Analyzing your own work

Where do you fall in each of these scales? Where do you want to be?

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599–1600, by Caravaggio, courtesy Contarelli Chapel, Rome. This model of Baroque painting has an open structure, lighting unity and relative clarity.

I have written about painterliness here, and here. It’s an important concept in contemporary art that was first coined by the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism.  

Wölfflin was primarily concerned with the stylistic changes from the Classical to Baroque periods, but he was the first art historian to analyze paintings based on their internal, intrinsic values rather than just their place in social history. It’s too bad that his writing is so ponderous, because his pairs are useful tools for us to analyze our own work. Where do you fall in each of these scales? Where do you want to be? Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer, because each of these ideas has gone in and out of style many times in the history of painting.

Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, c 1540, Bronzino, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a linear, rather than painterly, painting. That doesn’t make it any less brilliant.

Linearity vs. painterliness:

Linear paintings have clearly defined, distinct shapes. Painterly paintings blur edges and forms to create a more unified surface.

La danse (first version), 1909, Henri Matisse, courtesy of MoMA, is a single-plane painting.

Plane vs. recession:

This is the contrast between a painting that operates with a simple foreground-background (like Mona Lisa, for example) and one with multiple planes coming together to create a form.

Nymphs and Satyr, 1873, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, courtesy Clark Art Institute, is a multiple-plane painting of the same subject. 

Closed vs. open:

Closed paintings are constructed using a structure of horizontal and vertical lines that contain them within the frame. Open paintings use diagonals, giving the feeling that there is an image continuing beyond the frame.

Annunciation, c. 1470, Benvenuto di Giovanni, is an example of clarity in lighting and a multiplicity of objects. Compare it to the Caravaggio above to see the amazing stylistic leap made in a century in Italian painting.

Multiplicity and unity:

Before the Baroque, paintings focused on detail. Individual items stood out independently, giving a sense of multiplicity. A united painting focuses on the whole and gives the sense of flow and motion. Unified light is a key element in making this possible.

Absolute vs. relative clarity:

In absolute paintings, the viewer can see everything that’s happening in the painting, and the subject is usually front-and-center. The light is even. In a relative structure, deep shadows draw and define our focus, which is unified across the whole painting.

Note: I have one opening in my Monday night class starting March 1. Additional information is here. If you’re interested, please let me know. 

Why we love boats

People see boats as symbols of the human experience, which is why they’re so potent in art.

Skylarking, 24X36, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. Available here.

I recently got a floor-cleaning robot. I find myself talking to it, usually cooing as I do to the dog. But this week it’s been avoiding a spot near the kitchen door, and I lectured it. “Mom, are you getting mad at your Bissell spin-wave?” my son asked.

Anthropomorphism means our inclination to assign human characteristics and personalities to non-humans. The word was first used by Xenophanes, which tells us that the urge to anthropomorphize our stuff goes back to earliest man. It’s one thing to talk to your dog (who may or may not answer) and it’s another to talk to your floor-cleaning robot, or to converse with Alexa.

American Eagle in Drydock (the winch), Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available here.

I’m hardly alone. Humans are hard-wired to understand and interact with other humans from birth. When we come across something non-human, our impulse is to interact in the human terms with which we’re most familiar.

Complex machines are relatively modern. It’s interesting that we overwhelmingly characterize them as female. That is, perhaps, a way of expressing trust in them (which is why it’s so important for car manufacturers to build ‘cute’ cars). Or, it’s possibly because they do our grunt work for us. Thanks, Mom.

Boats, on the other hand, are almost as old as humankind itself. We traditionally call them ‘she’, even when they’re named after a crusty old Admiral. The roots of this tradition are lost in the mists of time. It may come from the idea that a goddess protects and guides a particular ship (as in a figurehead). Or, it might be an artifact of a precursor language, where nouns had gender.

Breaking Storm, Carol L. Douglas, available here.

