Tag Archives: desert

Saguaro National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Alien forest

I visited Saguaro National Park for the first time last year, and between being a veteran national parks tourist and seeing a zillion photos of the place over the years, I thought I knew what to expect. Aaaand of course, I was way wrong. (No surprise there.)

For one thing, Mary-Alice and I arrived in the middle of a storm. No stereotypical desert scenes for me that day; instead, I got to add something far more dramatic to the ol’ sketchbook.

For another, I knew the park was quite close to the city of Tucson, but I didn’t know it was comprised of two distinct districts (Rincon Mountain and Tucson Mountain), each flanking the city from opposite sides. There wasn’t enough time to do both units in one afternoon, so we rearranged our schedule for the next day in order to fit in a tour of the western district.

Saguaro National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Finally, I was shocked to discover that the place reminded me strongly of my home turf of the Pacific Northwest—at least, a bizarre, parallel-universe version thereof. It wasn’t just that the saguaros are incredibly tall. It was that there were so many of them, thick on the ground like the familiar conifer forests of Washington. Add to that the indigo hillsides I’d seen the night before, and the nebulous mists of that morning, and it was like standing in a dream-land version of home.

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Sunset Crater National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Sister sites

On our way up to the Grand Canyon for our second day at the park, the Tailor and I decided to swing through a trio of national monuments located a short detour away, just outside of Flagstaff, AZ. Since what is arguably the most famous national park lies just down the road, these sites tend to get overshadowed a bit. Yet all are worth a stop, and all are closely linked to one another.

First up is Sunset Crater National Monument, a volcanic cinder cone and a landscape painter’s dream. The name, coined by John Wesley Powell, comes from the subtle gradation of reds and purples within the volcanic rock. Combined with the surrounding meadows that bloomed with wildflowers while we were there, the effect was stunning.

Walnut Canyon National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

On the other side of Flagstaff lies Walnut Canyon National Monument. At first glance, this place appears to have little in common with Sunset Crater, but in fact the two are intrinsically connected. The people of the Sinagua culture had been living above the canyon rim since about the year 600, but after Sunset Crater erupted in about the year 1100, the population near the canyon grew rapidly as people fled the volcano. After that, the Sinagua began to settle inside the canyon itself, constructing cleverly-hidden cliff dwellings up and down the canyon’s walls (there are three sketched out in the drawing above—can you spot them?).

Wupatki National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’ve saved the best for last: Wupatki National Monument. This site is located just a few miles north of Sunset Crater, and preserves entire pueblos built by the Sinagua. This sandstone city was built following the eruption of the cinder cone, after the deposit of volcanic ash made the area’s soil much more fertile. The Wupatki pueblo, pictured here, is the largest settlement within the national monument—this one apartment-building-like structure had 100 rooms and housed up to a hundred people (the entire settled region had several thousand Sinagua inhabitants).

Wupatki National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’ve visited a lot of the ancient pueblo ruins of the Southwest, and I’m always drawn to the sophisticated architecture of each one. But so far I haven’t seen anything that provides as clear a picture of what life must have been like then as this place does. Walking through Wupatki really feels like one is trespassing through someone’s house—someone who might just return at any moment.

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Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Painted desert

Of course, with all this talk of national parks, leaving out the crown jewel of the Park Service would be downright criminal. But until last summer, I’d never been to the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

When I finally go there, I did my best to remedy the heck out of the situation. And the weather did its best to oblige me—in just two short days I feel like I got to see the Canyon in an incredibly broad variety of moods and colors.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Actually, sketching there sort of broke my brain. Not only is it easy to fall into the trap of trying to document every minute detail, but the light also seems to change every few seconds. I’d look for a bit, mix up some paint, and then look again to find the colors and shadows completely different than just a moment ago.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So whenever the grandeur threatened to overwhelm me, I shifted my focus to my fellow tourists (including the four-legged ones).

