Artist Adventure Series, No. 6
Monday, May 8, 2017
It has a been a while since I wrote an Adventure Series blog. I get all my inspiration from the outdoors, near and far, and somehow my searches for dramatic landscapes to paint always end up in dramatic adventure stories. Here are a few of my latest:
The Grand Canyon Adventure
Last October, I went backpacking with two of my brothers into the Grand Canyon. While I had been doing Zumba every week in preparation, my knees were not prepared to descend and climb the equivalent of 1,000 flights of stairs in two days. We started hiking down about an hour before dawn, well laden with 50 pounds apiece (all my brothers are Boy Scotts, and I was raised on their motto – be prepared... shall we say over-prepared?) The switchbacks leading out of the arm of the canyon were longer than I expected, and I urged my brothers forward, nearly at a jog, hoping to make it to the first viewpoint overlooking the main canyon before daybreak. I knew to the minute when the sun was going to rise, and as the last minutes before sunrise sped quickly past, I kept rounding turn after turn, only to see my view blocked by yet another cliffside, and another… but the semi-jogging finally paid off. I finally made it to the final bend of the trail that looked majestically out over the entire canyon, just as the sun tipped over the horizon line and started flooding the top edge of the canyon with light. My camera was out and ready, and the next 30 minutes were a heady race down the trail, trying to catch as many angles and compositions as possible during the precious moments of early dawn light.
Once the sun had risen 10 degrees above the desert floor, and I had finished rushing around with the camera glued to my eye, one of my brothers suddenly twisted his ankle. There we were, 2 miles down into the canyon, with three 50-lb packs, and one twisted foot. We rested, discussed, and tried to decide the best thing to do. Finally, my brother convinced us that he could climb out alone, and since the park was filled with people he could ask for help if needed, as long as we took most of the weight out of his pack. So, my other brother and I took the stove, and the water, and the water filter, and the backup water filter, and the tarp, and the other 20 pounds of miscellaneous, and I walked my brother up the trail several hundred feet to make sure he would be OK, and then I turned around continued back down the trail with my other brother, packs heavier, hearts heavier, and trying to stay optimistic.
With the excitement of daybreak over, and the tough decision made, my remaining brother Chris and I continued downwards, our packs feeling heavier with every mile. The scenery was beautiful, and the weather was perfect, but I was surprised to see that we seemed to be the only people wearing giant multi-day-hike packs. The last backpacking trip we had done was a 5-day trek across Zion National Park, and we were accustomed to bringing every possible necessity with us, being days away from civilization, and hiking in the backcountry. Yet everyone around us was carrying nothing more than light day packs.
So onwards we hiked, getting passed by dozens of hikers carrying little fanny packs and carrying single bottles of water. (We had gallons of water on us, enough for 2 days of drinking and cooking 2 meals for 3 people.) A few of these spritely hikers said they were camping at the bottom at Bright Angel Campground. I was rather surprised since they weren’t carrying a backpack with a tent and sleeping bag, but the mystery was eventually resolved: we were passed by a mule train carrying enough duffle bags to house a small army, and after making it to the bottom of the canyon and seeing a bunch of backpacks hanging on giant metal hooks with people’s names on them… I finally understood the phrase “duffle service”, and I realized that we could have paid to have the mules carry our giant backpacks down for us. Next time, I am doing my homework! (and clearing my misunderstood words!)
When we arrived at Bright Angel Campground in the late afternoon, our legs numb and exhausted, I was surprised to discover the most well-appointed campground I think I’ve ever been to. There were flushing toilets, running potable water, a ranger’s cabin, and flat, smooth tent areas. Half the backcountry equipment we had brought with us was completely unnecessary. Homework.
We were, of course, starving, but we luckily had brought a ton of dehydrated meals with us. We started up the burner and soon had several pots of water boiling in record time (with no need at all for the backup stove we had brought, or the 2 extra propane containers.) With very empty stomachs, we started filling up several of our meal pouches with hot water, eagerly awaiting the result. Once the 10 required minutes had elapsed, we dug into our meals with our handy lightweight backpacking sporks. A few bites in, we realized the food was barely edible, and that we had made enough to feed 8 or 9 people, not 2.
