34 Days / 19 States/ 20 Campsites / 9,556 miles / 2 sofas/ 3 beds/ 25+ trails/ 2 Blisters
Determined to stretch the boundaries of my comfort zone, last summer I planned a solo trip across the U.S.--from San Francisco to Washington D.C. and back again. I wanted to create a new body of work through traveling and observing nature, but what started as a fairly straightforward trip evolved into one that would challenge my motivations and my sense of independence.
Before writing this post, I spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to share my story, especially since the trip spanned several weeks. I decided to share it in bits and pieces, focusing on the most important parts. But after reading through my first draft, I thought, “Where's the optimism? Where did the real story go?” Compared to the range of emotions I’d felt on the trip, the first draft fell flat. I’d found myself feeling exposed, scared, excited, content, and restless many times as I crossed the country. Therefore, I decided to share with you what really happened. The full circle of my trip, the full circle of my experiences.
I want to preface this post by saying I don't consider myself a planner. I’d like to tell you that I planned to perfection every stop, but I didn’t. I had a general outline: to spend most of my time in the Rocky Mountains and Zion National Park, and see friends in Minneapolis and Asheville and family in Chicago and Washington D.C. What I wanted was the flexibility to explore.
I was incredibly busy up until the day I left San Francisco. So busy in fact, that I left the studio at 5pm. My apartment had been rented, the car packed, and honestly, I was thrilled to get out of the city. That being said, the first night was rough. I arrived at a Motel 8 in Nevada just before midnight. I was determined to camp as much as possible on this trip, but I was exhausted and decided to get a good night’s rest with a fresh start in the morning. I chose the motel 8 because it was cheap. This trip was not about being on vacation or staying in luxurious hotels. I was an artist on a budget and just needed a place to crash.
Staying in this motel gave me a harsh sense of reality in terms of safety. After I checked in, I walked back outside to my car, which was surrounded by a group of cops. One shined a flashlight inside the window, and we had a brief exchange, leaving me feeling uncomfortable. As a single female traveling alone, it made me question not only my safety, but also my motives for the entire trip. This was no longer just about art. I was determined to establish my own sense of independence and happiness while also painting. This decision is relevant in my new work. There's a contradiction of self awareness and insecurity that will probably always be present in my art.
With an early start the next day, I arrived at Great Basin for a hike feeling confident. Unfortunately, reality set in again when I saw the packed campsite and had to drive 70 miles away from the park to another location. The sun had already started setting, so by the time I arrived, it was very dark. The campsite was desolate. It was just me out there. Alone.
I left the headlights on, facing where I planned on pitching a tent, and just stood there next to my car. I was scared. Apart from the car's light, it was pitch black. I took a deep breath and thought, “Ok, let's do this.” The tent went up in probably record time. I clambered in and waited to fall asleep, trying to ignore every noise outside. I wondered if anyone had seen me pull into the site and whether or not this was (quite frankly) a stupid decision.
The sounds outside my tent affected me deeply. As I tuned in and focused on them, my imagination took over. I began to wonder what texture or color they represented. What kind of energy did I want to translate from my hand to the paper? And I began to draw.
After my first night alone things started looking up. From the car, I watched as the landscape went from gradual changes to abrupt interruptions of bold red canyons. Utah is such a gorgeous state. I couldn't get over the contrast of colors between the burnt umber dirt and blue cyan colored sky. There was so much contrast.
By noon, I had driven all the way to Zion National Park. It was early in the day and I was determined to get a campsite before dark this time. Unfortunately, the park was crowded, so I chose to leave with plans to come back first thing in the morning, thereby avoiding the flock of tourists. I drove through other national forests, taking one winding turn after another as I searched for other places to pitch my tent. I was focused on finding a body of water to camp near, and after talking to some locals I headed towards the Kolob Reservoir. It turns out you can camp anywhere around the reservoir, a true hidden gem.
My morale was high. Everyone I had spoken to was friendly and helpful, and the reservoir was beautiful. I pitched my tent early in the afternoon and set up my studio near my car. Aside from a walk around the reservoir, I chose to paint most of the day. Before it started getting dark, I bathed in the creek, made a fire, cooked dinner (chili and green beans,) and watched the sun set. It was really something. The water reflected the sky and the trees almost seamlessly.
