The car cures itself

Summer for a professional plein air painter can involve as much driving as painting.

Cape Blomiden makes its own cloud, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted during a rainstorm in the first annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival.
One of my students missed last weekend’s workshop due to a painful flareup of plantar fasciitis. Another student, himself a doctor, told me about taking the disease into his own hands. He simply stretched the offending tissue until it audibly tore. “The relief was instantaneous,” he told me as I stared at him aghast.
My little Prius has done something similar. It has, over the last year, developed a loud scream at high speeds. Turning up the radio was useless. I had the tires rotated to see if that helped. No luck. A front wheel bearing was replaced in March; I replaced its mate two weeks ago. The right rear brake locked up while my car was in Logan Airport long-term parking in April. That wasn’t the root of the noise either. Meanwhile, every month I’ve been spending more money on this car than the payment on a Ford F-150.

I appreciate AAA’s tow service, but I’ve seen too much of it recently.
But even the money hasn’t been the real problem. “It’s no longer reliable,” I lamented to my husband. Next week I drive alone to Parrsboro, NS, where I’m painting in the second annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. There are some lonely stretches up that way, and I don’t like the idea of getting stranded. I’ve started car shopping, but I don’t have the time to do proper research.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a busy spring. On the night of my daughter’s wedding rehearsal, I stopped for a light at a busy intersection. I woke up seconds later to find that I’d rolled right into the line of oncoming cars.
I have more than a million miles of accident-free driving under my belt and I’d like to keep it that way.  Yesterday when I found myself blinking away sleep on the New York State Thruway, I did something I never do: I relinquished the wheel to my co-pilot. Thus, it was he, not me, who was driving when a tire burst on the interstate.
Two Islands in the Rain, Carol L. Douglas, also from Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival
In the end, this turned out to be the Prius healing itself. A few hours later, we were back on the road. The sound that’s been plaguing me for months was gone. It was a defective tire after all.
We rolled into Rockport around the time that the fishermen are up rubbing the sleep from their eyes and checking the weather. The thermostat in my car read 43° F. and it was foggy and pouring.
I have a short tight week here in Maine. I leave to teach watercolor on the schooner American Eagle on Sunday evening. After we dock, I leave directly for Parrsboro, NS.
Teaching watercolor aboard American Eagle mercifully involves no driving. The dock is just minutes from my home.
I’ll be missing the opening reception for the latter, but Poppy Balser kindly stopped by on her way to Paint Annapolisto collect my boards for me. She’ll get them stamped so I don’t have to spend half of my first day there trying to find someone to stamp them for me. I’ll just have to find Poppy.
And the eco-warrior is back on the road, all healed.
This is nothing unusual; it’s the life of many of my friends each summer. We sort events into boxes. Sometimes we can stop at home, swap the boxes, and do our laundry. But often we stack our calendars up in the back of our vehicles: frames and supports for the different events share trunk space. If we’re crossing the border, we take a deep breath as we approach Customs. We’re not breaking the law, but a search of our cars will result in an awful mishmash of our supplies.

Let that be a lesson to you

If I’d waited and painted on the second day, I’d have flubbed the whole event.
Playland Boat House, by Carol L. Douglas. A bad photo of a good painting.

I’m bothered by procrastination. I’m not happy unless I’ve finished my work in ample time to meet my deadline. There are good reasons why Rye’s Painters on Location gives us two days to finish one painting. Still, it makes sense to me to get it done early.