But people see boats as symbols of the human experience, which is why they’re so potent in art. They sail through calm waters and storms. They narrowly escape destruction, or they are, in fact, wrecked on the shoals of misfortune. They are elegant and lean, floating on the breeze, or they’re stout little working boats like me.

Most of us spend far more time in cars and planes than we do in boats, but paintings of boats predominate in art. All three modes of transportation are elegant. All three have their romance. So why do people love boat paintings so much?

It’s, in part, tradition, but it’s also the confluence of wind, water and sky. Even without a vessel, the ocean is a pretty magical place.

Sunset sail, Carol L. Douglas, available here.

A friend recently painted her first boat, and told me the experience left her flat. I laughed and said they were my favorite subject. She thought that she perhaps ought to take my boat workshop to understand why. That’s as good a lead-in as any to the idea of painting aboard the schooner American Eagle. I teach two workshops aboard her—in June and in September.

But Ann might be disappointed, because we don’t focus on sails and rigging. Rather, it’s a sort of traveling-sketchbook experience, where we capture quicksilver impressions of the ever-changing, watery world of Penobscot Bay. It’s all about the light, and the light never changes more quickly than it does on the ocean.

Monday Morning Art School: an introduction to figure

Fast, effortless drawing is the artist’s most important skill. It’s easy to learn and lots of fun.

Michelle reading, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

I’m not going to teach you to paint the human figure in a short blog post. It takes years to master. I can, however, introduce you to the one-minute gesture drawing. This is the basis of all figure drawing and painting.

Ultimately, all figure drawing comes down to three basic steps:

  1. Plan—determine the general axis of motion and what space the figure will occupy on your paper;
  2. Create basic shapes—connected by the joints and comprised of simple elements;
  3. Connect with an outline and shading—this is where you create ‘realism’ in your drawing.

When I taught figure, I started my class with ten fast gestures, progressed to a five-minute drawing, then to a twenty-minute drawing, and from there to the long pose everyone believed they were most interested in.

Gesture drawings not only free up your hand, they teach you to measure painlessly. If you’ve never done one, conscript a friend or family member to model. The more twist and curve in the pose, the better. After all, they only have to hold it for a minute.

Gesture drawings are conventionally done nude, but that’s not really necessary. The important thing is that you use a timer and not exceed one minute per drawing.

The paper and pencil you use are unimportant. In fact, gesture drawings of your co-workers are the best possible use for your pre-printed meeting notes.

There is no right or wrong way to do a gesture drawing. On the other hand, the method I outline below is fast, easy and accurate, so why not try it?

The axis of motion.

Draw a single line indicating the axis of motion. My model had an extreme torso twist, so I got a little more engaged in this line than I usually do. Usually this is just a simple angled or curved line.

Where is the strength and power coming from in this figure?

Next, scribble in the shapes of the pelvis and the shoulders. One of my students called these “atomic string balls.” The term fits. The two most powerful joints in the human body are the pelvis and the shoulders. This is a fast way of indicating their angle. By scribbling a ball, you also give them volume and energy.

The joints are like little bundles of energy.

I then make smaller power balls at each additional joint, locating them quickly in space. I don’t lift the pencil up much, but drag it along between joints. As rough as this looks, you already have most of the essential information about the pose.

Once the joints are in place, the limbs are revealed as essentially simple shapes.

From there, it’s a simple matter to add volume. Use the remainder of your time to shade and refine. However, you shouldn’t really take time to erase.

And, voila! A one-minute figure.

A gesture drawing by nature emphasizes the torso at the expense of details, extremities and the face. Once you’ve mastered the one-minute gesture drawing, you can move along to the five minute drawing, as shown below. That’s a continuation of a one-minute drawing, but it allows time to develop more detail.

From there you can graduate to a five minute figure sketch… and onward.

Taking stock

Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.

The Woodshed, 11×14, oil on birch, by Carol L. Douglas. Ken DeWaard found a cool place to paint; turns out it was right behind my goddaughter’s house.

