Trails, Roads, & Rails

“The landscape of the American West has to to be seen to be believed, and has to be believed to be seen.” -N. Scott Momaday

I have many summer memories of road trips across the West.

Often our family trips were to the north through Oregon, Washington, and dipping into southern British Colombia. On another road trip we visited Monument Valley, the incredible Grand Canyon, and the underwhelming Four Corners in our Volkswagon Vanagon. On the same trip we rode on one of the United States’ most famous railroads, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

To celebrate summer and the purchase of a new car (a 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport), I decided to take a road trip in the West. My intended destinations reflect my many interests.

My new Adventure-Mobile.

For birds I intend to visit the Ruby Mountains in Nevada for the legendary lifer Himalayan snowcock and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado for white-tailed ptarmigan and broad-tailed hummingbird. For history I want to visit Fort Bridger in Wyoming, parts of the Hasting’s Cut-off in Utah, and the California Gull Monument in Salt Lake City. For rail history I planned to visit the Ames Monument in Buford Wyoming, Union Station at Ogden, Utah, and the ground zero of Union Pacific’s steam program, Cheyenne.

For roughly 1,000 miles I would be traveling east on Highway 80. Like the Transcontinental Railroad before it, I-80 is an east-west transcontinental highway. At 2,899 miles it is the second longest highway in the United States, after I-90. The highway was created in 1956 as part of the original interstate highway system.

As I do before any important journey I sketch out the route. In this case I chose to represent the map as a distressed treasure map or perhaps a map to a secret goldmine, like Dr. Buckbee’s map in the Gold Rush classic By the Great Horn Spoon.

I have been a big fan of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks and I love the heavy weight of the cold press, ivory paper of the Delta Series. What I don’t like is that I have not found this high quality paper in a hardbound panoramic sketchbook, until now!

While I was picking up pens at California Arts Supply I was ranting (once again) to the owner Ron about how I wished Stillman & Birn would make a Delta Series hardbound panoramic sketchbook. He told that they did have such a sketchbook, newly arrived! I bought one as my road trip journal!

Finally an improvement on the Moleskine panoramic sketch book that has been my go to journal for years but with better paper. The paper is 270 g, ivory cold press. When opened the panoramic format gives me a 6 X 18 inch painting surface! Perfect for the land of vast vistas! Or painting a very tall tree or tower in the vertical format.


Bird Dunes

On Sunday morning I headed to Watsonville, to worship at the Alter of Shorebird known as Pajaro Dunes.

Yes I know that June us not exactly shorebird central on the Central Coast but I had two shorebirds on my Santa Cruz County wishlist: American avocet, and black-necked stilt.

Pajaro Dunes is a coastal vacation community built on and over the Monterey Bay dunes. No doubt that this development has affected the original residents of these dunes and tidal flats: shorebirds. Their habitat here has been compromised, restricted, and expunged. That is one reason that birders are allowed access to this private community.

I do have a disclaimer: my family has spent much time at Pajaro Dunes when I was a kid. Once a year we rented a house at Pajaro with our neighbors on Cormorant Court. (Pajaro is the Spanish word for bird.) I somehow think that spending time here, as a child, made me appreciate this place and being a noticer, I noticed the natural world that was thriving here. I remember digging for sand crabs and catching lizards. And the brown pelicans that hugged the coast raised my eyes skywards.

On this Sunday morning, after checking in at the gatehouse, I kept my eyes towards the water channel, which was to my left. The tide was in, so water was much deeper, which would not be attractive to both avocet and stilt.

I headed to the bay where the Pajaro River becomes brackish. There where a large group of white pelicans, foraging in a raft and many double-crested cormorants drying their feathers. On the beach was a large flock of gulls, including about 40 Heerman’s gulls, one of the world’s most beautiful gulls, in my opinion.

The beautiful Heerman’s gull a Pajaro Dunes. The white-headed gulls are adults while gray-headed birds are juveniles. These gulls are newly arrived from Mexico or points south.

Since I was here last, a fence had been installed around the dunes to protect the breeding habitat of the threatened snowy plover. I have seen snowies here before in the winter where but they where not wearing the black headband and black epaulets of their breeding plumage. Some of the plovers were wearing colored bands on both feet so biologists can identify individual plovers in the field.

A child created sign on the fence placed around snowy plover habitat. Judging by the drawing and the capitalization (or lack of it) I would say it was done by a 3rd grader. It is funny that children draw the head like a separate circle plopped on the body when in reality there is usually a smooth transition from head to body. Sadly, most adults would draw birds in the same way because around this time, nine to tens years old, most realize that their drawing no longer captures realty and their artist development stops at that age.