I haven’t painted Playlandin several years. This lovely Art-Deco amusement park is entering its 90thyear. It’s carefully maintained, and no major revisions have ever been made to its buildings or grounds. It was also closed, so I was alone as I drew on my canvas. The first glaze of gold was settling on the trees, and a soft onshore breeze cooled my shady corner.
Rye Playland from an angle I could never paint, public domain.
At lunchtime, Tarryl Gabelstopped by. Her timing was fortuitous. I’d just realized I was out of painting medium. Tarryl had some with her that she’d gotten from Jamie Williams Grossman. Jamie is a natural-born fixer, always coming up with solutions for other people’s problems. Here she was fixing something for me from miles away.
Tarryl and I are very dissimilar painters. She’s atmospheric, detailed and ethereal. I’m from the slash-and-burn school. When she handed me that tube of gel medium, she also handed me a lesson in how materials matter. Gel medium is perfect for her style of painting, but it dissolves edges. That was most apparent in the water, where I couldn’t keep the color crisply separated.
Somewhere near the halfway point.
I handed my work in and headed back to Queens. On the way, my car developed a dragging rear brake. In the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour, it rapidly overheated. By the time I arrived at Rego Park, it was screaming. (This car passed its inspection three days earlier.)
I tried unsuccessfully to rustle up a mechanic in Queens. The next morning, I decamped early and headed back to Westchester to try my luck there. On the way, I stopped at Playland. I couldn’t have painted there on Saturday; the park was open and ready for business.
And then my left rear brake pad fell out. I’ve been driving for more than forty years, and I’ve never seen that happen. It’s very bad, since it exposes the caliper—and thus the brake lines—to heat and stress. I wended my way slowly up the Boston Post Road, looking for a mechanic on duty.
The brake pad in question.
The first one I found, on the Boston Post Road in Port Chester, was both knowledgeable and kind. He said he didn’t like to leave travelers stranded, and he did the repair immediately and at a good price. Meanwhile, Tarryl had just arrived in Port Chester. We went to the art store and made our opening with time to spare.
There are several lessons here: don’t procrastinate, check your kit before you leave, use materials you know, be flexible. But more importantly for me, it was a reminder that the vast majority of people in this world are kind, and I don’t need to sweat the small stuff. God’s got my back.

Weary and bleary

Scrub oaks along the Assiniboine River at Brandon, Manitoba. It looks a lot like the Erie Barge Canal.

Scrub oaks along the Assiniboine River at Brandon, Manitoba. Up close, it looks a lot like the Erie Barge Canal.
Groaning as I dragged myself out of bed yesterday, I profoundly wished for a day off. My painting is suffering from being overtired and ill with a cold that will not end. But that was not to be: any day off is a day longer on the road. We gassed up and left Swift Current, Saskatchewan, well, swiftly.
My husband suggested that we stay in Winnipeg until Friday to see the Blue Bombers play. As daft a notion as that is in and of itself, it would have put us even farther behind, time-wise. My goal is to be in Ontario on Friday night.
For most of its length, the Trans-Canada Highway runs fairly close to the United States border. That’s where most of Canada’s population is. As we approached the Manitoba line, we were leaving the Palliser Triangle. This region spans the three prairie provinces and continues down into Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Hot in summer, cold in winter, it’s so dry that it doesn’t support trees naturally. However, its soil—a lovely dark chocolate color—is very fertile.
Mysteriously, the telephone poles along the rail line seemed to be sinking.

Mysteriously, the telephone poles along the rail line seemed to be sinking.
Manitoba is the geographical center of Canada and as such marks our halfway point. We began to see scrub oaks and willows along washes and riverbeds. The Assiniboine River wasn’t visible from the road, but it jitters around like the writing of a seismograph needle on the map. I pictured a gentle stream swishing back and forth in an old eroded channel.
At Brandon, we turned off the Trans-Canada and headed north on Route 10, looking for a place to paint. The landscape was suddenly looking very Midwestern. Farms replaced ranches, towns were more frequent, and the tree cover grew more abundant. Golden light poured down onto the newly mowed hayfields.
And then, with a mighty screech, the SUV powered down and refused to move. A turn of the key elicited nothing but a click. It could only be a failed alternator.
This is a view of our car that is getting tiresome.

This is a view of our car that is getting tiresome.
We sat and read silly novels on the roadside while we waited for the Canadian Automobile Association to send a tow-truck. Boy, am I grateful for their international reciprocity, as well as for global roaming on our cell phones.
Even in funny money, this is going to be costly, but at least it will be quick.
Scrub oaks along the Assiniboine River at Brandon, Manitoba. It looks a lot like the Erie Barge Canal.

Scrub oaks along the Assiniboine River at Brandon, Manitoba. It looks a lot like the Erie Barge Canal.
In the meantime, I have a loaner. I drove down to the Assiniboine River. It looked like the Erie Barge Canal.
I’ve gotten my day off, and this is forcing me to take the time to do our laundry. Then forward, and even if I’m cruising through Winnipeg at game time, I refuse to stop and watch the Blue Bombers.

Goodbye, Alaska Highway!

"Regrowth and regeneration," (Borrow Pit #4), by Carol L. Douglas

“Regrowth and regeneration,” (Borrow Pit #4), by Carol L. Douglas
Last summer it took us eight days to drive to Alaska in this vehicle. Given our detours and painting stops, doubling the time this year seemed a fair estimate.
Instead, we left the Alaska Highway at 4 PM yesterday.
East of Fort Nelson, Mary and I had to admit that not much looked familiar. True, we’d passed through here a month earlier last year. In fact, this was the same area in which we’d been stopped for hours due to an accident. But, no, we remembered nothing.
Getting out of here, even in 4WD, was tough. A sharp rise and a lip before we hit the road tore our tailpipe off.

