the closest overall profile to the painting, although it lacks the outline of the two fingered pinnacle in the lower left of Agathla as shown in the center photo.  Suffice to say the painting is of the south side of the formation.


Agathla Needle in Shadow by James Swinnerton
“Agathla Needle in Shadow” by James Swinnerton. 40×30. Oil on canvas. Circa 1930.


Swinnerton field sketch for Agathla Needle Monument Valley Arizona
Agathla Needle field sketch by James Swinnerton

Agatha Needle (El Capitan) photo by Gary Fillmore

Agathla Needle, Monument Valley facing west-Gary Fillmore

The view point for the Black Mountain painting below is from the top of The Toes (imagine you’re sitting in exact spot as the Navajo child being kissed by the badger at the top of the page). Due to much of the area being private property now, I was not able to view the mesa from the exact same perspective.  The photo was taken from the approximate location of the old Wetherill Lodge.  Notice the subtle differences between the way the landscape looked in 1922 and the present.  The photo shown lower right, taken from the back parking lot of the Holiday Inn, gives a much closer perspective to the mesa, but offers a still relatively unspoiled view.

Maynard Dixon also painted a stunning piece of Black Mesa after the 1922 trip.  It is shown on page 115 of Desert Dreams-The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon by Don Hagerty.  I am in the process of trying to locate the present owner for possible inclusion in Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond.  Please contact me if you have any information on the current location of the painting.

James Swinnerton Black Mesa
Black Mesa by James Swinnerton. 20×24 Oil on canvas. Created in 1958, this may have been the last oil painting Swinnerton ever created.
Black Mesa viewed from “downtown” Kayenta.
Black Mesa Kayenta Arizona photo by Gary Fillmore
Black Mesa viewed from the south side of U.S. 160.


HorsesatBlackMesa near Kayenta by Gary Fillmore
Horses near Black Mesa at Sunset


South entrance to Tsegi Canyon


John Wetherill at Kayenta Circa 1922
John Wetherill Circa 1922. Courtesy of John and Louisa Wetherill Collection.


Jimmy Black-Navajo National Monument guide-photo by Gary Fillmore
Ranger Jimmy Black -formerly Blacksheep
Betatakin Ruins from Sandal Trail by Gary Fillmore
Betatakin Ruins viewed from the rim.


In 1922, after spending the night at the Wetherill Lodge, John Wetherill led several members of the Swinnerton party, including Dixon, Leigh and Wilhelm, on an extended horseback-camping trip to Betatakin Ruins. The Wetherill led group started up the canyon on horseback at this point after riding the twenty-one mile distance from Kayenta.  I boldly retraced their steps via US Route 160 to the canyon entrance in an air conditioned Mercury Mariner equipped with GPS navigation and satellite radio.  After a breakfast of pork chops and eggs at the Anasazi Inn (located to my immediate right in the photo -highly recommended) I took this photo below of Tsegi’s south entrance.

I’m always amazed with the international flavor of Kayenta.  I frequently joke that the only other people I encounter who know fluent English are the Navajo, but it’s sometimes not that far off the mark. There was a Frenchman taking photos at this spot at the same time. He didn’t know any English, I didn’t know any french. But of course that did not prevent us from attempting extended conversation. When in doubt, point, gesture, and speak louder.  I left with the impression he had no idea if “Betatakin” meant “canyon”, “sky”, “the Anasazi Inn has good food”, or if it was just some Arizona colloquialism for “Totally awesome!”.

Louise Swinnerton’s newspaper account of the ride up the canyon, especially the “steep declines where the horses simply sat down and slid”, prevented me from giving serious thought to using the same method of transportation.   That and the little fact that I haven’t been on a horse in nearly thirty years made me conclude such an option was not advisable. So it was back to the Mariner and Westward Ho! on Route 160 again.

After hanging a right at Arizona Route 564 I soon found myself along with 17 other people gathering at the Visitors Center at Navajo National Monument where we were greeted by our guide.  That’s Jimmy -second photo above.

No, not Jimmy Swinnerton but Tsegi Canyon resident, Jimmy Black. Now retired, Jimmy was an ex-professional bull rider, rodeo clown, and junior high math teacher.  I must confess I admire his courage.  Teaching junior high kids is not for the faint of heart. Unlike the 1922 Wetherill party which, as noted earlier, took the canyon floor all the way from the south entrance to the ruins, our hike will begin from the plateau just to the north of Betatakin. The trail goes from left to right along the canyon rim in the center photo below, then takes a steep drop all the way to floor as shown in the lower right.

On the descent-Tsegi Canyon by Gary Fillmore
Crazy fools! They have no idea what they’re in for.

As seen in the photos, Tsegi Canyon offers views every bit as spectacular as some of the more well known Colorado Plateau chasms including Zion, Bryce, Canyon De Chelly and the Grand Canyon.

 In 1864, Hoskininni’s band were one of the few groups of Navajo to avoid Kit Carson’s expeditionary force. They did so by traveling north up the canyon all the way to the base of Navajo Mountain, in the far left on the horizon, thereby avoiding the “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo. Hoskininni (The Angry One) later became known as “The Emperor of Monument Valley”.  He denied Americans all access to the region (which allegedly included a lucrative silver mine -never found) until 1906 when he granted John Wetherill permission to open a trading post in Oljeto.  It’s exciting to view the scene today and realize it looks the same as it did in Kit Carson and Hoskininni’s day.

Tsegi Canyon looking north with Navajo Mountain in the background by Gary Fillmore
Tsegi Canyon from the south. Navajo Mountain can be seen in distance (center left of photo.)

