Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Blue Waterfall

Best story ever featuring George Herriman and Jimmy Swinnerton: The Lincoln Star, October 11, 1922

A trip through the Arizona Desert, taken two weeks ago in the cause of art, came close to having a tragic ending for George Herriman and James Swinnerton, the cartoonist creators of “Krazy Kat” and “Little Jimmy” when a search for water led them to a “hole in the wall” hedged by steep cliffs which for centuries has been a strategic stronghold for Hopi Indians but which has not been visited by white men since a United States survey party was guided through it thirty years ago.

Swinnerton and Herriman found their way into it by accident and remained inside its baffling labyrinth for two days when a sudden fog descended and obscured the narrow point of entry which forms the only opening by which anyone can get in. When finally they were rescued by friendly Indians they had eaten the last of their food and had lost all hope of finding their way out.

It was in the expectation of finding a certain “blue waterfall” which is one of the wonders of the desert country and which Swinnerton was anxious to embody in a landscape painting that the two artists began the journey which so nearly ended fatally for them. Both men have spent many summers in the southwest country and know the desert well. They began their journey from a trading post sixty miles away from the waterfall, travelling on horseback with their food and camp equipment strapped to a pack horse.

It was on the second day while seeking water for the horses that they lost themselves in the strange rock formation from which they were rescued just in time. They had come to a known water hole clearly marked on the chart they carried. They had found it dry but decided that there must be water in a steep formation of cliffs which lay to the north of the trail about a mile away.

Riding up to the foot of the cliffs they found what appeared to be a natural path up the face of the steepest of them and leaving their horses made their way up, carrying only a small amount of food for they were certain that they would find water and be back in a couple of hours. Fog is the exceptional phenomenon in the part of the country through which Herriman and Swinnnerton were travelling and they did not notice, as they toiled up the steep wall of rock that a heavy vapor had filled all the valley below and was growing denser every moment and slowly creeping up behind them as they climbed. Neither of them looked back when they had reached an opening, just large enough to crawl through, in the blank face of the rock and saw that it led into a wide bowl among the cliff tops several hundred feet in area and filled with upstanding rocks many of them as high as fifty feet and all set close together. What mostly interested them was a shining pool of water at almost the exact center of the natural amphitheatre. Then they stepped through into the open space and the fog followed them and filled it.

For two days they were prisoners there. Their compasses were of no use to them for by the time they tried to get their bearings from them they had lost the general location of the small opening by which they made their way in. It seemed to disappear, as they have explained since, as soon as they were a few feet away from it, and in the semi obscurity created by the fog all the high stones about them became alike for any help they offered as distinctive points from which to work a way out to safety.

As Herriman describes it:

“It was exactly, but in deadly earnest, like being in one of those made labyrinths which used to be such a feature of expositions and the amusement parks. It was completely baffling. Every rock and rock face appeared exactly like every other piece of stone, and although we gave every moment of our daylight to the search for the way out we had come in by, or some other way if there was one, we found no success whatever and we were getting close to the lowest frame of mind there is – frantic despair – when at almost one and the same moment the fog was dispersed and help came.

The help arrived in the form of two Indians who had come upon the artists’ horses in the valley and figured that their owners must have gone up the face of the cliffs, and lost their way. The Indians happened to be two who were familiar with the entrance to the cliff pocket and who knew how to get out again after getting in. The circumstance was fortunate for Herriman and Swinnerton for many of the younger Indians thereabout no nothing of the place.

Years ago it figured conspicuously in the hill wars of the Indians, for it had great strategic value to a war party since the single entrance to it could be guarded indefinitely by a few warriors against hundreds. The only entrance and exit is the one by which the artists stumbled in, and although they think they could find it again they do not expect to make the attempt but on the contrary propose to avoid it the rest of their natural lives.

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