I was then faced with the uncomfortable problem of disposing of all this food. There were signs posted everywhere (even above the flushing toilets) saying that we couldn’t dispose of food at the campsite. We had been hoping to empty most of our water weight at the campground, to give us a lighter pack on the hike out, but we ended up just converting our water into bloated metal ziplocks of food. So, the next morning, we loaded up over 10 pounds of re-hydrated, inedible food back into our packs, and prepared for the 5,000-ft ascent.
Up we started. The weather was still holding out – never higher than 75 degrees, warm and dry. I couldn’t get any good sunrise photos at the bottom of the canyon (especially since my eyes were closed and I was sleeping), but I was hoping for some epic sunset shots as we neared the top. The days were still pretty long – the sun wasn’t scheduled to go down until around 7pm. Plenty of time.
Once again, we were the only ones on the trail carrying heavy packs. It actually was much easier climbing up than it had been climbing down. I know from rock climbing that static moves are much easier on the joints than dynamic moves, and the static upclimbing was actually therapeutic on our legs. Any time the trail evened out flat or started descending slightly, my brother and I almost started howling with the pain in our legs. Once we hit an upslope, it was easy going again.
We got passed again by the mules carrying everyone’s packs out at around noon. But that wasn’t the only indignity of the day. A few hours later, we were passed by a lightweight jogger who had already passed us going down earlier in the morning, had jogged all the way to Bright Angel Campground, and was now passing us jogging back out again. As the sun started setting, and we were resting a few miles from the rim, we were passed by a couple who had done the rim-to-rim trail in one day, starting that morning (North Rim to South Rim.) After the sun set, it soon became apparent that we were the only ones left in the canyon. We were hiking by headlamp, and my younger brother had pretty much had it. He was taking breaks every couple of steps, suffering from the elevation change and lack of oxygen. After about an hour of hiking in the pitch black, I started seeing a little point of light bobbing around in the blackness of the canyon below. As we slowly rounded bend after bend, the little light bobbed closer and closer. Eventually I realized it was a few people jogging by night. We were only about a quarter mile from the top of the trail, and I became determined that we would not be the last ones out of the canyon. We would not be passed by yet another set of hikers/joggers. I urged my brother on, forcing water on him and giving him lots of hearty pep talks. We crawled along, while the bobbing lights got closer and closer. Soon I could make out their forms in the darkness, and I could see they were only a few hundred yards behind us. I could literally see the top of the trail head, only one switch back above us… when we were passed by the joggers. They told us they had done the rim-to-rim-to-rim trail that day… jogging from South Rim to North Rim to South Rim in one day. And they still beat us. The final indignity.
Next time I hike the Grand Canyon, I am using the duffle service.
When we finally make it to the top of the trailhead, after 10pm, long after the shuttles had stopped running, and still miles from our car…. I saw the happiest sight I had seen all weekend: my huge, dark-bearded brother standing there waiting for us, with the car running and ready to go. I have never been happier to get a pack off my back, and we all three limped our way to the nearest hotel and hot bath.
The Big Bend Adventure
A few weeks ago, I decided to visit Big Bend National Park for the first time. I wanted to gather inspirational shots for a solo show I was doing the following year at the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine, TX. I was already in Austin, and I figured I was a lot closer to Big Bend than I normally was in California, so I might as well make the 8-hour drive. I had three days available until my next art festival in Houston. I always carefully plan my trips out to maximize my sunrises and sunsets, where I get most of the inspiration for my paintings. Once the sun has risen above 30 degrees, the lighting on the landscape flattens out and it is hard to see distances and shapes in my photo references. I also love the saturated color of dawn and sunset.
I planned to catch the sunrise over Texas hill country near Fredericksburg, and then drive 8 hours to Big Bend, just in time to catch the late afternoon light and sunset. (I would then have one more sunrise and sunset, and a final sunrise on Wednesday morning before driving back to Houston to get ready for my next show.) I woke up Monday morning 1.5 hours before dawn, because there was a particular view overlooking a lake that I wanted to catch for the sunrise. I had this idea for a painting of still waters reflecting the sunrise clouds, surrounded by low hills of oak trees. I drove out of the city in near darkness, watching the sky slowly lighten around me.