Though I was tempted to stay at this campsite (forever,) I packed my things and went back to Zion bright and early. I hiked many of the lighter trails that day, my favorite being The Narrows. The entire hike is in the river. It was so refreshing! The water was very cold, but it was about 75 degrees outside. It couldn't have been a more perfect day. By late afternoon, I got back in my car and drove to Colorado.
Just a quick note- If you're going to hike The Narrows in warm weather, you really don't need hiking shoes like the signs say. I wore my Tevas (rubber strapped sandals,) and they were ideal. I saw other hikers wearing boots, which were soaked and probably heavy. To hike any of the trails in Zion, you can park by the entrance and take a shuttle. I also highly recommend a walking stick since you are going to be hiking against some fairly strong currents.
At this point, I was feeling very confident in my independence. I had found a balance between driving, painting and hiking: the rhythm I had been seeking from the beginning! I left Utah and drove to the border of Colorado, where I camped just outside the town of Estes.
Throughout this trip, I kept saying to myself, "I can't believe I did this!" --a huge improvement from day one where I questioned my motivations to travel alone. While traveling with a partner has its perks, this solo journey helped me truly connect to new environments. It allowed me to form my own opinions. I was quiet on trails and saw more wildlife than ever before. I started reflecting on how I perceive things in the city: I rarely sit still and just listen. I wondered how life in San Francisco would be after this.
Needless to say, the Rocky Mountains are gorgeous. Traveling through them brings one jaw-dropping perspective after another--the slopes, the ridges, the contours. Plus, I enjoyed watching tourists. I felt as though I was just another part of the park, and appreciated feeling unnoticed. I watched how strangers took their own photos of the view.
I also painted up in the Rockies. This only lasted about an hour as the winds picked up, but I'm glad I took the time. I had a lot of incomplete paintings, but they served as outlines, and made me look forward to working with them back to the studio.
While there, I received an email from Kelly Degnan, an artist in Boulder, CO. She told me she'd been following me on Instagram and realized I would be near her vacation home in Estes. It was beautifully convenient. The elevation had me feeling sick, so I was excited to have a warm place to sleep and shower. The house was beautiful, and there was a teepee tucked away in the yard. It was the perfect place to recharge.
The next day I hit the road for a five more hours, and pitched a tent near the border of Colorado and Nebraska.
One thing I noticed while camping here was a newfound appreciation for brushing my teeth! It's such a formulaic thing: wake up, brush our teeth, blankly stare at ourselves in the mirror--and it's the best way to feel refreshed after camping for days on end. On this trip my morning routine changed for the better. I would crawl out of my tent, grab bottle of water, tooth brush/paste, and walk to the nearest view to brush my teeth. No mirror needed.
After Colorado, I drove through Nebraska--all the way to the Badlands in South Dakota. Honestly, this drive was difficult. The landscape changes drastically as you approach the flat lands and straight roads of the midwest. I pulled over twice to take a nap and several times for breaks. By late afternoon, I arrived at the Badlands with a few hours to spare for painting and drawing, as well as a walk around a small fraction of the park. The weather was perfect, and I stayed up until around 8pm working under my lantern light. Yes, 8pm! My schedule started following the light of the sun. The next morning, I hit the road and drove all day to Minneapolis to stay with my good friend, Sara Chars.
This is when my trip changed from solo camping to staying with friends and family for the week. Minneapolis was adorable. My stop in the twin cities was the perfect twenty-four hour break. After a good night's rest, we explored the Walker Art Center, Birchwood Bash Street Festival, several shops, and a few of the lakes and trails.
The Walker is probably one of my favorite museums now. My visit was just in time for the Jack Whitten talk. His experimental paintings took over a large section of the space. I really enjoyed hearing him speak. He questioned the idea of wandering and the conceptual use of the map for guidance. Whitten referred to painting as a relationship: every time the hand lifts or moves, a point of relationship is created. He questioned the space between us and how he would like to close the gap. I appreciated his vagueness, as it made me think and question. Was he referring to the space between the viewer and the painting, or overall human interaction?
