On the Road: Homeward Bound

Sunrise off I-94 in northern Minnesota

After the Mallard Island art residency and a couple of days visiting with siblings, it was time to return home to Seattle.  Work would soon be beckoning again.  Mentally, I was also feeling the end of my vacation and I was ready to go back.

I planned virtually no sightseeing or painting stops for my return road trip, and I so I plotted the quickest possible route on I-94 and I-90.  No more moseying along country roads.  I tried not to get ahead of myself and wish the journey over,  but to simply flow moment by moment, staying open to the scenery along the freeways and taking breaks as needed.

About 35 miles from the Minnesota/North Dakota border, I saw a large flock of blackbirds rise in mass from some trees along the road.  I pulled over to the side of the freeway (possibly an illegal move, but there was very little traffic) to enjoy the sight.  I had always wanted to see a murmuration of starlings, and wishful thinking made me hope my dream was being realized.  My birding experts (my brother and sister-in-law) said that this flock was more likely to be blackbirds, which also migrate in huge flocks.  I love the mystery of any mass movement of animals, and I enjoyed my moments of being amazed on the side of I-94 about an hour into my return journey.

Flock of blackbirds taking wing in mass

I drove straight across North Dakota with stops only for gas and bathroom breaks.  I had driven I-94 eastward on my road trip, so this was familiar landscape.  I had planned to stop for the day at the North Dakota/Montana border, but it was just late afternoon, so I decided to press on.

I drove from sun up to sun down, plus a bit more.  After 755 miles, I had made it to the end of I-94 and the start of I-90 near Billings.  Gosh, Montana is a huge state!  I pulled into a rest stop and slept in the car.

Sunrise along I-90 on the way to Bozeman, MT
Sunrise along I-94

I woke a bit before sunrise on Day 2 of my return journey, and I immediately hit the road.  As day dawned, I could already see how hazy the atmosphere was.  The haze from the summer’s wildfires never really dissipated for the rest of the drive back.  It made for reddish sunrises and sunsets.

The landscape along I-90 in Montana was much hillier than along Hwy 2 to the north.  More grazing land; fewer wheat or other fields.

I stopped in the little town of Three Forks and stretched my legs by strolling the small-town Main Street.  I stepped into the historic Sacagawea Hotel , with its beautiful lobby and front porch lined with rocking chairs.  I saw a wild deer near a pond and meadow as I was leaving town.

Main street in Three Forks, MT
Interior lobby, Sacagawea Hotel in Three Forks
Deer along the road

I finally made it across Montana. (The 80 mph speed limit helped eat up the miles!)  From there, driving the narrow panhandle of Idaho was a snap.  By early evening, I was in my home state of Washington.

I didn’t really want to drive after dark, but I was now anxious to get home.  The 300 miles of I-90 crossing Washington State was a familiar jaunt, so I didn’t mind missing the scenery in the dark.  I took a long break for supper and a stop at the Ritzville Library.  Then I began the final leg of my journey home.

Old building in Ritzville

The last sunset was a spectacular Grand Finale.  Even though I was in a hurry to get home, I kept stopping along the freeway exits to photograph the changing sky.  (I will post some of those sunset photos in tomorrow’s blog post.) At long last, I walked across my doorstep at 10:30 p.m.  I had driven 786 miles in one day.  After a marathon two days of driving almost nonstop, my journey was over.




On the Road in North Dakota

“The true West — the dry West — is usually said to begin at around the 100 [degrees] W, which is the line of longitude that corresponds with an average rainfall of fifteen inches.”
— Jonathan Raban, “Homestead,” from Driving Home: An American Journeym

North Dakota field

“[North Dakota is] the spot in our national geography where the Midwest becomes the West: distances expand, the sky gains dominance over the earth, and the wind arrives unimpeded from beyond the sere edge of the world, a herald of how vast and empty it really is.”
— Reed Karaim, Winter in Anna

It was in North Dakota that I crossed into the Central time zone and emerged from the West into the Midwest region of our country.  It became gradually greener as I drove farther east. Yellow wildflowers lined long stetches of I-94.