Today is my 62nd birthday. I’ve looked forward to this day for a very long time. I qualify to buy a lifetime National Park Pass. I spend a lot of time in the wilds and know this will save me money. Unfortunately, even though our park offices at Acadia are closed right now, there’s a $10 surcharge to buy one on line. I’m a skinflint so I’ll wait.

A birthday is a good time for self-assessment, and I can’t help but compare this to my 42nd birthday. I’d just been through a hellish battle with cancer and was prone to regular bouts of pneumonia. I had it in my head that I was delicate; I probably was. Our kids were ages 11, 11, 7 and 4. They’re fun ages but a tremendous amount of work. Our house looked like it had taken a direct hit in the Blitz. Still, I had great friends, my mother was still alive, and I was happily married (still am, in fact). But much of life at that time was a blur and my biggest memory is being tired.

I can still sled and skate and snowshoe with my grandkids (all in one day).

Autonomy is sometimes earned by outliving our responsibilities. Think of Georgia O’Keeffe blooming after she’d buried her philandering husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Not answering to others is a great liberator. I am finally the boss of my own calendar. On Tuesday, I went out to paint. I stayed until my hands froze, unlike Ken DeWaard, who had to leave to drive a child somewhere. My kids are all old enough to drive themselves. In a few years, they’ll be driving me.

My pal Tommy Faulk once asked me my secret to staying married for 40 years. “Just stay married,” I said. It didn’t seem that difficult to me. My husband and I recently completed personality assessments in a class we’re taking together. Turns out we’re mirror images of each other, and I’m sure that helps. Did we start that way, or did time grow us in opposite, compatible directions?

I’ll celebrate with a brisk walk up Beech Hill. Then maybe I’ll clean my studio.

One of my husband’s overriding characteristics is tenacity. It goes a long way to explaining why we have a good life today. He is tenacious in his job, his responsibilities, and in his affections. To some degree, it’s a trait we share. Nobody could succeed in the arts without dogged persistence.

“I can’t buy you anything for your birthday,” my daughter Laura complained. “Anything you want, you get for yourself.” That’s true, and it’s another advantage of being 62. On the other hand, I don’t need or want much; in fact, I find clutter irritating. Her sister Mary says, “My mother doesn’t want you to buy her anything. She’d rather you came to her house and threw something away.”

I have a lovely family, great friends, a beautiful home, work that fascinates… and a truck. What else could I possibly need?

In a similar vein my friend Barb Whitten offered to bake for my birthday, but I’d already decided to make this ginger cake. I asked her to just help me instead. She shrugged and said sure. At my age, I won’t waste calories on stuff I won’t love.

A year ago, I was packing to leave for Argentina with my pal Jane Chapin, a trip that blew up because of COVID. The past year has been, er, abnormal. But this is the life we’ve been given, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. “May you live in interesting times” may be intended as a curse, but I consider it a blessing.

Don’t be a fair-weather painter

You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful.

View from the Beech Hill summit trail.

Since the first of the year, I’ve hiked every morning up to the top of Beech Hill. This has replaced my usual lunchtime walk to the post office, which is difficult right now with the sidewalks fouled with snow and ice. Beech Hill is slightly more strenuous than the aisles at my grocery store, so it’s perfect for first thing in the morning.

I’ve been walking for exercise since cancer forced me to stop running twenty years ago. With very few exceptions, I lace up my shoes and go out six days a week. I have a perverse liking for the days when normal people stay home. The world is empty and quiet, and strange things happen.

It was hard going at first.

One of the few things that interferes with my walks is travel. It’s fine when I’m teaching, because teaching plein air involves a lot of walking anyway. But when I’m just driving and looking, I’m also sitting. It doesn’t take long for my muscles to forget how to stride. I usually spend the first three days after any trip complaining bitterly about joint pain. Yes, it gets worse as I get older.

What doesn’t usually interfere is weather. My rule is to not go out if it’s below 10° F, but this year, I’ve pushed that down to almost zero. The new dog is part of the reason, but he’s just reinforcing my tendency toward routine.