I arrived at the park overlooking the lake a little before dawn. I was up on top of a small hill (the highest elevation you could get in this area of Texas), but the trees were mostly blocking the view of the lake. I got a few shots of the morning light coming through the oaks, but I knew this was going to be a waste of one of my three precious “dawns,” unless I found another view quickly. I drove down the tiny hill and started driving west towards some scenic wildflower drives I had researched earlier. I ran right smack into morning commute traffic driving from the suburbs into Austin. Driving crazily about, slowing down and speeding up to take photos through the viewfinder of my Canon camera while driving, I anxiously watched the sun creep toward the top of the oak trees. Unless I could get out of the tightly packed trees growing everywhere, I would never find a vista to paint. Since I was in the relative flatness of Texan hill country, I knew the sunrise would be swift and my window for getting good photos would be about 10 minutes. Each traffic light stop felt like eons passing.
Suddenly, while careening around a turn in my 20-ft Promaster cargo van, I spotted a glorious vision of wide-open plains and marshlands, with some beautifully sculpted oak trees turning bright orange in the first rays of the sun. I did a 360 through the oncoming traffic and turned off onto the side road.
I abruptly found myself in another world. It was suddenly quiet, with no motion around me. The bank of trees at the main road sheltered me completely from the Monday morning rush, and I felt all alone, surrounded by wilderness. Beautiful multi-colored marshlands stretched on either side of me, the tall grasses turning bright purples and oranges in the early dawn light. Now I could see the beautiful curving branches of the oak trees, isolated from the surrounding forest and standing alone on the grassland, turning bright hues of orange and yellow. I parked my van right in the middle of the road, with not a soul in sight. I had found my photo op, and I spent the next 20 minutes exploring my secret oasis, taking photos from different angles as the sun rose.
After the sun had fully risen, in a much more relaxed state of mind, I started driving the wildflower-lined byroads towards Enchanted Rock, a unique landscape formation about 100 miles away. This was a slight northern detour on my way to Big Bend. I like driving country byroads, the less maintained the better, since I can often stop my van in the middle of the road and jump out to photograph a unique tree or interesting clump of wildflowers. About an hour after daybreak, I came over the crest of a hill and saw a glorious grouping of primroses, bluebonnets, and Indian paintbrushes. I pulled dramatically off to the side of the road, as I had done scores of times already that morning. The ground felt a little soft, and I noticed with some foreboding several deep tire tracks in the soft red earth in front of me. Nevertheless, I jumped out and spent 10 minutes photographing all the beautiful Texan wildflowers.
When I got back into my van and hit the gas, I heard the sickening sound of tires spinning in soft earth. My heart sinking, my mind went immediately to the precious sunset deadline for arriving in Big Bend, and I climbed back out of the van to see how deep I was sunk in the dirt. The Ram Promaster has surprisingly tiny tires for being such a big van, and it is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, which gives it no traction at all. Although I have taken my van offroading many times, on all sorts of compromising roads, it is completely helpless in soft earth. The last time I got my van stuck by the side of the road was 10 miles outside Monument Valley, pulling over to capture some beautiful fluffy monsoon clouds moving above. Stuck in the middle of the wide Utah desert, it was 2 hours before a friendly native tied a big rope around my van and dragged me out of the sand.
My tiny van tires were buried almost halfway into the soft earth. I started digging the earth out with my bare hands, and I forced a piece of plywood from the back of my van under the tires to try to help them get a grip. After 30 minutes of going nowhere, I was delighted to see a brown UPS van pulling up alongside me. I love UPS! The friendly UPS driver worked with me for another 30 minutes, pushing on the van while we tried to rock it back and forth out of its self-dug hole. We were both sweaty and covered in mud by the end of it, and we destroyed every piece of cardboard and wood panel in my truck, but at last the van lurched out onto the asphalt.
