Like Saguaro, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into two separate units. Unlike Saguaro, the North Dakota badlands are an old, familiar haunt of mine. Greener and less weathered than their craggy South Dakota siblings, these buttes have a similar mystery to them, all the same. It’s not hard to see why they were dear to Teddy Roosevelt’s heart—just as they’re dear to mine.
I always embark on road trips with the expectation that I’m going to delight in what I see along the way. Mostly that’s the case—I’m interested in just about everything, and the road is always full of pleasant surprises. But while this blog mostly has been a collection of things I love, I also sketch things that disturb and anger me.
I did this drawing in complete haste, in pencil and super-quick watercolor, from the passenger seat of a moving car. It’s a sketch of the oil fields in western North Dakota—and it’s the only image I managed to get of them on that trip. There were a lot of people around, and I didn’t feel comfortable stopping to take photos of what I saw. So this image is all there is of that afternoon—yet because of this drawing, my memories of that day are so strong that even nearly four years later, I haven’t been able to shake them.
The majority of my sketchbook drawings just stay sketchbook drawings—they’re “finished” in their own right, and the sketchbook is as far as the image goes. Sometimes, though, a sketch might become the basis for a fine-art project—and that’s the case with this image. Well, the project in question is finished, and on display over at my studio blog—if you’re curious, feel free to head over and take a gander.
You might remember Salem Sue—she was the first sketch I ever posted on this blog. I have a deep fondness for just about any roadside attraction, but I might just love Sue best of all.
It’s not just that she’s freakishly realistic (just out of frame of this sketch: the big scary veins on her udder), and at 38 x 50 feet, absolutely huge. There’s also something about her location, perched on a butte, with an endless plain stretching below her in every direction. It’s impossible to be that big and not have some serious presence.
Probably what I love best of all, though, is that Salem Sue looks great from every angle—from far below, close-to, underfoot, and even from above. The residents of New Salem seem to know this, and have made it easy to get up there and reach her.
Good thing I had plenty of pages left in my sketchbook.
Two years ago today, the Tailor and I were at our friend Sarah’s family farm in North Dakota, celebrating her wedding to the coolest groom we know. (That barn you see above is the same one that sometimes appears as the masthead on this blog!)
We didn’t just get to spend a whole day in the company of people we love—we also got to experience an overwhelming feeling of home. The Christianson farm wasn’t our home, of course, but we got to bask in how much it meant to the people who had grown up on those acres. We could almost feel the years (five generations’ worth!) of memories surrounding us there. I can’t think of a better place to have a wedding, and create new memories.
Happy anniversary, Sarah and Jesse! Here’s to many more—love to you both.
Speaking of stormy weather, it’s a little unnerving to be sitting in the passenger seat, happily sketching along, and suddenly be startled out of your reverie by massive raindrops that sound like rocks hitting the windshield.
To be honest, though, it also makes for a thrilling sketch session—especially when you live in the Pacific Northwest, where the rain mostly comes in the form of thick mist and gentle drizzle.
One of my very favorite things about the Red River Valley (of the north) is that the land is so perfectly, endlessly flat that you can see entire weather systems grow and unfold before your very eyes.
Then again, it’s not so fun when that weather catches up with you. I did this painting in the passenger seat while the Tailor drove, and not ten minutes later those roiling clouds went from pretty picture fodder to terrifying death trap. It rained so hard we couldn’t see past the end of our windshield, and I had to put my paintbrush down in order to cross my fingers and hope the storm didn’t come equipped with car-crushing hailstones.
Then it was over, just as quickly as it had come—driving home the point that no matter how quick on the, er, draw I think I might be, nature will beat me every time.
When the Tailor and I drove to Texas last year, we planned our return route around my decades-long desire to visit Roswell, NM. I was so excited to see what kind of alien-themed kitsch would be waiting for me that I banned myself from looking online to see exactly what was there. I just didn’t want to spoil the surprise. But I did daydream about the possibilities—giant replicas of crash-landed UFOs! Thirty-foot little green men! Alien-head-shaped doughnuts! Intergalactic ferris wheels! Postcards that glow under blacklight! Costumed interpreters! Tinfoil park-ranger hats! Saucer-shaped souvenir stands on every corner! Newsstands devoted solely to the Weekly World News! Cheesy space junk encrusting every square inch of the town! I was positively quivering with anticipation.
Well, I so want to be able to tell you that it lived up to my most ridiculous fantasies—but alas, I can’t. There weren’t alien tchotchkes everywhere, nor were we surrounded by roadside attractions. All we really found was a museum (closed that day), a couple of sparse souvenir shops, and a handful of scattered E.T. effigies—so few, in fact, that I couldn’t even fill one whole spread in my sketchbook. And that makes me sad, because just think of the things Roswell could learn from somewhere like Wall Drug!
I’ve stumbled across more UFO kitsch in completely random places than I found by scouring Roswell that day. For example, in Everett, WA is a charming saucer-shaped park shelter. There’s no connection to alien lore that I know of (except maybe its proximity to the Boeing factory), but it’s charming nonetheless. How cool would this be in Roswell?!?
And then there is the totally inexplicable—and completely awesome—pair of alien-themed barbeque (!?) restaurants in North Dakota, of all places. I got to revisit the Fargo location last summer with the Tailor—and the poor man got treated to my rant about how this was how alien kitsch was done, people. Chrome dinettes and all, thank you very much.
Oh, if only I had the means to start a proper UFO tourist trap in Roswell. It would be a beautiful (and eye-frying) thing to behold.
You know when you’re on a road trip, and you see a highway billboard that says something like, “World’s Largest Two-Headed Calf, Exit Now!” and you consider stopping, just for a moment? And then your spouse looks it up on the map, and you discover that yeah, it’s this exit, plus maybe another 140 miles of dirt-road switchbacks in the opposite direction? And then you laugh, because who on earth would ever actually go there?
Well, that’s me. I am the one who goes there.
And I bring my sketchbook and a little box of paints with me. This is what I do. I’ve logged a lot of miles in my life, visiting as many patches of earth as possible and getting as much down on paper as I can. And for the first time, I’m putting these sketches out into the world. So here we are: I’ve collected all my drawings of crazy tourist traps and Paul Bunyan statues and hidden gems and panoramic vistas, and I’m sending them out like postcards. To you.
Welcome to my world—let’s hit the road, shall we?