Next on my trip was Chicago and then Washington DC. I didn't take very many photos because I visit pretty often, and I spent most of the time with family. I've found I can devote more attention to taking photos and composition when I'm alone. I was lucky to snap a few photos of my nephew though. It's always fun spending time with him and seeing things from his perspective.
After several days, I made my way to Capon Bridge, West Virginia to visit my friends’ farm. I've been following the progress of the farm for a while now, and I'm constantly inspired by their love of their small, local community. I often think about how easy it is to lose sight of that living in a city. The family recently started a market and butcher shop, called The Farmer's Daughter. They made a kickstarter for it last year, and now it's the real deal.
Next, I drove to Asheville, North Carolina where I stayed the week with a friend. I loved the small town feel of Asheville.
The Black Balsam Knob trail, located southwest of Asheville in Pisgah National Forest, will always be a special place for me. It was my first visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I spent a couple of days hiking there. One day, unsure about a trail I was on, I asked a woman named Sally for direction. This woman was the friendliest person I met on the trip. She told me she was going the same direction, and that if I wanted to, I could join her if I didn't mind moving slow. I didn’t.
We started walking and ended up having a wonderful conversation along the way. She's an artist from Florida currently traveling across the country, camping and illustrating nature. We talked about everything from ex-boyfriends (husbands for her,) to art and our travels. She seemed so happy and healthy that I had to ask her for advice. She told me that when I'm lost somewhere in a train of thought, to be aware of the present moment. She said "'Now' is the operative word. Heaven is now.” I asked her if she was religious, and she responded, "Yes. Well, I hope I'm not. I'm spiritual. At this age, it makes sense."
After we made to the top, and snapped this photo, Sally gave me her mailing address so that I could print the photo and sent it to her. Just yesterday, I received a long, hand written letter from her with photos from our hike. I owe her a letter, photos and a thank you for restoring my faith in humanity.
After this hike, I hit the road again.
Turning towards home, I left the east coast for a (long) drive back to Chicago where my friend, Kate Collyer, joined me for the final leg of my trip. Though I enjoyed spending the majority of my trip alone, I was relieved to have company and to rest when we switched drivers.
We drove long hours to make our way to Mount Rushmore. It was a beautiful memorial, but I could have survived without seeing the Presidents and Crazy Horse. It was very crowded, and I felt like I had already seen the park. I suppose that's the downside to such an iconic location.
The last leg of my trip was Yellowstone, which was more than I expected. We arrived at the beginning of off season and enjoyed a quiet park. We camped at Lewis Lake on the first night, one of my favorite campsites from the whole trip. Having a friend to chat with while gathering firewood along the water and cooking dinner over the campfire was wonderful.
What I loved most about Yellowstone was the contrast. There were countless pools of colorful pigments and mountains full of pine trees expanding farther than my eyes could see. There was an eeriness to the park, almost Mars-like. We loved every minute.
After several weeks, thousands of miles, and hundreds of experiences, I arrived back in San Francisco a changed person. I was physically stronger from hiking in clean mountain air. I was confident in my independence and proud of completing such an enormous undertaking. And finally, I was grateful for the new direction of my art, for the people I’d met, and for the natural beauty of this country. I brought home to my studio stories of all kinds: interactions with sound, nature, and people. And I’ve begun another journey, one of expression that I can share with you.
Thanks for traveling with me!
What I traveled with:
- Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, extra blanket,
- Emergency flair kit, flashlight, emergency whistle, pepper spray, first aid kit- lots of bandaids
- Acrylic paint, brushes, medium, paper in flat folios, markers, pencils, spray fixitive, pastels and sketchbooks
- A cooler, a bag of ice per day, canned food, fresh fruit, 2 waterbottles
- soap, toothpaste/brush, sunscreen
- Phone, headphones, Cd's, chargers, and a laptop
Special thanks to the kind people that hosted and explored with me along the way.
- Sara Chars
- My grandparents, Don and Eileen
- My sister, Courtney Day
- Allen Reese
- Kelly Degnan
- Kate Collyer