Finally arriving at Enchanted Rock, with the sun far overhead, was rather anticlimactic, and I was less than enchanted. However, I was happy with all the photos I had gotten already that morning, and my brush was itching to paint those illuminated oak trees I had discovered. So, I turned the van around and started heading south toward Big Bend National Park. I was scheduled to arrive 1 hour before sunset.
The drive was uneventful, the audiobook was a scifi/fantasy by Tad Williams, and before I knew it I was watching the distant buttes and dramatic land formations of Big Bend rising before me in the distance. I made it to the entrance of the park with the sun already cutting low across the tops of the jagged mountain ranges. When I had been approaching the entrance of the park, I had detoured off the road to photograph a beautiful grove of ocotillo cacti casting long, dramatic shadows across the sand. Now that I was inside the park, I found myself surrounded by thousands of ocotillos, blanketing the desert floor in every direction, as far as I could see. I love painting ocotillo, and seeing a grove of several together is always an eye-catching sight in California. Now here I was, surrounded by enough ocotillo to keep my paintbrush happy for years.
It was long past dark when I made it to my hotel at Lajitas, and after driving around in the pitch blackness for a while to find my hotel, I finally was in my room and ready for sleep. I needed to wake up the next morning before dawn, rent a Jeep, and be in the park by sunrise. I had seen from my first foray into the park that many of the roads were unpaved, and I didn’t want my poor van stranded yet again – hence the Jeep rental. See, I can learn!
The next day started with MANY photos of ocotillos catching the early morning light, with long shadows and jagged peaks of layered mountains. My morale is always high when I know I have some great new oil paintings waiting to be created. I started bouncing down the dirt road in high spirits, driving the 10 miles or so to the Rio Grande. The hotel night clerk had warned me that this road was “very rough” and I was looking forward to the challenge in my cute yellow Jeep. The road did indeed get very pockety and full of holes, with steep arroyos and riverbeds to cross. At the end of the trail my reward was a beautiful vista of the Rio Grande passing into a tall red rock canyon.
After my initial trip, I had quite a few hours to kill until the afternoon sun would come down and let me take out my camera again. I knew I wanted to capture more winding river and canyon shots, so I decided to make the trip across Big Bend National Park in my jeep, traversing the dirt roads along the southern edge of the park. On the map, it looked like it might take me a few hours at the most.
Two hours of jostling and bumping later, I passed a campsite on my right. I squinted at the tiny PDF map I had on my phone, and realized I was exactly one tenth of the way down this dirt road. At the rate I was going, it would be long past nightfall before I got out. I could have turned back, I suppose… but I am as stubborn as they come. I wanted to see the adventure out. Plus, I had just passed some signs that said: “Danger, 4x4 Clearance Only.” I had to see what that was all about.
What followed was a Six Flags rollercoaster ride up and down the steepest and rockiest and least maintained road I have ever been on. Half the time I was barely in my seat. I saw more ocotillos in that day than I’ve seen in my entire life put together. Once I sat on a cactus that appeared out of nowhere while I taking care of business. This made the bumps even more joyful.
My only milestones during the 50 miles ahead of me were the occasional primitive campground and sporadic warning signs that the road was not maintained. At long last, with the sun nearing the horizon, I passed what should have been the last campsite on the map. I thought I could see a flat space in the desert ahead of me that should be the paved road. I sped along the widened dirt trail. Then, a quarter mile later, I passed another campsite that had no business being there. I turned around, sure I had missed a turnoff somewhere. I flip-flopped back and forth three times, the perceived nearness of concrete taunting me. At last, I found the turnoff and sped happily towards what I knew for sure was a road, since I could see a car on it! When my tires hit the asphalt, the ride was suddenly so peaceful and smooth, I felt like I had landed in a warm, peaceful lake.
Somehow, I had successfully made it all the way across Big Bend National Park, in time to catch another sunset across the other wide of the Rio Grande. I was even in time to catch the canyon twice in two different lighting scenarios.
