Category Archives: camping

At Los Banos

Two Trees Los Banos copy

Every time I have come here, the wind was blowing, and never seemed to stop. Shining oatgrass, under an open sky. In the night the gray shining grain moved in waves, like some moonlit sea. It made me think of a Ray Bradbury story I read long ago of a house set among wide fields where however long you stared, no other features but grass and sky were seen. The men inside that house floating in the grass were isolated like a crew upon a ship, the illusion of sailing unending.

We have camped near the slope I painted in the picture above, several times. An owl frequented the place, you could hear the calls over the susurration of the grass. Never when we were there did we see more than a few other folk, all seemed content to give a token wave from the distance and let the grass blades speak.


Leave a comment

Filed under blog, camping, plein air

sun struck

            I ‘ve been silent longer than intended and here’s why. I’ve been off these past few weekends teaching landscape painting. En plein air has been much misunderstood – in my book it is one of many ways to face the process of painting, not the one holy path to truth.


But en plein air is a healthy correction to studio perceptions, and forces the painter to face the fact that the job of painting landscape is impossible. You will only, at best, seize an abstraction of the world where you place your feet. How do you humbly distill, how do you take some powerful essential from the amazing extravagance the outdoors offers? How do you pick your time – because the world changes as you stand and breathe, the shadows flicker in and out of existence. There is no single truth ever. Instead, each movement of your eye, each shift of a nanosecond, reveals another.

Time is often likened to a wind in restless motion, tugging at us and thrusting us off our feet. The world itself is changing and we don’t approve, not one little bit. It means the loss of a friend, a question about who and what we are that we thought was settled long ago. En plein air puts us in the way of such thoughts and such disturbing currents.

 For this course we run brutal painting marathons in the Sedgwick Reserve of the University of California. We get up at six AM (and I am no morning person,) paint and teach until nine before I take breakfast then go back to the painting, come in for the critique around eleven, eat lunch, go back out by around three depending on whether it’s a really brutal temperature, paint until eight or nine, come in to eat dinner and critique and fall into the tent around midnight. The coyotes can usually be counted on for matins before dawn.

Fridays and Sundays are, thank God, long half-days, but Saturdays are always a thing. Husband teaches the geology and ecology of the landscape, giving lectures about the nature of the plants and earth, I teach painting with Hank Pitcher, a marvelous fellow artist whose work can be seen at . I usually come back with at least eight paintings each weekend, sometimes really big ones — those eight-footers you can see on the Sullivan Goss gallery’s website under my painting name of Robin Gowen at


So we’re estimating that temperatures the first of the weekends at Sedgwick hovered around 105 F. Roasted and toasted and blasted as well. The second was balmy by contrast – merely in the nineties. But I’m happy with the paintings.

 I’m even happier with the students. I love seeing people testing assumptions and techniques in order to add to their tools and skills, and the only way to do that, is to take risks. I’ve deliberately stretched and taken many a pratfall in public to prove the point that if you do what is safe, stay upon the lines of what you already know, you cannot grow. Indeed, if you play safe within your mastery, you die.

We all move back from change, eye it with suspicion, with something that can even become fear if we don’t step into it, don’t seize upon it. But change has another meaning, and you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, because it’s true. Turned on its head change is opportunity. Out there under a blazing sun, or in the chill fog, lies opportunity.

A bird must move into the changing surge of wind; there’s a point when hesitation means destruction, where hovering is not an option. To turn back into the power of the wind is to fall.

Do I think this way when painting? You may be sure of it. The work that earns immortality doesn’t know about repetition, nor safety. It doesn’t depend upon old solutions and comfort zones. There is no ceiling and no end to it, because the work goes on forever, like the sky itself.Image


Filed under camping, education, painting

updates and smoke in the air

Splendid day with John and Carmen who arrived at nine AM. We talked so much it was hard to get us out the door to hike in to one of our old sites. Upper Dutch Diggins yielded a fine day of fossils, leaves and fruits and seeds all original organic material, and a renewal of a delightful friendship between families. Sun and sweat and discoveries are the finest of things to share. We were so sorry to say goodbye after dinner and watch John and Carmen head off home, a good couple of hours drive for them. John said he might be back in a couple of days but we weren’t quite sure how long we’d stay, with our own work calling us home.