Now on to the main event.  After a steep descent down the canyon floor for about a mile. A view from the floor is shown in the lower left. The aspen photo below shows the “inverted forest”. Aspen are rarely found at 6,500 feet, especially this far south.  The grove is considered an “ice age relic”, which has survived for thousands of years due to the scarcity of sunlight in the narrow chasm.

We bushwhacked our way through the grove, which included aspen, fir, and the largest scrub oak trees I’ve ever seen, watching our guide endure “insightful” questions like “Were there any major Western battles fought here?” and “How do the Hopi feel about their cultural ancestry being exploited for commercial purposes?” (Note: the guided trip is free of charge …I must confess to having gained a great admiration for Jimmy Black’s patience. As I grow older I aspire to emulate such gracious behavior. However I’m sure those of you who know me well are not holding your breath for measured improvement in this department). Finally, when we reached the edge of the forest, we were rewarded with the view shown in the lower right: Betatakin -or as the locals might say “Ba ta ta kin”.

Anasazi corn grinding tools-Betatakin Ruins by Gary Fillmore
Corn grinders



Aspen grove-Tsegi Canyon by Gary Fillmore
Aspen Grove on the trail to the ruins.


Betatakin Ruins by Gary Fillmore


Betatakin ruins by Gary Fillmore
“That’s a shame. He seemed like a nice guy.

Well I might not have found Jimmy but, as shown below, I think I came pretty close to the exact spot where he was standing in August of 1922. It appears as though if I had been able to stay for another half hour I would have been fortunate enough to catch the exact shading. However there were the

1) Because “Jimmy” kept it in his private collection for so many years, it was obviously one of his favorites.


2)Unlike Agathla Needle, the resemblance of the painting’s image to the actual subject is almost photographic -a remarkable feat considering the painting was in all likelihood done many years after Swinnerton visited Betatakin and was done from a sketch, not a photo.

Another image I am in the process of obtaining for the book is the actual field sketch of Betatakin that Swinnerton drew on the 1922 trip. It will be interesting to see the similarities of the sketch and the painting.

Betatkin Ruins from east 2 by Gary FillmoreJames Swinnerton Betatakin Ruins

James Swinnerton with Betakin Ruins painting

Cliffs of Tsegi Canyon just east of Betatakin-Gary Fillmore photo


Maynard Dixon Cliffs of Betatakin
Cliffs of Betatakin by Maynard Dixon (dated 1922) provides a good study in the contrasting styles of Dixon and his friend, Jimmy Swinnerton.  Swinnerton liked to paint clearly recognizable landmarks while Dixon chose to find beauty with perspectives that most people would either overlook or miss althogether.  I would guess given the title and similarity to the photo above, the painting portrays the walls of Tsegi Canyon directly to the east of the ruins.


Tsegi Canyon viewed from Betatakin Ruins



Ferdinand Burgdorff Betatakin Ruins

Above: The only other pre-1960 image of Betatakin I have yet to find is the entry in the September, 1922 Wetherill-Colville Guest Lodge registry by Santa Fe Railway painter, Ferdinand Burgdorff.

Petroglyphs-Betatakin Ruins

As shown in the photo of me below it was another case of the old “going up is so much harder than going down” routine.  Every trip guide I could find listed the five mile round trip as “strenuous”.  Honestly, I thought it was rather easy.  I know I probably do this kind of thing more than the average jamoke, but on the other hand, I’m old.  Of course, Mike, one of my many new found friends on this trip, might disagree.  I last saw him almost doubled over from lack of oxygen, gasping about how glad he was that he had quit smoking fifteen years ago.  He also mumbled something about laying in a hammock with a highball of Old Grand Dad.  I don’t know if he was making suggestions, fantasizing or just plain delirious, but either way the idea motivated me.  I began hiking faster.  No worries about what happened to Mike.  Jimmy Black was bringing up the rear.

Gary Fillmore-Tsegi Canyon
Made it back to the rim…no more uphill.

Well as you can probably gather, it was a great trip.  Many thanks to both Jimmys.  Thank you Jimmy Black, who not only did a great job guiding sixteen knuckleheads to Betatakin and back without incident, but who was also able to finally articulate the concept of the mysterious phenomenon known as Navajo Time: “When I feel like it.”   And thank you Jimmy Swinnerton for inspiring me to take the trip.

Maynard Dixon once described the area as “a great empty place. A vast and lonely land it is, saturated with inexhaustible sunlight and astounding color, visible with unbelievable distinctness, and overspread with intense and infinite blue…”  He also noted “it takes your mind from trivialities and gives you a sense of freedom…it re-establishes your idea of values.”   Nearly ninety years later, the vast, open spaces remain, inspiring the same deep feelings and contemplative emotions.  There’s just one drawback.  The closest Starbucks is over two hours away in Flagstaff. Back to the Mariner and onward!

On my way to Flagstaff I couldn’t resist making a stop in Cameron to try to find the location of the painting shown in the lower right titled The Little Colorado River near Cameron, Arizona. Swinnerton liked to take seldom traveled paths on one hand, but on the other he never ventured very far from the path unless he was guided by someone like Wetherill. I assumed the scene had to be somewhere down the river not far from the old Cameron Trading Post. I came across the view shown in the photo about a quarter mile east US Highway 89. Once again private property prevented me from getting to the exact same view point, but I believe I got close even if I was on the wrong side of the river.

Little Colorado River near Cameron Arizona

Little Colorado River near Cameron Arizona by James Swinnerton

After a quick stop in Flagstaff it was back to Cave Creek.  It was a long day, but it was worth it.  A good time was had by all. That’s it 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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