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

To tell the truth, I found the tourist trade every bit as fascinating as the canyon itself—especially since it goes back a long, long way. The Grand Canyon might be the most well-known national park, but it was far from the first. And that’s because well over a century ago, commercial interests fought long and hard to keep the canyon private to maximize profits—hard to imagine, considering the number of tourists who flock there today. But those early tourist traps are now preserved right alongside the rocks themselves—and I was just as eager to sketch them as the vistas.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Still, nothing beats nature for a spectacle. I was one of hundreds lined up on the cliff’s edge this night, but as soon as the sky turned pink I forgot all about my fellow tourists. Seeing something that vast, paradoxically, has a way of shrinking the whole world into a pinpoint of a moment—one that’s every bit as personal as it is universal.

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Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Park rangers of the Mother Road

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

The last post was a big fat tribute to the National Park Service, which celebrated its centennial yesterday. So it’s only fitting to spend today telling you about Petrified Forest National Park, which is the exact center of the Venn Diagram between the national parks and Route 66. In fact, it’s the only national park to contain a section of the original Mother Road.

Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Of course, even if you didn’t know anything about Route 66, Petrified Forest is still infinitely worth visiting. There is the namesake petrified wood, of course, but it’s the landscapes that touched this artist’s soul.

Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Around every bend in the road was some new desert vista, each one vastly different than the one before. And with every passing cloud the light changed, essentially remaking the land in a totally new image, all within minutes.

Petrified Forest National Park and Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And just when you’ve all but forgotten what brought you here, you crest a hill and see a telltale line of telephone poles, still marching westward to the horizon.

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Mt. Rainier National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Our best idea

Mt. Rainier National Park, WA

Tomorrow is the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. All of America seems to be celebrating right now, and rightly so. In my opinion, our wildest pockets are our true national treasures, and our national parks, as Wallace Stegner said, our best idea.

Olympic National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Olympic National Park, WA

So since I’ve spent a good chunk of my sketching life in national parks both close to home…

Arches National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Arches National Park, UT

…and far afield…

Crater Lake National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Crater Lake National Park, OR

I figured I’d add my voice to the celebratory din, in the form of a little sketchbook retrospective.

Badlands National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Badlands National Park, SD

Beyond the centennial itself, I’m always up for toasting the parks. Not only do I think park rangers are the best people on earth,

Redwood National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Redwood National Park, CA

but I also sometimes think they’re the only thing standing between wildness and destruction.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM

And anyway, I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m a total park nut myself. It’s my goal to visit every NPS property before I die, including national parks, historic sites, national monuments, everything. (Actually, I’ve crossed a goodly chunk of them off the list already—

Guadalupe Mountains National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

—and I even have the stamps to prove it.)

Olympic National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Olympic National Park, WA

I know I have a long path ahead of me before I reach that goal,

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

and getting there won’t be easy.

Big Bend National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Big Bend National Park, TX

Yet I can’t tell you how grateful I am that the opportunity exists in the first place—

Rocky Mountain National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

that so many people have fought to preserve these wild places, and won.

Saguaro National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Saguaro National Park, AZ

Best of all is the feeling that no matter how long it might take me to get to each park with my sketchbook,

Glacier National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Glacier National Park, MT

I know it’ll be there waiting for me, as close to unchanged as humanly possible. Thanks to the National Park Service, the window of opportunity remains open.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Fill ‘er up

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Polly want a pit stop?

If you’re going to take a road trip, at some point you’re going to need to refuel. And nobody knows how to fill your tank like the folks on Route 66. Of course, since the route crosses a big swath of American oil country, you’ll know that the milk of the Mother Road is petroleum.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cuba, Missouri

The thing is, though, the designers and architects and advertisers and engineers responsible for putting gas stations all along the route got into the spirit of 66 in their own unique ways. Forget what you know about ugly garages lining Interstate exits—many of Route 66’s filling stations are downright works of art.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cuba, Missouri

And many of them look absolutely nothing like gas stations.