It was hazy.  The sun rose red in the morning.  I believe the haze was from wildfire smoke moving down from central Canada.

Sunrise along I-94 in North Dakota

I saw what looked like little flocks of butterflies in the air — could they be migrating?  I passed a few fields of sunflowers — so cheery.

Sunflower field, North Dakota

Like Montana, North Dakota appears almost unpeopled — you drive long distances seeing nothing but land and sky and the ribbon of highway going off into infinity.  You wonder what kinds of people feel at home here.  I think I would feel too isolated, but I admire those who find inner strength in this seeming solitude:

“The land itself becomes a place of worship, in which to rest and meditate, and perhaps escape to, from the complications and noise of our fast-paced modern lives.”
— Michael Kenna, Form in Japan

“Ironically, it is in choosing the stability of the monastery or the Plains, places where nothing ever happens, places the world calls dull, that we discover that we can change.  In choosing a bare-bones existence, we are enriched.”
— Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography


South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt NP

The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is right along I-94 near the Montana/North Dakota border, so it is easily accessible.  My first stop was the Painted Canyon rest stop and overlook at exit 32. There was one buffalo at the edge of the parking lot!  I took a short 1-mile loop trail down into the canyon.  As always, it was good to stretch my legs.

It seems that driving is the thing to do in Theodore Roosevelt NP.  The dry badlands were not my ideal environment for hiking — treeless, shadeless, and hot (temps were in the low 90s).  This was one park where I found myself “just” driving and stopping at various viewpoints to look and take photos.  I drove a 36-mile scenic loop drive accessed from the Medora entrance to the park.

The scenic drive held its own rewards.  The badlands scenery was otherwordly — hills and rock formations in striated bands of subdued colors.  I saw wild horses and a couple of huge prairie dog towns.

Scenic drive, Theodore Roosevelt NP, South Unit

Prairie Dog

“The prairie dogs . . . sit at the mouths of their burrows with their usual pert curiosity.” — Theodore Rosoevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

Little Missouri River, Wind Canyon overlook

It was nearing sunset when I arrived at the Wind Canyon overlook.  I ate a quick picnic dinner in the shade of my car, and then walked over a rise to a short 1/4 mile trail to the edge of the bluff.  Below, the bend of Little Missouri River glittered in the low light.  Some wild horses raced down to the water in the far distance.  Down the other side of the bluff was a green valley with a herd of about 75 bison grazing, calves and adults mixed.  It was a bucolic scene.

As I waited for the sun to sink slowly, by degrees, toward the horizon, I noticed that the bison herd was making marked progress across the meadow.  They covered a lot of ground quite quickly.  It wouldn’t be long before they reached the road — and just up the road was the parking lot/trailhead and my car.  I recalled all the danger signs I had seen warning to keep your distance from these wild animals, and the conversation at the campground the previous evening about people who had been attacked.  The sun was falling so slowly, and the bison were progressing through the grazing ground quite fast.

I decided to leave the sunset viewpoint and walk at least halfway back down the trail so I would be closer to my car for a quick exit.  I lost sight of the buffalo herd, but I did finally see the sun sink below the horizon — another red sunset in the hazy atmosphere.

North Dakota sunset, Windy Canyon overlook, Theodore Roosevelt NP

Then a young man who was also photographing the sunset at the viewpoint came running past me — “The buffalo are on the road,” he said.  I followed closely on his footsteps.  Coming up over the rise to the parked car, I saw that there were already some bison in the parking lot!  Thankfully I had parked at the far end.  I raced to my car and shut the door.  Safe!

Bison along the road, Theodore Roosevelt NP

So I ended the day with a little bit of excitement, an encounter with buffalo.  Something to remember about my trip to Theodore Roosevelt NP.