Getting out of here, even in 4WD, was tough. A sharp rise tore our tailpipe loose.
Last year, this stretch seemed so desolate. Yesterday, it seemed sedate and settled. The Al-Can looks very different going west to east. Last year, we counted off the signs of civilization as we lost them: regular gasoline, rest stops, power lines, restaurants, and other travelers, until all that was left was us and the open road. This year, those same amenities crowd back into our vision like not-particularly-welcome relatives. I’ll be happy to be in my snug Maine house again, but I do like the solitude.
The Kiskatinaw Bridge is a three span, timber truss structure built in 1942 by the Corps of Engineers. It's still used today, and its maintenance must be a pip.

The Kiskatinaw Bridge is a curving, three-span, timber truss structure built in 1942 by the Corps of Engineers. It’s still in use today, and its maintenance must be a pip.
One great difference this year has been pavement. It’s mostly past construction season. There are not many sections gravier signs left to remind Mary of poutine. However, the fact that she could joke about poutine is a good sign, for it signals the return of some appetite, even though she still remains pretty low.
About 100 km east of Fort Nelson, I pulled down an off-road track to paint some regrowth in a wildfire area. This is a subject I’d like to return to, since the geometry and variety are so fascinating. But I never relaxed while doing the painting. Plein air painters know this feeling of unease. For me it’s very rare, so when it happens, I heed it. After all, I was standing in a black bear’s salad bowl. So this was a rushed effort, and I’ll detail it in the studio.
There are a few paintings that “got away” along the Al-Can. One was of a hunting camp along the highway. I’d hoped to find one on this last day to paint. I also wanted to paint something of the Peace River Valley, for it looks so western here in its deeply cut ravine.
Goodbye, Alaska Highway!

Goodbye, Alaska Highway!
Alas, the Al-Can carries much more traffic near its eastern terminus. There’s gas exploration, agriculture, and much logging. The shoulder is narrow and the lay-bys few and far between. I took a few tracks off the main road, and came up with nothing. That seemed ironic, since most of the trip has been filled with stunning vistas at every turn.
“It’s an early bedtime, then,” I told myself, and pushed on to our destination. There, Mary pointed out that I’d knocked the tailpipe off while off-road. So once again this morning will be spent in a muffler shop and we’ll be that much little bit more delayed.
I remind myself that we’ve just passed through more than a thousand miles of territory where there are no muffler shops. We have a choice of four here in Dawson Creek. My irritation melts into gratitude to a providential God.

Up Ship Creek

“Up Ship Creek,” oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
If you were to clone Aroostook County, stamp it out an infinite number of times, and suck out all the people and most of the potatoes and roads, you would have created Alaska. Oh, you’d need to crumple your finished drawing too, for Alaska is also very mountainous.
I know this because I am hundreds of miles north of Anchorage. Our intended starting point for this trip was the Arctic Ocean. I’m not sure we’re going to get that far north, because the paved road ends at Coldfoot. But we are heading north to see.
Nenana. The name of its river, Tanana, doesn’t rhyme with it.
I started the day at Buzco Automotive in South Anchorage. It is very unprepossessing but the owner, Jayson, is a very gifted mechanic. A replacement catalytic converter was $1000 and a day’s delay. Instead, he cut the pipe and cleaned out the mess. Presto, a smooth engine.
While Jayson worked on my car, I painted a little study of Ship Creek, which winds through industrial South Anchorage. (I was working from a tow yard and would have liked to add a few car parts, but the angle was impossible.)
The car ran like a top as we zoomed through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Mist shrouded the mountains and the autumn foliage stood out against the towering, jagged peaks.
And then we blew the muffler.
Reluctantly, I turned back to Wasilla and Googled muffler shops. We opted for the local one, Quality Muffler, and prayed it wouldn’t be busy.
Mike was waiting for us. He smiled when we said, “Bet you heard us coming!” 

Ten Thousand Reasons (to bless the Lord) by Mat Redman was pouring out of his speakers. Mike replaced a gasket, a hanger strap, and the missing bolts. He pumped up our spare tire and sent us on our way with two jars of his wife’s home-canned salmon.
We have been moved along a chain of saints since arriving in Anchorage. Pastor Jerry and Heidie Godfrey, Jason Rowland and Debbie Paine, Jayson the mechanic and Mike the muffler guy all helped us because, as believers, they felt an obligation to the wandering stranger. It’s a powerful ministry and I hope I can do as well for others.