Cloud shrouding Lake Chickawaukee.

There are mornings when I question my judgment, of course. Yesterday was one of them. We had a severe-weather warning, but it didn’t appear to be coming down much. It was sleeting instead. There was a quarter-inch of ice on the windshield and more in the air.

The first part of Beech Hill’s summit trail winds through the woods, and it was, frankly, unpleasant. But the great thing about routine is that it carries you through even the parts you don’t enjoy. Half way up the hill, I turned to look back across the valley towards West Rockport. It was a stunning, low-light vista, the young birches glowing maroon against an angry sky. As I climbed, a cloud settled, shrouding Lake Chickawaukee. I realized we’d soon be up in the same cloud.

Beech Nut in its cloud.

It’s very rare to climb up into a cloud when you live at sea level. I wouldn’t recommend it as a sensual pleasure. Thousands of tiny shards of ice whipped through in the air, stinging the skin on my face, icing up my glasses. But it was also energetic, subtle, and fascinating, and I’m glad I experienced it.

I wouldn’t have done that had I not been schooled to walk daily, regardless of circumstance. That’s also true in painting. You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful—in fact, it’s the heavy weather that produces the rare and wonderful.

It’s a simple matter of showing up regularly, so what stops people from really pushing the limits of their ability? They worry about the outcome, instead of just experiencing the process. Most of us make a lot of dreck on the way to something good. Acknowledge that, and just get back to work.

Monday Morning Art School: painting drapery

Fabric is an opportunity to support the composition with line and shape, and insert abstract design into even the most hyper-realistic paintings.

Underwear and glass head, by Carol L. Douglas.

Every artist needs to be able to paint fabric, either to clothe his subjects or to support a still life. Drapery used to be an important element of art instruction; now, in the age of denim and t-shirts, it’s often an afterthought in figure classes.

It deserves more attention. It can be the most flexible element in a painting. The flow and rhythm of drapery are an opportunity to support the composition with line and shape. Fabric is a place to insert abstraction in even the most hyper-realistic paintings.

If you’ve never painted fabric before, keep it simple at first. Stay away from black in your first exercise; Bronzino and his pals might have made it look easy, but they had a lot of practice. Your composition can include an object as a focal point, or you can just concentrate on the fabric itself.

I find it easier to paint drapery with my glasses off, because it’s really a question of getting the values and shapes right. Details (if there are any) are almost irrelevant.

Start with shapes

Drapery for a Seated Figure, c. 1472, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Louvre

Leonardo da Vinci did the above study of drapery as preparation for a painting he completed around the age of twenty; he continued to draw drapery throughout his life. That was the norm for the Renaissance artist, and it’s something we can learn from.

The good news is that you can practice drawing drapery almost anywhere. People are always dropping jackets over chairs. I did years of these sketches in church.

I drew my mittens in church about ten years ago. Boy, have they stretched out since then.

The individual shapes within folds and shadows are irregular and arresting, but they must be accurate and properly measured or the whole picture will be off. This is much easier to realize with charcoal or graphite then in paint. Drapery is one area where a quick value study is not sufficient—if you draw the shapes properly, then the painting will flow almost as an afterthought.

Don’t overstate the value shifts

The Laborer Resting, by Carol L. Douglas, has matte, shiny and lacy fabrics.

Fabric can be highly reflective, as in a silk taffeta, or very matte. The difference is in the contrast range. Taffeta has deeper shadows and lighter highlights than linen. You must get these right for the fabric to be plausible. You can achieve this by premixing paints (in oils) or with a good monochrome study (in watercolors).

The darkest folds may not be much darker than the mid-tones, but they can have significantly different color. Fabric reflects on itself; the highest chroma is often within folds and shadows.

In oils, start by blocking in the large shapes in the proper values. This will be easy if your drawing is good and a nightmare if you skimped on that phase. In oils you can lay down the shapes without regard to edges; in watercolor you’re going to have to paint the edges accurately from the beginning.