North Dakota Sunset: An Experience of the Holy

“Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.”
— Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

Sunset, Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Unit

“All that sky and horizon around you, there almost always is some atmospheric event to keep track of.”
— Ivan Doig, English Creek

One of the rewards of practically living out of your car on the open road is that you get to experience sunrises and sunsets in a more direct way than from a house.  I had been enjoying them along the way, but the sunset over the grasslands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit was by far the most extravagant and beautiful.

I could see why Clay Jenkinson said, “If you live in North Dakota, you perforce have a relationship with the sky.”  (For the Love of North Dakota and Other Essays).  He is in good company:

“A person could stand and watch this changing land and sky forever.” — Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

” . . . at evening I love to sit out in front of the hut and see hard, gray outlines gradually grow soft and purple as the flaming sunset by degrees softens and dies away.”
— Theodore Roosevelt

As I watched the entrancing sunset show, I thought that the skies were God’s watercolor paintings.  What artistry and glory:

“You don’t know what light feels or how its thinking goes.  You do know this is where it’s most at home.  On the plains where you were born, there are no mountains to turn it back, no forest for it to shoulder through.  A solitary tree marks its comings and goings like a pole sunk in the shore of the ocean to measure its tides.  Here, light seems like another form of water, as clear but thinner, and it cannot be contained,”
— Lorna Crozier, “First Cause: Light,” from Small Beneath the Sky



North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

“Badlands” in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

“The land was treeless and seventeen different shades of tan.  It slowly grew more rugged, but the badlands still came up unexpectedly: a crenellation along the horizon that opened up on both sides of the highway into phantasmagorical landscape.  It wasn’t so much the buttes rising above the earth, but more as if the skin of the earth had been ripped away, revealing the ragged, broken flesh beneath.  You stared down into the badlands, and the maze of twisted gorges, trapped meadows, wind-eaten towers and bluffs were a geological underworld, as unearthly as beautiful.”
— Reed Karaim, The Winter in Anna


Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Unit

This was my first visit to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.  I think few tourists venture here.  It is 90 miles north of the more easily accessible South Unit, which lies off I-94.  I was entering North Dakota from the north, on Highway 2, so I spent a late afternoon and evening here exploring a new landscape.

First I claimed a camping spot at the Juniper Campground — very uncrowded, and I got a site close to the camp hosts.  I loved the setting of this campground on the edge of a huge grove of towering cottonwood trees.  Lovely.

Cottonwood trees as you enter Juniper Campground
Leaf studies — cottonwood leaves in watercolor

Then I drove the 14-mile scenic drive to Oxbow Overlook.  There were plenty of viewpoints along the way, some overlooking the Missouri River below.  I enjoyed stopping at the viewpoints in this national park because the landscape was so different, varied, and unexpected.  I didn’t hike here, but I enjoyed photographing at the stops.

Across the road from Juniper Campground
Weird cannonball-like rocks

I especially loved the vast grasslands:  “The grassland stretches out in the sunlight like a sea, every wind bending the blades into a ripple, and flecking the prairie with shifting patches of a different green from that around, exactly as the touch of a light squall or wind-gust will fleck the smooth surface of the ocean.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

Scenic Drive, Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Unit
Grasslands in Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Unit

It was wonderful to see wildlife along the road. I saw mule deer and rabbits.  I saw some bison in the distance, and then as I was leaving early the next morning, there were some bison in the road!  The North Unit is a rewarding destination, and one that I’d recommend to anyone traveling in the Midwest.


Watercolor sketches of bison and mule deer





Life on the Move

“There’s something cathartic and liberating about the highway.  America’s long gray road holds her lifeblood.  The pulse of passing cars slowly dissipates into the tangled turns and blind corners of life on the move.”
— Patricia Mahon, The Island

Day 2 of my road trip was spent driving from Washington State’s Palouse region north and east across Idaho and into Montana.  I left the gorgeous rolling fields of the Palouse and re-entered familiar territory. Just as I crossed the Washington/Idaho border, the sun peeked through the clouds sending streams of light onto the land below.  I felt blessed on my journey!

