Landcape Painting Road Trip: Across the USA in 13 Fields

The story of how this road trip originated is a bit convoluted. Suffice it to say that I had many reasons to go to both Minnesota and California in August and September. As I currently reside on the East Coast, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a landscape painting road trip. How many times in my life would I get to see the landscape of my country, in an unbroken succession of images, from one end to the other? As a theme, I chose to focus on painting fields, and as beginning and end, I chose the Chesapeake Bay and San Fransisco Bay.
This is a log of that trip.

A few days before actually leaving on my road trip, I do my easternmost painting: This series begins with the Chesapeake Bay.

Wild Rice Field, Lothian, MD, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 1, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, Lothian, Maryland
It is midmorning when I pull into the parking area at Jug Bay Wetlands sanctuary. The sanctuary lies on the Patuxent River in Maryland, near where the river empties into the Chesapeake Bay. It is a humid day and the bugs are singing loudly. I walk about a half an hour into the woods by the parking lot and then turn off the path and onto a boardwalk into a wide marsh. I am surrounded by wild rice. Their feathery heads rustle around me like waves in a sea of yellow. This is my first field painting: a field of wild rice. 
The first day of my actual road trip, I start driving from Washington, DC and head northwest into Maryland.
Tuberose Field, Gaithersburg, MD, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 2, Plantmasters Flower Farm, Gaithersburg, MD
At the farmers market in DC where I often sell my paintings, there is a flower stand filled with bunches and bunches of glorious, colorful flowers. They are all grown on just a few acres in Maryland. Leon, the proprietor, has allowed me to come out to the farm and painted some of the fields. Plantmasters, the farm, is about an hour’s drive from Washington, DC. The farm looks like a normal suburban house from the front, but if you walk around to the back of the house, and you will see flowering plants growing lots of different ways: in rows, beds, greenhouses, pots, and inside fences. When I arrive, Leon is tying up tuberoses – bunches and bunches. The Tuberoses are the flower most visibly in bloom, so these are the flowers I choose to paint. They are next to garlic chive flowers and out-of-season peony bushes. Both the tuber roses and the garlic chive flowers are white, so, I end up with a nearly monochromatic palette. The light stems of the tuber roses against the shadows of bushes behind them ended up being the particular beauty of the place that struck me. 
To learn more about Plantmasters, click on their Facebook page:
It is a fairly slow drive through rural Maryland, over the wooded Alleghenies and onto the plains of Ohio. I spend the night just north of Pittsburg.
Goldenrod Field, Middleton, OH, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 3, Chicagami Park of Geauga County, Middlefield, OH. 
Today I attempt to paint a family farm field in Middlefield, OH. I had contacted a farm cooperative to ask for permission; however, as the farmers involved in the co-op happen to be Amish, the only way for me to do the asking is to simply show up and knock. Well, I show up, and no one is home.
So, I drive down the road from the farm, contemplating alternatives. Seeing a sign for Chicagami Park, I turn in the drive. The parking lot looks over a wide meadow of yellow and purple flowers – goldenrod and asian milfoil, I think. Hm…allergies and invasive species. Well, it’s pretty and has dramatic, contrasting colors, so why not? 
The afternoon is spent driving through miles of flat land and farms then crawling through Detroit traffic. My very hospitable aunt in Detroit puts me up for the night and provides me with coffee in the morning. When I ask her for recommendations of fields to paint, she recommends the shores of Lake Michigan.
Dune Grass, Sagatuck, MI, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 4, Sagatuck Dunes State Park, Sagatuck, MI
Sagatuck Dunes State Park right on Lake Michigan, the whole eastern shore of which is piled with sand dunes. It is a cloudy, windy day, and it is raining on and off. I park in the apparently deserted lot and walk into the woods looking for the lake. I can hear the waves, but it takes me a long time to find the shore.
Today’s painting portrays “fields” in a few different ways. The proliferation of dune grass over the whole area constitutes a field of grass. Insofar as the painting shows a grouping of dunes over a large area, this is a painting of a field of dunes. In addition, observing the waves, there are multiples waves over a large area of water. So, any seascape is a kind of portrayal of a “field” of waves. 
Leaving Lake Michigan, I head south and drive under Chicago and into Illinois. There are more corn fields and less traffic than I expected. Oddly enough, I never paint a corn field on this trip. Somehow, it just never seems to be the right time or place to do so.
After spending the night west of Chicago, I head north. Flat land and corn fields give way to rolling hills and more varied farmland of central Wisconsin.
Pumpkin Field, Wisconsin Dells, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day Five, Wisconsin Dells, Thurs. Aug 25
There is an open-to-the-public farm a short drive off the main freeway that passes through the Dells. It features a corn maze, childrens’ play area, a produce store, flower gardens, and big, big fields of pumpkins. The owners let me walk far back away from their storefront, into the fields – which is where I discover this view. Pumpkins hiding under their leaves. 
The hills of southwestern Wisconsin give way to bluffs near the Mississippi River and this is where I spend the night. 