The next morning, I explored the Big Bend State Park, just north of Lajitas, and then headed back to Houston. My SD cards were fat with inspirational photos, and I had plenty of exciting moments to fuel my paintbrush when I returned to my studio in San Diego.
The Torrey Pines Adventure
Since you have read this far, it is perhaps not surprising that I can turn a safe, family-rated hike into a crazy adventure. Last week I went hiking in Torrey Pines, to capture some scenery to paint for my Coastal Show. I took my brother Chris with me (the one from the Grand Canyon trip.) Running a bit of a tight schedule, we got there exactly 2 hours before sunset. I knew this would be the most beautiful lighting for the gold-colored cliffs of Torrey Pines. After our last over-packed adventure into the Grand Canyon, we were determined to under-pack with a vengeance, and we brought with us a single daypack with a few bottles of water and some snacks.
We paid our visitor’s fee and drove up the sedate drive to the top of the cliffs, surrounded by mighty coastal pines. We took the Beach trail down to the ocean. There weren’t many people about, since it was the middle of the week, and I felt somewhat like I was out in the wilderness, although the ropes lining the trail and frequent signs telling me not to pick the daisies made me feel rather like I was on a class field trip. I wanted some sort of adventure, and, although crossing the orange danger tape that led off to Broken Hill Trail was tempting (the recent rains had damaged the trail), I decided to be a good citizen and stay on the main path.
We made it down to the beach, and it certainly was beautiful. The weather in San Diego is amazing: moderate and warm, but not too warm. My brother and I walked away from the people to a little walkway carved out of an outcropping rock. After clambering over and rounding the bend, we were delighted to find ourselves in a completely deserted section of the beach! Gorgeous orange rocks lumbered into the ocean, surrounded by peach-white sand that was untouched by footprints.
As we walked along the cove, I snapped photos of the changing cliff faces and glistening water catching the late afternoon light. It was still amazing to me that there weren’t any other people around. After about an hour, we debated turning back, but I never hike the same path back if I can help it, and I was certain that the cliff face about a mile away was the same one I had visited years ago. I was fairly certain there was a trail leading up the steep cliff, and we could hike up it, and then loop back around to our car. We had a deadline of 7pm before our car would be towed out of the state park parking lot (which was the same time the sun was scheduled to set.) I felt confident we would make our target, and we decided to push on.
In the distance, I started to see tiny dots moving, and I told Chris excitedly, “See, those people must have come down the trail from that other cliff!” One dot neared us, and I could vaguely tell it was wearing either very flesh-colored pants, or none at all. I told my brother, “That guy isn’t wearing any clothes,” joking, and yet rather surprised when, 10 minutes later, a nude man was indeed standing before us. I grew up in Los Angeles and have seen my sights, but I was still surprised to find such casual nudity so close to a big city. Still, he was very helpful in pointing out where on the distant cliff the trail was. After passing several more nudes, I realized there was possibly a reason why that part of the beach had been so deserted. Thankfully for his directions, we did find the trail, exactly where he had indicated, which was the tiniest sliver on the side of the mountain. I would have surely walked right by it, none the wiser, and ended up in La Jolla. We climbed up the cliff, and found ourselves next to Torrey Pines golf course and back to civilization. The map said we were an hour-and-half hike from our car, so we did what civilized people do, and called ourselves an Uber. We made it back to the park 1 minute after 7pm, and I still got the glorious “sunset over the ocean” money shot I had been hoping for.
Now that you have gotten a taste of how I find the inspiration to create my paintings, I am heading back to the easel!
ERIN HANSON has been painting in oils since she was 8 years old. As a young artist, she worked at a mural studio creating 40-foot-tall paintings on canvas, while selling art commissions on the side. After getting a degree in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley, Erin became a rock climber at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Inspired by the colorful scenery she was climbing, she decided to paint one painting every week for the rest of her life. She has stuck to that decision ever since, becoming one of the most prolific artists in history. Erin Hanson's style is known as "Open Impressionism" and is now taught in art schools worldwide. With thousands of collectors eagerly anticipating her work and millions of followers online, Hanson has become an iconic, driving force in the rebirth of contemporary impressionism.
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