My sister-in-law calls these openings in the clouds “God’s eyes”

The landscape along Hwy 95 North in Idaho was typical Pacific Northwest forest — tall trees, evergreens, hilly and mountainous.  I passed a Subaru dealership and pulled in to see if they could figure out how to make the audiobook on my iPad stream through my car speakers.  Thankfully, they showed me how to connect, and now my long hours in the car would be relieved by listening to downloadable audio books from my Overdrive account.  With the car on cruise control, and a narrated book, I felt almost as if the car was driving itself, and I was in some futuristic vehicle hurtling across the miles.

Driving through Idaho was a bit of a slog.  I realized that what keeps me curious and enlivened on road trips is seeing new scenery — exploring new destinations.  Day 2 of this trip was pretty much just about putting in the miles.  My end goal was the western gateway to Glacier National Park, where I would spend the next couple of days.  I did reach my destination, but was too tired to paint or read.  I still needed to figure out how to tailor this road trip into a vacation with time for my favorite relaxing pursuits — reading, taking photographs, and painting.

“. . . a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”
— James Baldwin, in a letter to Jay Acton, June 30, 1979, from I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck



My Day in the Palouse

On the road between Colfax and Palouse, WA

I had long wanted to make a trip to the Palouse, the agricultural area of southeastern Washington State, ever since seeing Tom Hoffman’s watercolor landscapes of the region.  Wheat fields cover acres and acres of the rolling hills, and the Palouse is also known for its lentil production — it produces 30 percent of the world’s lentils.  I had only been to this part of Washington State once before, long ago, passing through to attend a festival at Mary Jane’s Farm in Idaho.

So I spent the first day of my long road trip driving parts of the Palouse Scenic Byway, stopping along the way to take photographs.  I loved all the curves in the landscape.  The colors this time of year were a subdued beige and brown palette with tints of gold and occasional green.  The fields were huge, but blocked like patchwork or interlocking puzzle pieces.

From Hwy 26 on the drive to Colfax, WA

Famous wheel fence at the Dahmen Barn in Uniontown, WA

When I am on road trips in western Washington I am used to seeing logging trucks on the highways.  Here in eastern Washington, there were no logging trucks in sight, but the road was filled with large trucks laden with straw bales.  Along the roads were makeshift “structures” of stacked bales covered with gigantic tarps and secured with bungy cords.  Some were as large as airplane hangars; others stood side by side like rows of barracks.  So much wheat must produce a bumper crop of straw bales!

About two hours before sunset I drove to Steptoe Butte for the panoramic views from the road as it corkscrewed up the hill.  Unfortunately, the sky was hazy, the colors dim.  But the views were spectacular.  I attempted to paint the Palouse patchwork I saw below me — I considered my painting a dud, and I tried to redeem it by doodling over it with pen and ink lines.  It’s a challenge to paint this landscape.  I will have to keep working on it.

View from Steptoe Butte
My watercolor and ink sketch of the Palouse landscape



On the Road Again

“Grandfather Cut Loose the Ponies” monument near Vantage, WA

Today I began a road trip to Minnesota for a week-long art residency on Mallard Island sponsored by the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation.  The residency begins September 3rd, so I have allowed myself plenty of time to cover the 1700-mile journey.  This is a solo trip for me, and I want to be sure to build in enough down time to rest, relax, take photographs, and paint watercolors along the way.

I am doing this trip the old-fashioned way — no cell phone or GPS.  I will try to find WiFi along the way to check my email and upload photos.  Right now I am using a computer at the Whitman County Library in Colfax, WA.  It is a beautiful library, an air-c0nditioned oasis, and welcoming.  Of course, I feel perfectly at home in libraries!  (As an added bonus, the Colfax Library has on exhibit art of the Palouse by local artists — truly outstanding.)