Kid woke us at 3AM. “Sorry,” she said, looming out of the black night with her headlamp in hand, “but I had to wake you. Don’t you smell smoke?”

A great wake-up. Nothing like the jolt of adrenaline to get you going in the dark.

Yep. Not a little smoke, but when we went out walking about the bunkhouse, smoke you could see against the tall trees, fuzzing their outlines. Husband deliberated, so did I. He realized the wind direction was the issue, and I noted that although the smoke was present, we saw no glow and there were no ashes falling.

However we did go up the long rutted road and unlocked the gate to the mine, dragged it open, so that if an evacuation was in order it would be easier for the locals to see we were in residence and alert us, and so that our departure could be efficient and fast. We’ve felt fires closer than this and been spared evacuation. One more point, there wasn’t any traffic on the main highway up above the bunkhouse, and if the fire were drawing near there would be. Went back to bed. Can’t say it was a great sleep but we woke to a smoggy-looking morning.

Another day of fossil prospecting in the area with variable results, but we made sure to check in at the LaPorte Store, where scant news was available. Some reassurance that the fire wasn’t an immediate threat to our area. Despite the oppression of a long day filled with smoke from the Chip Fire, we saw it begin to rise at the end as the wind shifted again and we could see some blue sky by evening.

Leave a comment

Filed under camping

water and refuge

We unlocked the gate at the Taber Mine and drove down the rutted road with our old 1972 Suburban clattering and creaking over the water bars. Drove into the cleared spot before the bunkhouse and scrambled out.

Quiet. Light in the towering firs and pines, the bunkhouse looming three stores overhead, its old stained sides the hue of bitter chocolate in the tree-dusk. Sound of water trickling out of an overflow to the mine pond below us. The mine and bunkhouse lie tucked into the upper point of a ravine, and as in so much of the Sierra, that means water runs down forever and you have that lovely sound so rare where we come from in So.Cal..

Birds in the branches, then the whir of a hummingbird. I never caught a good enough look to identify it to species.

We set to making up our sandwiches, mixed up iced tea,  ravenously ate every crumb. Last of the tomatoes from our home garden, dill pickes and good Dubliner cheese with ham.

Walked through the bunkhouse and it felt as if we’d just been there a couple of days before, the same sense of generosity giving grace to the painted wood of the kitchen with its old wood burning range, the old glass chimneys of kerosene lanterns waiting on the top shelves, cast iron pans and a mix of fine china. Upstairs that long wide room that runs the entire length of the bunkhouse, windows on both sides, couches and a particular table set under the window made of single giant plank of wood. “I want to write stories there,” said the kid, running her hand over the ridges that tell of hand-sawing. Tiny wood stove up at one end by another desk. Dead mouse under the bookcase.

We explored, read the notes John had left for winter visitors warning them of how they had to be careful of setting the stove-pipe right before lighting the stove. Not to worry — we would have no need of that. Not only did we have our own vintage Coleman, but John had set up what looked to be a brand new propane stove atop the old wood-burner. We would boil all our water, not being sure of our water source. Both husband and kid have had adventures with intestinal parasites from uncertain water sources.Image

It’s worth a digression on water-borne parasites. We talk of such things as giardia, but the possibilities of uninvited creatures taking up residence in your gut are legion. Brushing your teeth with the wrong water, or getting some in your eye are perfect opportunities. Used to be that there were places remote enough that you could drink a stream of clear lovely water down and never suffer. But people have spread these little parasites, other mammals including the wildlife have picked them up and they continue in an endless ripple to make nearly any surface water source you find, however remote it feels, a source of illness. Not grave illness in most cases, but misery enough. Husband’s last bout of giardia came from a municipal water source in an outlying town of Atlanta Georgia out of a nice chrome tap, so if you have symptoms (I won’t detail here — you can Google it for yourself) it’s worth suggesting parasitic assault to your doctor. And no, I don’t live in fear. I just don’t play with the water or drink without thought. For all I know I might be one of the lucky ones who carries extra visitors in my gut and never suffers a symptom. Given my past of living in West Africa, it’s a distinct possibility — therefore I am one of those hand-washing maniacs who can’t prepare a meal without washing my hands every time I turn around. The simple best interruptions to the rule of the microorganism gang? Hand-washing, and watch out for the water…

Leave a comment

Filed under camping