As the car motored along US 2 through Eastern Washington, I sat in the passenger seat, gazing at the golden wheat fields rippling in the breeze. They were framed by purple-blue hills on the horizon, topped with an azure sky.
As I looked more closely at the wheat, I began to notice that the ochre-gold contained all sorts of other colors - hues of sand, rose, and rust, that appeared with a breeze and were gone again. A layer of mint green floated on the surface in patches, like lilies on a pond. Now I noticed the blacks and grays of the road and its bright yellow and white stripes receding in the distance. A water tower and an old homestead, abandoned, stood on one side of the road, and a wooden fence along the other side. Finally, it was not enough just to look: I was compelled to get out my sketchbook and colored pencils.
While most travelers (vacationers, anyway) take a camera to record the journey, I take a small sketchbook - no bigger than postcard-size, so it fits in my purse or a jacket pocket - and some colored pencils.
It's not that I'm an artist. I like to draw little sketches, but I'm not particularly good at it. My drawing style is untrained, and, with its lack of proportion or perspective, it's primitive at best. A photograph would provide a more factual and realistic record, and take much less time. But that's the point, for me: spending time and creating my own skewed personal impression of what I've seen.
Sometimes, rather than being compelled to draw what I see, I use my sketchbook as a reason - an excuse, perhaps - to sit down and look more closely. It's like the person who uses fishing as an excuse to loiter by a river.
In Green's Restaurant on San Francisco Bay, I sat by a wall of multipaned windows, looking at a superb view of the marina and the Golden Gate Bridge and headlands beyond. I wanted nothing more than to linger, taking in the view. But I might have felt it was time to go - even though no one was waiting for my table - had I not had my sketchbook. The boats, the shining bridge, the water, all framed by the window panes, made a pretty picture. More important, they encouraged me to slow down, look intently.
You'd think I'd be conspicuous with my sketchbook and pencils, but I've found that drawing is often less noticeable, less intrusive, than taking pictures. Since my sketchpad is small, and I don't like to draw attention to myself, nobody comes to look over my shoulder. It's a quiet activity, too. I don't have to worry about noisy shutters or winding film.
I especially like sketching in places where I don't want to look like a tourist. When I recently visited my hometown, Chicago, I didn't bring a camera. I spent half a day at the Chicago Cultural Center, which was the Chicago Public Library when I lived in the city. It's a magnificent "people's palace" of marble, mother-of-pearl and gold-leaf mosaics, Tiffany lamps, and a huge Tiffany dome.
Most of it was too grand for my small paper and talent, but I enjoyed sitting in the silent great room, sketching the details: the bronze flower ornaments in the recessed ceiling squares, the scallops and fish scales of the Tiffany lamps, the wheat stalks and flowers in the mosaic tiles. Only sketching would do. How could I be a tourist in the library I'd frequented as a child?
On the Lake Michigan beach near my childhood home, on a day too cool and blustery for swimming, again my reliable sketchbook gave me what I needed to capture the scene: the crescent of sand, the blue-green water, and the skyscrapers of the Loop in the background.
Recently, I used my sketchbook for another kind of visit. My 22-year-old son took me on a hike in the woods to see a log bridge he'd helped build for the United States Forest Service. I sat next to him by the bridge over a rushing mountain stream for a long time, looking and admiring it as I drew.
Drawing from nature teaches me to observe colors and shapes more closely, while drawing structures (sometimes with frustration) helps me observe and appreciate their lines and symmetry, and at times their history, too.
For example, sitting on a park bench on a deserted street in downtown Butte, Mont., one early morning, I sketched the M&M Cigar Store and Cafe. I noticed the contrasts between the 1890s brick structure with its onion-shaped turrets and high arched windows, and the sleek Art Deco lines of the 1940s aluminum facade.
And though my drawings of the old cafe and the log bridge are nothing to be proud of, they helped me appreciate what had gone into each structure. After drawing the cafe, I crossed the street to reread its historical plaque, and it meant that much more. Sitting next to my son on a log in the forest, I asked him questions and spent time with him. When I look at my sketches, that's what I remember.
There are times when I am a tourist at an impressive place, and only a camera will do. To my mind, that's why picture postcards were invented. Tourist sites are sure to have them, and professionals do a better job than I. The other time I want a camera is for pictures of people. I am not skilled at drawing people, and when I see family or friends, I want to talk to them, not sit quietly, looking at them. Fortunately, there's always been someone with a camera when I didn't have one.
I wouldn't want to travel without my sketchbook. But at times I decide not to take out my sketching supplies. If I have to meet a schedule, or if I'm with someone who doesn't want to stay long, the sketchbook stays in my bag. And if I'd rather read a newspaper, write a postcard, or simply look, I do.
But when I have time, or make time, to sit awhile - at a cafe or picnic table, on a log in the forest or a rock at the beach, on a bus, car, or train - I may feel inclined to look more closely at my surroundings, and to sketch. If so, I am ready.