Queen Anne’s Lave Field, La Crosse, WI, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day Six, Near La Crosse, WI, Fri. Aug 26
Actually, this is still day five. I arrive at my lodgings in the evening and get all excited about the field of Queen Anne’s lace nearby and paint it right away – no thanks to the goats who kick me out of the first field I try to paint and into an adjacent field. Fortunately, there is Queen Anne’s Lace there too. 
The next day, I cross the river and drive up onto the flatlands of southern Minnesota. More and more cornfields.
I stay in MN for a week, visiting my family. While there, I drive a bit north of the Twin Cities to find field #7.
Prairie Grass Field, Pacem in Terris, St. Francis, MN, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 7, Pacem in Terris Retreat Center, St. Francis, MN, 
There is a prairie at the retreat center. The staff takes very good care of it. At the proper times, they burn it. At the time of year in which I arrived (mid August), most of the wildflower blooms have passed. The dominant feature of “the meadow” – as they call it – is the dried grasses. They stand up, straight and fine, with heads of grain. They are a reddish-brown color. I paint on the edge of the woods, in the cool of its shadow.
After a few more days in Minnesota, I head west again. My grandmother joins me for this leg of the trip. Our first stop is Iowa City, but we start our travels in the evening, and so there is no light by which to paint. After visiting some friends the next day in Lincoln, NE, we spent the night in North Platte, NE. In the morning, Grandma finds me a good place to paint.
Hay and Trains, Bailey Yard, North Platte, NE, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 8: Golden Spike Visitor’s Center and Observation Tower, North Platte, NE
Bailey Yard is the largest train classification yard in the world. The Golden Spike Observation Tower allows visitors to look over the yard and watch its operations. I sit in the open-air deck and paint the part of the yard containing the diesel repair shop. Next to it lies a field of newly baled, small, square hay bales. So, this painting shows a field of square hay next to a “field” of trains.
The next stop is Denver where we say hello to my cousin and his fiancé over local beer and a game of cards. After a good night’s sleep, we take a little foray into the Rockies.
Mountain Meadow, Estes, CO, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 9: Behind the Starbucks, Estes, CO
The town of Estes is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is set up in the mountains high enough so that the arid foothills around Denver and Boulder give way to evergreen forests. Because we do not have time to actually go into the park, we make do with searching the main street of town for a good field to paint. We were well rewarded. There is a beautiful, little brook that runs through town, just behind all the tourist and outdoors shops. I sit on the rocks on the bank and paint the sun slanting through dried grasses under the evergreens on the opposite bank of the river. 
After Estes, we drive down through Thompson Canyon to Fort Collins to visit an old Minnesota friend. She feeds us well and sends us on our way over rolling hills to the little town of Rawlins, Wyoming.
Sage Brush Hills, Rawlins, WY, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 10, Behind the Depot, Rawlins, WY. 
Incidentally, after discovering Bailey Yard, we find ourselves paralleling train tracks for the rest of our trip west. Indeed, as far as I can tell, I-80 (the road we took) follows roughly the same path as the original trans-continental railroad. So, in Rawlins, it seems appropriate that the best view I can find of the sagebrush covered hills is from the steps of the train depot. Midway through the painting a large train pulls up and blocks my view entirely for about half an hour, so some of this painting is completed while peering through the space between box cars.
Continuing west over more and more rolling hills, we finally descended into Salt Lake City.
Pampas Grass, Salt Lake City, UT, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 11, By the Super 8, Salt Lake City, UT
Originally, I had thought about painting the salt flats. They would have been a “field” of salt. However, the view from our hotel is so striking that I paint that instead. It even includes a train. Yes, trains are a theme on this trip. The field between that train and the hotel parking lot is a field of what is called (as far as I can tell) pampas grass. It has large, wheat-like heads that are slightly purple. The other grass in the field is straight and wispy. I paint as the sun is rising.
We then cross the salt desert and proceed onto the high desert of Nevada. 
Mown Hay, Lovelock, NV, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 12, Lovelock, NV
Driving west on I-80, Nevada appears to consist of a series of barely green valleys ringed by very dry mountains. One of these valleys, about 100 miles east of Reno, contains the town of Lovelock. It has a diner, a few hotels, a coffee shop and a car wash – all the comforts of home! At the edge of town is a field of recently mown hay edged by a windbreak of trees. Having so much enjoyed painting at dawn the day before, I decide to try it again. So, this painting also is a bit golden colored. 
After washing the bugs off our car, we continue west, through Reno, up our highest mountain passes yet, and down, down, down, a long slope into Sacramento and finally to San Fransisco where I drop off my Grandma at my aunt’s in the suburbs and continue on to my brother’s apartment in the city.
Salt Fields, San Fransisco Bay, 16″x12″ Watercolor
Day 13, San Fransisco, CA
I have reached my destination: San Fransisco Bay. On the recommendation of my brother, I choose for my “field” to paint the salt evaporation ponds on the south end of the bay. Next to the ponds is the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge, and it is from a hill in this refuge that I paint this “field.” Like the painting of Bailey Yard, this painting contains two “fields.” The marsh in the foreground is a field of various salt marsh plants with a slough snaking through it. The ponds in the background form a “field” of many slightly different colored pools. 

Looking at all the different paintings of fields, the viewer can see that I have approached the concept of fields as a way to see large areas containing many of the same object – fields of grass, fields of dunes, fields of flowers, fields of trains (to push the definition a little). All of these, taken together and seen under various lights, form a variety of beautiful patterns. Thank you for reading about my trip and looking at the paintings. I hope you have enjoyed my patterns and and that you will see many more of your own today.

Prints of any of these images can be ordered by clicking the link below the painting.

A big thank you to all the people who helped, lodged, or fed us on our trip: the Carriers, Aunt Marcille (& Bruce in absentia), Teresa, my parents, the Villas, Spenser, Kelsey, Mary, the Chows, and Andrew.

Bethany Lee

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