Considering that people from around the world spend money to fly to the Netherlands to see the tulips in bloom, we who live in Seattle are beyond fortunate to have our own tulip fields an hour’s drive north. I do so enjoy playing tourist in my own local area. And I’m happy to report another glorious day taking in the wonders of the Skagit Valley in Spring.
For me, it is well worth getting up very early so that I am in the Skagit Valley for sunrise. The first light and low-lying fog give an ethereal feel to these first minutes of the day.
Too soon the day brightened and the fog burned off. Now the tulip fields were ribbons of bright color in the landscape.
My watercolor sketches cannot do justice to this natural beauty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Saturday after I returned to the mainland from Mallard Island, I pointed my car south and drove 6 hours to the Minnesota farm where I grew up. My youngest and oldest brothers each own and live on half of the farm, and on Saturday my youngest brother was hosting a reunion for the extended family on my father’s side. The reunion was winding down by the time I finally arrived. I missed seeing my three surviving aunts and many cousins and their kids. Thankfully my siblings hung around to see me. Seven of the nine of us kids made it to the reunion. After all the cousins left, my siblings and some spouses talked around a fire pit as we roasted hot dogs.
My brother has made many changes and improvements since my Dad died. He replaced the old farmhouse, garage, and machine shed with new structures. Only the old red barn remains from my parents’ and grandparents’ time on the farm. My brother has worked hard to bring the farm into the modern age, and I love all the improvements. He keeps everything trim and neat and orderly. The land still holds the memories of our childhood there, and it still feels like I am returning home whenever I travel there.
Part of what is bringing the farm back to life are the animals. In the last decade of my father’s life, he no longer kept domesticated animals. Now my brother is raising hogs and a few beef cattle and lots of chickens. There are at least four or five barn cats and two dogs that have the run of the place.
I was able to spend just one night and morning with my brother and his family before continuing my drive. Here are two of my favorite pictures from this year’s trip to my childhood farm home: another lovely red sunrise . . .
I woke naturally at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. every morning of my stay on Mallard Island. Often it wasn’t even light yet, although on clear days color was beginning to show on the horizon an hour before actual sunrise. Still, I got up, grabbed a flashlight, a warm jacket, and my camera and walked the path past Front House to the eastern tip of the island.
Every morning I was joined by two of the three photographers in the group. Both were far better photographers than I am — they had tripods and light meters, knew how to take long exposures and make night time photos, and had a lot of expertise and hands-on experience backing up their work. They made beautiful time-lapsed photos of the Northern Lights. All this was beyond me. (I pretty much use the auto shoot/no flash mode for my photographs.)
We three (and occasionally one or another artist joined us) were the lucky ones, spectators of the Universe’s gifts of the sunrise. Every one was different, extravagant in its own way. One day when a thick bank of clouds covered the horizon, I was sure the sunrise was going to be a bust. I almost left to get breakfast. But then the clouds paraded by in magnificent splendor, and I was reminded once again of the rewards of patience.
On clear mornings, I was entranced by the ever-changing colors, gradations from deep blue to red-orange. Nearing sunrise, the colors seemed to fade to pastel — some tinges of pink. I felt like I was watching Nature’s version of a Mark Rothko painting.
I learned from Will, one of the photographers, that I am missing out by looking solely in the direction of the rising or setting sun. I need to remember to turn around and take in whatever else is illuminated in the golden glow of the low light. He got some beautiful sunset pictures on the east point of the island (whereas I would have been on the west point looking at the setting sun).
“Lights and shades and rare effects on tree-foliage and grass — transparent greens, grays, etc., all in sunset pomp and dazzle. The clear beams are now thrown in many new places, on the quilted, seam’d, bronze-drab, lower tree-trunks, shadow’d except at this hour — now flooding their young and old columnar ruggedness with strong light, unfolding to my sense new amazing features of silent, shaggy charm, the solid bark, the expression of harmless impassiveness, with many a bulge and guard unreck’d before. In the revealings of such light, such exceptional hour, such mood, one does not wonder at the old story fables (indeed, why fables?) of people falling into love-sickness with trees, seized extatic (stet.) with the mystic realism of the resistless silent strength in them — strength, which after all is perhaps the last, completest, highest beauty.”
— Walt Whitman A Little Book of Nature Thoughts, ed. Anne Montgomery Trauble
Jack pine tree tinged red by the morning sun
“I am convinced there are hours of Nature, especially of the atmosphere, mornings and evenings, address’d to the soul.”
— Walt Whitman, A Little Book of Nature Thoughts, ed. Anne Montgomery Trauble
“If you’re well, you should be able to live on a piece of bread, while working the whole day long, and still having the strength to smoke and drink your glass; you need that in these conditions. And still to feel the stars and the infinite, clearly, up there. Then life is almost magical, after all.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
“Islands do not want laptops or cell phones or any ringing or buzzing noise except the brass bell to summon you to dinner in the Wanigan or the buzzing of moths around a kerosene lamp or candle. Islands want you to read old editions of Leaves of Grass or eighteenth-century travel books so you can dip your naked body into them long enough to scrub off the dust of continents, of offices, of the noise of ringing, buzzing, beeping gadgets, of human foolishness. Even if the island is small, the imagination grows large to encompass and comprehend it. Islands want true artists.”
Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands
Being an artist in residence on Mallard Island was my chance to live the life of an artist, to make watercolor painting my primary task for six days in a row. No errands to run, nothing to schedule, no appointments, no mail, no email, no bills to pay, almost no cooking, and no outside interruptions . . . I wanted to make productive and creative use of this time apart.
I came to Mallard without any fixed project to devote myself to. I thought perhaps that the books and library would inspire me to create a new bookish project. I wanted to be open to the influences of this special place. But I was also conscious of the finiteness of my time there, and I soon settled in to making a watercolor journal about Mallard Island, combining images and quotes from my pre-trip readings and my own words. That became my primary “work.”
I soon realized that I simply could not paint for eight hours a day. I was pulled away by the urge to meander around the tiny island with my camera, capturing its unique features and artifacts and buildings in the ever-changing light and weather. I wanted time to browse the books. I wanted time to read. I wanted time to just sit on a porch or deck and watch the waves lapping the shore.
So my typical day went as follows: upon waking (no alarm clock) I went out to the eastern point to watch the sunrise, then assembled and ate a quick breakfast, then gathered my art supplies and found a spot to work. For such a small island, there was an abundance of nooks and crannies that would have provided secluded and private spots to work and make art. Oberholtzer was a man who loved porches, and any one of them would have sheltered a creative spirit.
But my absolute favorite place to paint was the tiny Japanese House. It was a bit out of the way on the westernmost tip of Mallard Island, approached by crossing an arched stone bridge. It was a single room with a peaked roof, surrounded on all four sides by a screened-in narrow porch. It had purple painted floors with a Japanese character painted in orange on each side (the cardinal directions?). Its big window opened wide to an island-dotted view of Rainy Lake. There I worked four or five hours on my journal pages before stopping for lunch, and that typically completed the day’s painting portion of my artistic endeavors.
After lunch I had a few “free” hours before the group gathered for our communal dinner. Editing and uploading photos took a good portion of my time, but I also read and explored. One afternoon Cecilia and I took out a canoe and rowed to Crow Island for a hike. We also paddled around Gull Island. Others were often out and about, socializing and becoming acquainted. The shared dinners were always a convivial time. A couple of times we met evenings in the Drum Room of Ober’s House for piano music and conversation.
Nature continually offered visual gifts: ever-changing clouds, sunshine, trees and water illuminated by the nearly full moon, stars, and even the Northern Lights (which made an appearance just one night — ephemeral curtains of pale green light, fading in and out over the treeline of Crow Island). One day we spotted an unusual sight — a free-floating bog/tangle of grasses floated by in the distance like a long natural barge.
Writer Joe Paddock, in Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer, made this comment about the effect of Mallard Island on its lucky visitors: “In many, an archetype is awakened that releases an ancient joy at finding human shelter so in continuum with nature. . . . those in whom the archetype awakens become playful, expansive, and creative on the Mallard. They regain connection with soul.”
“The Big Bend country is an ‘oversized pocket of imponderables,’ wherein several of our Eastern states could rattle around like marbles. Yet, this small section of Texas covers only two of her 254 counties. Shaped something like a pocket, the Big Bend is that multi-million-acre piece of Texas which juts down into the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. It is the Rio Grande’s gift to Texas, for it was the river, excavating on its circuitous course, that gave Texas its Big Bend country.” — Virginia Madsen, Big Bend Country of Texas
“Big Bend National Park is the long view — stark, lonely, and soul saving.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
We met up with my brother and sister-in-law, both wildlife biologists and birders, in Big Bend National Park. We spent four days together, camping under the majestic presence of Casa Grande peak. For all four of us, this was our first trip to this remote national park. It gets fewer than 400,000 visitors per year.
Big Bend is situated along the Rio Grande River and shares a 118-mile border with Mexico. The Chihuahua Desert covers part of the park.
“There’s no denying that compared to many other kinds of environments, deserts are landscapes of exposures and extremes: heat and cold; wind, space, and bare rock; rain that vanishes long before it reaches the ground and canyon-carving flash floods; starlight bright enough to read by and blinding sunlight; nuclear bomb tests and spiritual quests; proximity to divinity and a version of hell.” — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth
However, parts of Big Bend NP are mountainous, reaching elevations of over 7,000 feet. “In the American West and northern Mexico, some mountain ranges rise more than seven thousand feet above the surrounding desert, creating ‘sky islands,’ isolated landscapes of much wetter and cooler climate surrounded by a sea of desert.” — Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth
Our campground in the Chisos Basin was at this higher elevation, and temperatures were quite comfortable. “From the desert pavement of evenly spaced creosote and mats of prickly pear and ocotillo, and the broad dagger yuccas and sotol, the Chisos Mountains bring geographic relief — shade from piñon and juniper forests and pockets of yellow pine.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
White-winged doves were the roosters of our campground, announcing the dawning day with their repetitive coos. (My sister-in-law believes they are saying, “Too hot for youuuu; too hot for youuuu!”)