My biggest worry for this trip is that I won’t slow down enough to find time to stop and paint.  I made a promising start, though.  This morning I stopped for 1-1/2 hours at the Wild Horses monument near Vantage, WA (exit 139 on I-90) — I hiked up the bluff to the horse sculptures, I sketched a few horses while I was up there, and then I hiked back down and set up my painting stuff in the shade of my car.  I am so happy that I took the time to do this.

Wild Horses monument at exit 139 off I-90

I love these horse sculptures by artist David Govedare.  I’ve written about them in a 2010 blog post, which you can link to here.  It’s a short, but steep climb up to the sculptures.  The panoramic view of the mighty Columbia River from the bluff is outstanding.

View of the Columbia River from the Wild Horses monument near Vantage
My watercolor painting of Wild Horses Monument
A second painting

I am not sure how frequently I will be sending blog posts from the road.  Once I am on Mallard Island, I will be without internet for a week.  I will try to document my impressions of western America through photos and paintings, so I am sure I will have a lot to share.  Stay tuned!



The Journey and the Destination, Both

Sunset, Pacific coast at Manzanita, OR

The Oregon coast is a superb destination for some rest and relaxation.  I could have easily spent hours just on the long beach over the dunes from our yurt at Nehalem Bay State Park.  I think that I sometimes collect bits of driftwood, stones, shells, etc. so that I can hang on to those beautiful beach experiences.  But as Emerson says below, you cannot freeze time and beauty by grasping:

“The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave;
And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me.
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore,
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Each and All”
Oregon coast nearing sunset

You cannot keep and package a sunset, for example.  A photograph attempts this, but in truth, things like sunsets can only be appreciated in the moment.  And isn’t it wonderful to know that the Universe will offer many, many more glorious sunsets so that you really have no need to try to preserve any particular one?

There is a lesson here, I’m sure, about trying to cling to the good things that come our way.  But we must be ready to let them go and return to a state of openness and receptivity to the next things — good and bad — that come our way.

Hug Point, Oregon coast
Watercolor sketch, Hug Point

Too soon our departure day arrived.  We left Nehalem Bay early Sunday morning so that we could have a leisurely drive back to Seattle.  We had time to follow our whims when we saw something picturesque or interesting from the road.  Our first stop was a picnic breakfast at Hug Point — bread, brie, hard boiled eggs, bacon, tomatoes and coffee.  It was our final walk on the ocean beach for a while.

Astoria Sunday Market

We stopped in Astoria to wander the stalls of the Sunday Market.

Poplar tree tunnel
Watercolor sketch of tree tunnel

We took a short detour off Hwy 30 so that I could photograph these rows of poplar trees.  I loved the natural “doorway” created by the tree tunnels.

Wildflowers along Hwy 30 in Oregon
Lupine and daisies along I-5
Watercolor sketch of roadside wildflowers

I thought the wild flowers growing along the roads and in ditches were also quite beautiful. I am lucky that my husband is a willing travel companion who lets me explore unexpected nooks and crannies. Those turnings taken on impulse really help to make a memorable journey.


Texas Trip Notes: Mustang and North Padre Islands

Colorful homes, Port Aransas

We spent our final two nights of our Texas vacation at Port Aransas  on Mustang Island, another of the area’s barrier islands.  Our hotel was just three blocks from the Gulf-side beach.

Mustang and North Padre Islands struck us as being less touristy than South Padre Island.  Much of North Padre Island is a National Seashore.  We had planned a full day to drive 60 miles up this island, but little did we know that the pavement ended after about five miles, and the remaining “road” into North Padre Island National Seashore was beach driving.  Well, we did not feel comfortable driving our rental car on the beach, especially since the water was already quite high.  So we did not see as much of this “wild” island as I had wished.

Gulf-side beach, North Padre Island

Black-bellied plover

Back in Port Aransas, we watched the sunset from the tower at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center.

Leona Turnbull Birding Center
Great-tailed grackle, Leona Turnbull Birding Center

On our final night in Texas, clouds came.  It was time to go home to Seattle.

Evening at the fishing pier in Port Aransas