Interestingly, the Mother Road was built at a time when more and more Americans owned automobiles—all over the country there was an increasingly large demand for petrol. Filling stations moved into town centers and residential neighborhoods, and some oil companies wanted their fuel stops to blend in with the neighborhood architecture.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Since American architecture is highly regional in nature, many of these “camoflaged” filling stations took on the look of their local culture—Spanish-Mission-style canopies in California, limestone façades in the Ozarks, clapboard farmhouse lookalikes in the Plains, etc. And then, of course, architectural tastes changed over the years, so you’ll find examples from the Victorian era to midcentury pop-Googie, and everything in between. (Not to mention the tradition of kitschy filling stations shaped like random objects or weird ho-made roadside giants.) Finally, each oil company wanted to attract customers away from the others, so they relied on creating distinctive architectural styles as a form of branding. The result is a veritable encyclopedia of diverse and spectacular specimens—and Route 66 might just have the best collection of all.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Albuquerque, New Mexico

After a few hundred miles, we started getting really good at spotting the buildings that used to be filling stations (this is an obvious one, but many had been deeply camoflaged, or totally remade in some other image, or else fallen into ruin). And we also developed a knack for pegging which style belonged to which company (above is a classic 1930s Texaco design).

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Then again, sometimes a building would throw us completely—the sealed-up garage bays hint at the Blue Dome’s history, but if I didn’t know better, I would have guessed this was once a Greek Orthodox church or something.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Spencer, Missouri

The filling stations of Route 66 also serve as markers of time’s passage, and the rise and fall of communities along the way. This one is all that remains of a ghost town in Missouri that fell into disuse when the highway changed its route. (I’m not talking about the advent of the Interstate, either, although that’s a common story—this place lost its prime spot decades before that, when the 66 alignment was simply moved to a spot further south.)

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Ranco Cucamonga, California

While many petroleum relics have faded into oblivion, others are being brought back, at least in some form or other. Above is one of the oldest specimens we found (it actually predates the birth of Route 66 by nearly a decade). While part of the structure has been torn down, at least the main part of the station is getting a lovely facelift.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Needles, California

It’s not just the oldest samples being preserved, either. This guy is only a little over fifty years old, but it, too, has been returned to its former glory.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Normal, Illinois

For many old stations, however, the opposite is true. Countless specimens either sit empty, their original purpose unknown to the average passerby—or else they get cannibalized and transformed into some other creature, usually without any fanfare.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Hydro, Oklahoma

These stories of disrepair and restoration interest me greatly, of course, but what really gets me is the story of each place: the whys and wherefores of each station, and the tastes and quirks of the people who either built or ran them.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cool Springs, Arizona

After all, Route 66 crosses through some seriously unpopulated territory. Many of these old filling stations were the only game in town—or in the most remote corners, something closer to the last chance for salvation.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Commerce, Oklahoma

While others, meanwhile, live on in notoriety, attracting tourists to the spots where blood was shed or infamous characters once stood.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Odell, Illinois

Still, most tell the story of perfectly ordinary people running perfectly ordinary businesses along one of the backbones of American travel and commerce. They might be extraordinary today, but usually that’s boils down to having somehow lasted long enough to stand out amongst more modern surroundings.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Shamrock, Texas

I’m glad, at least, that I’m obviously not the only one who has noticed these things—that there is an army of conservators and historians and artists and boosters out there, preserving as many of these old filling stations as possible, and documenting the ones that can’t be saved.

I know that these days, oil companies have fallen out of public favor (heaven knows I have my own beef with the oil industry)—regardless of their nostalgia, these places are also reminders of American excess and the damaging effects of fossil fuels. Yet however we may be careening toward Peak Oil, these relics still have a place on the Mother Road—the path that might just traverse this country’s Peak History.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Extinct but very much alive

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Unlike the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon Coast, the section of Route 66 that crosses eastern Arizona is actually a place known to contain real, no-kidding dinosaur fossils. (And unique ones, to boot: there’s a large concentration of Triassic-era early dinosaur species here.)

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Unsurprisingly, the Mother Road in that part of the state is positively crowded with roadside attractions that fill the dinosaur niche—most of them centered around the town of Holbrook. No matter what kind of concrete dinosaur you’re into, Holbrook has something for everyone. The prehistoric portrayals range from cartoony…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…to surprisingly realistic…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…to absurd…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…to downright hilarous.