Teenage boy sleeping in church, by Carol L. Douglas. You can almost always find a drapery study to sketch wherever you are.

Most of the edges in draperies are soft

Blending is oil paint’s greatest strength, and you can block in your whole drapery study before going back with a dry brush and softening the edges. If you overblend, just repaint that passage.

In watercolor, the soft edges must be painted properly from the beginning. If both sides of a shape are soft, use a wet-in-wet technique. If one side of the shape needs a hard edge and the other a soft one, you can soften the edge right after you’ve applied the paint. The amount of water needed is critical, and the technique requires practice.

You want to be a professional artist—are you sure?

Every artist, if he or she is completely honest, has two parallel thoughts going at once: the first says, “I am the greatest genius in the history of painting,” and the second says, “I totally and completely suck.”

Skylarking, by Carol L. Douglas, 24X36, available.

If I can get my social media specialist to manage the admin, I’m going to do an online workshop on going professional. That means how to sell work, how to present yourself, how to use social media to advertise, and where and when to show. But before you sign up, I want you to consider carefully whether or not you really want to go that route.

My friend Nancy is a retired art teacher and an excellent painter. A few years ago, she asked me how she can sell paintings. Honestly, I can’t believe that the sheer grind of selling will make her happy, when she has so many other things occupying her time: a husband, grandkids, friends, travel. Selling is a tremendous amount of work. And it doesn’t validate the quality of her work—that stands on its own.

Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, 24X36, available.

I spend at least half my time on marketing. It’s what the experts say you can expect. In addition, I pay someone to do some of my online marketing for me. I’m still always behind. For example, my website is in dire need of updating. The successful painter is first and foremost an entrepreneur, not a painter. You work long hours, have your finger in everything, and nothing is ever finished.

I’ve been painting since I was a child, and I can honestly say that nothing else is closer to my ‘true’ work. However, I spent years avoiding becoming a professional because I didn’t believe I could make a living doing it. I’m happy to have proved myself wrong. But it’s been difficult. I had no models for entrepreneurism. I’ve had to figure it out by trial and error.

Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, 14X18, available

I’m not sorry I made the transition. Honestly, I don’t have many other marketable skills. However, there’s one thing that’s changed for me. I no longer paint for the pure joy of it, but as part of an effort to create and develop a business.

Does that make me insincere? I don’t think so. Every painting is a communication between the artist and his audience. Sometimes, the way the audience says, “I love it” is by getting out its collective checkbook. Nobody questions that when a musician cuts a best-selling album, but for some reason painters can beat themselves up about selling out.

Jack Pine, by Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, available. 

There are moments in every job that are tremendously rewarding. I didn’t begrudge my doctor his fee because he fist-bumped me when he finally figured out that I had cancer. I love hard work myself. My favorite job after painting was waitressing. Should I not have been paid because I had a good time doing it? That would be nuts. But there is that perception about the arts in general, that we’re having too good a time to justify a paycheck.

The marketplace can be very cruel. Every artist, if he or she is completely honest, has two parallel thoughts going at once: the first says, “I am the greatest genius in the history of painting,” and the second says, “I totally and completely suck.”

To succeed, you need to silence those voices. Instead, just tell yourself, “I have a product, and I’ll test whether there’s a market for it.” As personal as painting is, you’ll suffer if you let the marketplace be a referendum on your inner self.

Sometimes you really do have to suffer for your art

I need to get outside or my brushwork gets too fussy.

Harkness Brook, oil on canvas with a splotch or two of snow, by Carol L. Douglas.

After I taught in Tallahassee in November, it took me a few weeks to acclimate myself to the temperature here in Maine. I expected that. I didn’t expect the same thing when I got home from Wyoming this week. It was warmer than usual there, and now the entire country has settled into the winter deep freeze.

