A couple of years ago, I was mugged at a train station near my studio in Oakland. I had been standing alone on a crowded platform one afternoon when a man suddenly pushed me hard to the ground and took my things, leaving me scared but not very injured. That experience changed my entire concept of safety, and made me feel helpless and insecure about going places alone.
After a time, I decided that I’d had enough of feeling scared, so I signed up for a self-defense class and finished weeks later with a new sense of confidence. I had learned how to read environments and to be more aware of my surroundings, and I found myself craving the confidence to go places alone, to prove to myself that I could do it. Thus, the idea for my first solo road trip was born.
A year ago, I drove solo across the U.S. on a five-week trip, camping and exploring national parks along the way. On that trip I faced dark nights alone and long hours on lonely roads. But putting myself out of my comfort zone so completely gave me opportunities to meet people, see places, and take time to be still in nature. I also gained an incredible sense of confidence and achievement. That trip impacted both me and my work to such a degree that I decided to make solo trips a personal tradition.
This year, I traveled to Western Canada with the goal of visiting Glacier National Park and Lake Louise and seeing the beautiful aqua tones of the mineral springs and lakes of Alberta and British Columbia. And I did it alone again.
Before I left San Francisco for my second solo mission, the Northwest was slammed with a blizzard and many scenic roads were closed off. Since conditions looked questionable and I had been in a good painting rhythm, I toyed with the idea of staying and using the ten days to continue working. But after a quick look at the maps and the packed car, I decided to stick with the plan. I had been craving an escape from the city and a change in perspective for weeks.
I drove 7 hours the first night, stopping to sleep in a motel. Originally I had planned on camping, but after driving as far as I could, I stopped in an unfamiliar place in Nevada with no safe campsites around. Spotting the motel, I decided staying in a place with a solidly locked door and getting a fresh start in the morning would be the best idea. Being a single female traveling alone makes safety the first priority. It means thinking proactively and sometimes being overly cautionary.
Now, whenever I take long driving trips, I travel with a pocket knife, safety flares for my car, a can of bear spray, and a sound horn. If I’m camping, I sleep with the bear spray and pocket knife in reach. Maybe this sounds intense, but feeling like you can protect yourself makes all the difference when you turn off the flashlight in a dark forest.
After leaving the motel in Nevada, I camped in Idaho, near Twin Falls, and found stunning campsites in Montana, near Flathead Lake. I stopped on trails along the way to hike and paint. The weather wasn’t too cold for camping, so I was able to camp frequently, although oftentimes in my car.
The first morning in Montana, I woke up in a cocoon. I had arrived during the night, zipped myself into my sleeping bag, and had gone straight to sleep. When I woke up, all of my car’s windows were fogged. I wiped some of the condensation off the windows to peek outside and was surprised to see how beautiful Flathead Lake was in the daylight. With night driving you risk missing some of the scenery, but nothing beats waking up in a completely new place that stuns you. I rolled out of my sleeping bag and set up a studio by the lake for the next few hours, using the lake water to paint and bottling up the paint water to use on the remainder of the trip. A few within the next few days, I drove through Glacier national park- eventually making my way to Golden, British Columbia.
There, I stayed for five days in a cabin on a buffalo farm owned by a man named Leo. The cabin was completely off the grid and perched next to a small creek that overlooked the mountains. It was exactly what I needed.
Leo’s farm is only a half an hour’s drive from Lake Louise in nearby Alberta. It was there, by the lake, that I spent the most time painting and hiking. The lake is stunning, the color even more aqua blue than in photos, but the amount of tourism there surprised me. Although one of my favorite details about traveling is people watching, I was there seeking refuge in nature. Being near tourists made me feel like an outsider, but in a good way. I enjoy feeling like I don’t quite belong and appreciate my differences from the people around me. Tourists frequently asked if I would take photos of them, and as I’m not super outgoing these opportunities gave me a chance to interact with people briefly and then continue on my way.
Though I spent time painting and drawing near the lake most days, I also hiked to paint near other rivers that fed Lake Louise. That’s where the magic was. There were far less people and the color was just as vibrantly aqua as the lake, but gushing and foaming instead of still. I loved the pace of the water, very fast in some areas and slow in others.
Towards the end of my trip, I met up with Claire, a writer for Uppercase magazine. With spiked apple cider to keep us warm, she showed me around Thompson’s Falls, an area in British Columbia I wouldn’t have otherwise stopped to see. We went for a hike and she interviewed me and documented some of my process. She took a few photos of my makeshift studio and also wandered off to take photos of the area. It was a great balance. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.
The remainder of my trip was spent working in the cabin. I got into a great painting routine by day, but I wasn't able to work late at night because candles were my only light source. After long days of hiking, painting, and drawing, all I wanted to do at night was go to bed. It was fun making that little cabin my home.
I drove back to San Francisco after ten days and began reflecting and translating all that I’d seen and done onto canvas. The results of the trip are still coming through in my work. From interacting with locals at diners along the way to spending afternoons by a quiet lake, there’s something altering about stepping out into the unknown. Setting fears aside, while challenging, reminds us that there’s no limit. And traveling solo seems to be the perfect challenge for me.
Writing and photos by Heather Day. Edited by Kate Holthouser.