Amazingingly (and unlike many Route 66 landmarks), every dino-themed attraction here is still in business, still trapping tourists. May they live long and prosper—while they keep drawing crowds, I’ll keep drawing pictures.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cutting-edge comfort

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

In its heyday, Route 66 was a symbol of American prosperity, modernity, technology and personal freedom—not just because of the rise of the middle class in that era, but also thanks to all the new technologies that allowed more and more people to live in relative comfort. In the post-war 1920s people started buying big-ticket items on credit; after World War II, good jobs were abundant and people had even more disposable income. In both eras, many families owned their own automobiles for the first time: suddenly people had both the means and the tools to take vacations in far-off places, and Route 66 showed them the way.

And the Mother Road was lined from toe to tip with modern notions and attractions. Neon tubes, a recent invention, lined every urban commercial strip along the way. Budget-minded travelers could stay in newfangled motor hotels, and even park their cars in garages attached to their rooms. But perhaps the most important invention, the key to the Mother Road’s success, was the advent of air conditioning.

Like most vacationers do today, Route 66 road trippers tended to take their vacations in the summer. And 66 cuts its path through a part of the country with some seriously warm climates. August in the Ozarks is hot and sticky, but summer in the Sun Belt can be downright dangerous. Air conditioning became widely available in the late 1920s, just as the first alignments of 66 were being laid out. The technology wasn’t just convenient for hotels or restaurants looking for a perk to advertise; it was downright revolutionary, in that it allowed the entire American Southwest to be opened up for large-scale development.

Of course, the Southwest is littered with examples of the downsides of said development, but now that I’ve traveled Route 66 at the very zenith of a scorcher of a summer, the logic of advertising “air cooled” rooms is plain as day. I can now attest to the gratitude one feels when stepping into an icy-cool room after a day spent in 115-degree heat. And neon signs like this one, advertising such a technological miracle, shimmer like desert mirages promising an oasis just ahead.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Burro borough

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

I think this is the closest I’ve yet come to experiencing the phenomenon of the sacred cow. In Oatman, Arizona, they have sacred donkeys.

Well, if not exactly sacred…then, I’d imagine, lucrative.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Oatman is something of a living ghost town: what’s left is a relic of the gold rush, a dessicated hamlet tucked away in the craggy, bare mountains of western Arizona. The place is so unbelievably remote, it’s a wonder that any highway reached it at all, let alone the Mother Road.

At the time of the gold rush, prospectors brought burros with them to do the heavy lifting for them. Far more hardy than your average horse, the donkeys could tough it out in such an inhospitable place. The ore veins dried up during the Great Depression, and at the start of World War II, the mines were formally closed as nonessential to the war effort. The last few miners turned their beasts of burden loose onto the surrounding hills, and left town for good.

The burros, being burros, thrived on their hardscrabble existence, and before long had produced an entire population of feral donkeys. Their sleek, well-fed descendants roam the streets of Oatman today, stalling traffic (such as there is) and biting the fingers of unwary tourists.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

You have to hand it to Oatman: someone there saw the potential for a feral donkey to become a serious—and sacred—cash cow.

I’m a little ashamed to say I didn’t part with any tourist cash in Oatman. I didn’t even get out of the car. It was 116 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and while I’ll do almost anything for a good tourist trap, frying like an egg isn’t on the list. But then again, stubborn as I may be, I’m no burro—just a pale Irish gal from a cold, rainy climate.

Maybe I’ll visit in the winter next time, and buy an extra t-shirt as penance.

Arches National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Frozen desert

In my humble opinion, the absolute best time to visit Arches is in the winter. Sure, you’ll have to wrap up extra warm (it barely got above zero degrees F during the day!), and if you’re sketching, you’ll have to think ahead to keep your paints from freezing. But the rewards far outweigh any annoyances. For one thing, there’s nothing like seeing Arches under a blanket of snow. For another, the teeming hordes that descend upon the place during the peak season are simply nonexistent. So you’re far more likely to have the same luck the Tailor and I did, when we had this…

Arches National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…all to ourselves.