Here in Maine, I usually spend a few hours a day outside. At dawn I hike up to the summit of Beech Hill. That gets the blood flowing for the day. At midday I go out again, either to the post office or on another off-road hike. I almost always get my 10,000 steps in without being aware that I’m ‘exercising’ or that it’s cold outside.

The wind-sculpted summit of Beech Hill.

But after I’ve been on the road, I’m always miserable the first few days back. “My everything hurts,” I complained yesterday. I’d been sitting behind the wheel of my new truck for a week, driving. At my age, I decondition far more quickly than I did at twenty.

My limit for sustained outdoor activity is 10°F. Below that, it’s just too much work to stay warm. Luckily, I live right on the coast, where extreme cold is unusual. That ocean just beyond my backyard acts like a massive heatsink, cooling us in the summer and warming us in the winter.

Snow at Highter Elevations (Downdraft Snow) by Carol L. Douglas

But I can be fooled, as I was on Monday. The nominal temperature was in the teens, but as I rounded the summit, I was hit square in the face by a bitter wind. The wind often picks up as the sun rises, and this one was fierce. By the time we were back to the car, even my little dog—seemingly impervious to the cold—was acting chilled.

Still, the snow is beautiful, hanging on every evergreen branch. “You want to paint?” I texted a few of my buddies. Only Ken DeWaard was foolish enough to agree. Dressed in my long underwear, mittens, neck gaiter, heavy jacket, and hardiest boots, I drove out to meet him. It was absolutely awful, but we both did sketches that we liked. Meanwhile, Eric Jacobsenwas painting near the top of Beech Hill, and he did a fine painting. There’s a lesson in that, I think. Sometimes you really do have to suffer for your art.

Meanwhile, it’s continued to snow, and the temperature continues to drop. I’m looking out at the gloaming wondering if I want to go out to paint again today. It all depends on the light.

Why do we do this, when we each have nice, toasty-warm studios in which we can paint? One paints differently in the studio from in the field. I need regular days of painting from life so that I remember what life looks like when I paint from photos. Without that, my brushwork gets too fussy.

Postscript: my student Yvonne Bailey posted the above photo on Facebook. She had rearranged her furniture and swapped her dogs’ crates around. Creatures of habit, they both insisted on returning to where they thought they belonged. There’s a lesson in that for us as well: it’s easy for us humans to get overly attached to our ‘places’. Habit is good, but it can become a rut.

Monday Morning Art School: good reference photos

A good reference picture is not necessarily a good photo. A great photo is almost never a good reference picture.

Headwaters of the Hudson, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection. This is one of several paintings I’ve done based on the following photograph.

Sometimes I’ll post a photo to Facebook, only to have someone suggest, “You should paint that!” Of course, I won’t. A photo good enough to elicit that response is a complete artistic statement in itself. Painting it won’t improve on it.

A good reference picture is not necessarily a good photo. A great photo is almost never a good reference picture. The purpose of a reference photo is not to make your composition, lighting, and color decisions for you, but to provide you the information you need to make those decisions in paint.

The photo was taken on the causeway to Moose Island, ME, many years ago.

When I do paint from photos, I always start (surprise, surprise) with a drawing. Why sketch first? I don’t want my photos to drive my paintings. It’s best for me to seek out the composition on my own, and then find the details and plug them in. The last thing I want is to be a slave to a photo.

I have tens of thousands of snapshots on my server, archived by where and when they were taken. But imagine, for a second, that I want to paint rolling surf. I‘ve taken many such photos, but was the right one on the Great Coast Road in Victoria, Australia, at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, or at Port Clyde in Maine? Nothing for it but to search every folder for the image I want. (My phone is, in this case, ahead of my laptop. It can search by image, and it does it very well.)

Deadwood, 36X48, available from the artist.

What will make one photo better than the next for my purposes? Not the setting, but the lighting, the color and the angle.