I did see three snowy plovers. One was running circles around me looking like a windup toy dune-runner. This male was sporting jewelry in the form of four leg bracelets, known as bands in America or rings in Britain. I incorporated the bands in my plover drawing.

It was good to see the plovers on their breeding territory but I did note that there was a woman with her off lead dog that was crossing the fence line. She needed to read and internalize the 3rd graders’ message: “Please Stay away from The BiRDS.” Dog and dog owners vs snowy plover have been an on going conflict on beaches on the west coast where these plovers breed. They nest on the ground, making them vulnerable to walkers and dogs. For all of those whole claim to be “animal lovers” lets not forget about animals that don’t wear a collar, respond to their “given” name, and who are flying free. (I’m starting to sound like the Lorax here!)

I headed back towards the exit gate and I looked to the water channel, which was now to my right. I passed Avocet Circle (no avocets). As I passed the tennis courts and sports field, near Willet Circle, I spotted the undeniable form of a black-necked stilt, foraging on the the far bank. Santa Cruz County life bird!

Black-necked stilt.


I wanted to experiment with underpainting for some recent field sketches. First I put down a loose, cool, blue wash and on another page a warm orange-red wash. I kept it loose with some paint splatter and some ghosting.

Now I had to find a subject to lay over the wash.

My first subject was to be found at Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz. It was a Southern Pacific 0-6-0 switcher that is on static display in the picnic area. Southern Pacific Number 1298 is an S-10 class yard switcher that was build by Baldwin in 1917. The locomotive was retired in 1956 and was put on static display in Santa Cruz in 1961. In an earlier era, when things was less litigious, children where able to climb on the locomotive and tender. Now the tender was sold and the rusting Number 1298 sits fenced in, in need of a lick of paint.

The word static, implies “not moving”, which is a perfect sketching subject because, well, 1298 is not moving. It was a great subject to capture the form of the locomotive and the trees in the background. For this sketch I chose the page with the cool blue underpainting. I figured it would also work with the sky.

I loosely sketched in the form of the locomotive, tiring to keep details to a minimum. I failed to some degree because I think I added too many details, a problems I have with sketching a highly detailed subject like a locomotive or architecture. The running gear (the driving wheels that propel the locomotive) I simplified and left out a lot of information.

When you put wet watercolor paint over dried paint, it is called glazing. When you glaze in watercolor you can build up layers and depth. Because watercolor is transparent, the underpainting shows through in unexpected ways. And with using a fairly random underpainting the result can be a bit jarring but somehow seems to work. It’s just a sketch, after all.

For my sketch I laid over the warm orange-red wash I choose a jarring subject.

Just outside of Los Gatos, off of Highway 17, are two stone lynx-like statues that guard the driveway to Poets Canyon. The sculptures where created by Robert Paine and are named “Leo” and “Leona”. The sculptures have been in place since 1922. To get to this location is challenging because you can only turn west on Highway 17 (the direction whence I came).

Lucky for me, two 8 foot replicas are to be found at the Los Gatos Shopping Center on Santa Cruz Ave. The new cats are carved out of white marble and weigh in at 6,500 pounds each!

The underpainting is warm and I made no concessions to the true color on the statues. I like the way the sketch turned out (featured sketch).


Fern Grotto Beach

On Saturday morning I headed out on one of my favorite coastal trails, the Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park. This is a great trail for hiking and birding featuring coast chaparral and great ocean views. This is also a nice place for sketching.

A very accommodating male California quail perched out in the open at the beginning of the Old Cove Landing Trail.
Another California namesake, a singing California thrasher perched up in coyote brush. I could hear the thrasher’s warbling song from Fern Grotto Beach.

I headed down the trail to Fern Grotto Beach. This beach is framed by sandstones cliffs that are crowned with lush vegetation. I wanted to sketch the view from the beach and a log dictated where I would sit and my perspective.

For this sketch I used a panoramic Moleskine watercolor journal which was perfect for the expanse of the scene. I first laid in the cliffs with loose washes, letting colors runs into each other in a wet-on-wet extravaganza. I kept all of the painting loose rather than detailed. Once the paint was mostly dry I tied the sketch together with dark sepia pen strokes. I held then pen toward the end in order to keep the lines loose and lively.

This hike is not just for the birds! Harbor seals at a seal haul out.