“The Chisos are a force in progress, changing hourly in shadow and light.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
The sunrises were generally a gradual arrival, with soft pink and lavender skies. The day was already well on its way to light when the sun finally rose over the Casa Grande peak on the horizon of our campground. The sunsets, in contrast, were brilliantly colored.
“[Big Bend] is a brilliant land, flaming and impudent in its wildness and freedom. The sun sets in a burst of color, which fades to return briefly in an afterglow, as if the sun had laid a fluorescent mantle over the land. That, too, is drawn away, revealing twilight.” — Virginia Madsen, Big Bend Country of Texas
Big Bend is a certified International Dark Sky Park, and after dark it is a remarkable place for star-gazing. We saw the Milky Way!
“It would not have been preposterous for one to tip-toe and essay to touch the stars, they hung so bright and eminent.” — O. Henry, “The Missing Chord,” from Heart of the West
“There are times when one just feels like driving . . .” — Larry McMurtry, “A Look at the Lost Frontier,” from In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas
We drove a total of 1,952 miles on Texas highways in a loop from San Antonio, to Big Bend National Park, then south along the borderlands of the Rio Grande River, to the Gulf of Mexico, and back along the Padre Islands before heading north again to San Antonio. As we headed out of San Antonio on the first leg of our drive, I admired the wildflowers growing in the ditches along the road. By the time we arrived in Sonora about two and a half hours later, trees had pretty much disappeared from the landscape. We were in the arid West now.
My Country by Dorothea Mackellar, from My Country and Other Poems, 1909
“I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror —
The wide brown land for me!”
“The air was so clean and dry she scarcely felt the need for inhaling and exhaling. Pure as it was, it felt as if it might permeate the flesh without bothering to trouble the lungs.” — Nevada Barr, Borderlands
I loved the immensity of the skies on the wide open land of Texas. I loved the wind and the fresh air. It called to mind this poem by William Stafford, where he quotes the wind saying, “I spend my vacations in Texas.”
Things the Wind Says
“Everything still ought to move.
Of all plants I believe my favorite is the tumbleweed.
There are places in the mountains I am afraid to tell about,
but at night you can hear me hint about them.
Islands aren’t so much.
I never saw a cloud I didn’t like.
Steam is all right, but I prefer smoke.
I was born in Kansas, but now I travel all over the world.
I spend my vacations in Texas.
The best job I ever had was with Sir Francis Drake.
My cousins live in water: they’re a slow bunch.
I’ll dance with anyone — royalty, commoners,
but especially refugees . . .”
And yet, I was aware how privileged we were to be seeing this land from the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned car!
“We toiled across sterile plains, where no tree offered its friendly shade, the sun glowing fiercely, and the wind hot from the parched earth, cracking the lips and burning the eyes. . . . As far as the eye can reach stretches one unbroken waste, barren, wild, and worthless.” — John Russell Bartlet, Personal Narratives of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua
The land is dotted with plants that stick, sting, or stink. O. Henry calls the prickly pear a “demon plant.”
“With dismal monotony and startling variety the uncanny and multiform shapes of cacti lift their twisted trunks and fat, bristly hands to encumber the way. The demon plant, appearing to love without soil or rain, seems to taunt the parched traveler with its lush gray greenness.” — O. Henry, “Caballero’s Way,” from Heart of the West
“Cracked mud is the violence of heat waves made visible.” — Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
Just once were we lucky enough to be on the road early enough to watch the light some slowly into the country, illuminating the sky with a brilliant sunrise sky.
“There are no mornings anywhere like mornings in Texas, before the heat of the day, the world is suspended as if it were early morning in paradise and fading stars like night watchmen walking the periphery of darkness and calling out that all is well.” — Paulette Jiles, The Color of Lightening
“The country was dim and lovely, as it always is at dawn or dusk, when the smells and colors have their full substance and have not been neutralized by the dust, the flatness, and the heat.” — Larry McMurtry, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas
The only things that interrupted our grand Texas road trip were the border patrol checkpoints we were subjected to. Five different times along US highways, all cars were made to stop at border patrol stations. These highways were not right on the border, either; they were miles away from crossing stations. The officers there, accompanied by K9 dogs, simply asked us if we were both US citizens and waved us through. But I wonder if we had looked like we were Hispanic or Mexican, if we would have been subject to more rigorous questioning or if we would have had to show proof of our citizenship. Do Texans know that other states do not subject their drivers to checkpoints along their highways, highways not right on the border? How effective are they, really? (After all, if you were an illegal, wouldn’t you avoid these portions of highways?) I never thought I would see something like these checkpoints in America in my lifetime.