When I take reference pictures, I make a point of shooting far more peripheral material than I would for an artistic shot. This is because I’ve outsmarted myself too many times by cropping out essential information in the viewfinder. Detail is generally unimportant in a reference photo, and most modern cameras (including the one in your cell phone) have far greater resolution than the artist ever needs. Go ahead and crop when you’re ready to paint, but more overall information, not more detail, is generally what you’re looking for.

This was the reference photo for the painting above. It was taken by my friend Joe Wagner and I snagged it from Facebook. Yes, a certain amount of artistic license was taken in the final rendering.

Flat, indirect light can be really boring in a landscape painting, but it’s sometimes helpful in a reference photo. It allows you to create your own atmospherics. You’re never stuck fighting a lighting source that doesn’t work.

Yes, I sometimes Google images. There are things I have seen in life but have never photographed—the Northern Lights, a star-spangled sky over Nebraska, or a Friendship sloop, to name just three. I use these pictures as background information. The last thing I want to do is copy someone else’s artistic ideas.

I didn’t outrun the weather

Even the dismal road has its blessings.

The open road in Minnesota. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot

“You should have been a cross-country truck driver who paints,” Mary Byrom told me. This week, that’s exactly what I am.

I didn’t stop to paint in the Badlands on Wednesday. It was a crying shame, for they were beautiful and the weather was clement. But the sky told me the weather was changing faster than I’d anticipated. “I have to get ahead of this storm,” I told my husband, and gunned it.

Our original plan was to cut down to I-80 and stop in Iowa. According to Google Maps, that would shave twenty minutes off my trip. “I don’t believe it,” I said, and stayed on I-90. Anyways, I kind of liked the idea of driving 2000 miles on the same road. We coasted into Albert Lea, MN in the late hours.

The Badlands are vast and fascinating. Photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

My dog and I did a quick tour around the shrubberies but neither of us wanted to prolong the Minnesota winter experience. It was ferociously windy and snowing steadily. That bad weather I’d wanted in Thermopolis had caught up with me.

The next morning, I borrowed a shovel to clear out the bed of the truck. We wrapped our stuff in contractor bags and eased back on to the highway. I have a niece who lives in Minnesota on purpose. She tells me that the temperature tomorrow will drop to -15° F. It’s hard for me to see the attraction when the wind is howling and the mercury is dropping, but she too is from Buffalo.

I amuse myself on long-distance drives by doing arithmetic. This trip, I calculated just how far behind we were dropping behind. After I got to -5 hours, I decided my game was too depressing. It was still better than talk radio, however.

My truck will get a tonneau cover as soon as I swap the tailgate back to the original.

My son is with me. He’s a responsible driver but he’s young. There was no way I was letting him play bumper cars in a blizzard.

Travel generally gets cumbersome east of the Mississippi anyway. There are tolls (which you can’t pay with cash right now) and the clean, efficient rest stops of the west have been replaced with travel plazas where you must run a gauntlet of merchandise in order to freshen up. And, of course, there’s much more traffic.

At a rest stop, I caught a message from Jane Chapin. A 40-car pileup had paralyzed I-80 eastbound in Iowa. It’s days like this that reaffirm my belief in a providential God. Had I not ignored my itinerary, I’d have been on that road.

That’s not to say my prayers are always answered. Yesterday an old friend died of COVID despite my earnest entreaties on her behalf. There has been no respite in the onslaught of COVID recently; another friend lost her husband to it last week. I was already struggling with those back-to-back deaths when I learned that still another friend has been diagnosed with a very serious cancer.

I realize there’s no equivalence in these things; Kathy’s death is a cataclysm, whereas a truck is just a truck. But still, I’d lose all hope if it weren’t for the occasional touch of heaven on my shoulder. When the stakes are high enough, we’re all with that guy in the Bible who cried, “I do believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!”

I’m going right through Buffalo but there will be no public funeral. That’s actually a relief since it takes the decision out of my hands. I’ve been all over the country; I ought not risk bringing more COVID to my friends and family. My uncle’s funeral back in March was private for just that reason. In this plague year, the obsequies are gone but the grief remains.