You may believe this is coincidence, or that Christians just like blessing other Christians. But I was there. We have been guided step-by-step by the Holy Spirit, and now we’re cruising north of Fairbanks in a car that’s purring like a cream-filled cat.

On a clear day, you can see Denali

Small study from Potter Marsh, looking at the Chugach National Forest across Turnagain Arm.

“The road to Seward,” 8X6, by Carol L. Douglas.
On Friday morning, I wondered whether I was stranded in Anchorage with a dead SUV. Since I wasn’t expecting this, I had no Plan B. It turns out that the engine misfire isn’t a fatal problem. The bad news is that we still don’t have a running car.
After the track bar was re-welded on Friday, our mechanic suggested we make ourselves scarce until he had time to work on the engine. My daughter Mary recommended Potter Marsh in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Here, the Seward Highway runs along Turnagain Arm. Across the water are the blue peaks of the Chugach National Forest, shrouded in clouds. Any of these land features would send me hurrying for my paints; together they were overwhelming.
Painting with Plein Air Painters of Alaska members.

Gil, at right, gave me enough OMS to start painting. These are members of Plein Air Painters of Alaska.
At the first overlook, I met another plein air painter. He turned out to be Gil fromPlein Air Painters of Alaska. They were holding their weekly paint-out at the marsh. Chattering happily, I set up next to Gil, only to realize that I’d forgotten to buy odorless mineral spirits (OMS) and medium after my flight. Mary ran off to the art supply store, and Gil kindly poured enough OMS into my tank to get me started.
I painted until about 1 PM and returned to the garage. Eventually, the mechanic realized that he couldn’t diagnose the problem in the time left. Disheartened, Mary called her friends Debbie and Jason to ask if we could stay another night with them. Jason drove the car and listened to the misfire. He called a mechanic friend of his for help, who offered to look at the car on Saturday afternoon.
My impromptu drawing class on Saturday morning. From left, Kendra, Mitchell and Jason.

My impromptu drawing class. From left, Kendra, Mitchell and Jason. That’s Brodie supervising.
Meanwhile, Debbie cooked up a drawing class for me on Saturday morning. We spent a few hours at Westchester Lagoon learning how to measure, about perspective, and how to draw a tree and a house. It was a beautiful distraction from car trouble.
Jason’s mechanic friend turned out to be a born teacher himself. He reasoned through every step with us. By the time he’d spent a few hours puttering, he’d convinced me that the problem is a blocked catalytic converter. Trouble is, the work can’t be done until this morning, and there’s always the question of parts.
Very incomplete painting of the Chugach range from Anchorage. Struggling with the colors, my drawing is suffering.

Very incomplete painting of the Chugach range from Anchorage. I may work on it today while the SUV is being fixed.
Jerry and Heidie Godfrey met us in Anchorage for lunch. They were on their way to Costco; we convinced them that they really wanted to go up Mt. Baldy to enjoy the perfect autumn weather. They hiked; I painted Denali.
Another unfinished painting, of Denali and Foraker from Mt. Baldy in Eagle River, AK. The midrange mudflats need to be lightened and the flank of Baldy finished.

Another unfinished painting, of Denali and Foraker from Mt. Baldy in Eagle River, AK.
Denali is 250 miles north of Anchorage as the crow flies. The mountain is less a presence than a shimmering mirage floating above the horizon. How does one paint what doesn’t even seem possible? The picture isn’t finished, but I did work out some of the light and color questions that are so different than my native northeast vistas.
On Sunday I finally admitted I was tired. After services at Eagle River Church of the Nazarene, we had a midday dinner of Alaskan salmon and halibut, caught and cooked by the Godfreys themselves. The wind blew and rain spattered. Mary did laundry and prepped road food. I did absolutely nothing.
Anchorage is a beautiful and kind city. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people, eat fantastic food and work out the kinks in my painting kit. However, I’m keenly aware that we’re imposing on others. Each day is a day closer to winter. Saturday, we scraped frost off our windshield and Eagle River saw termination dust, heralding the end of summer. Summer—especially this far north—is fleeting. The open road is calling me.

That wasn’t one of my better days

Yesterday was a mixed-weather day, alternating between a fine, misting rain and short bursts of sunlight. Autumn in Alaska is markedly advanced, although they haven’t had what they call “terminal dust” yet in Anchorage. That’s the first snow on the tops of the mountains. The aspens are gleaming yellow against the distant blue mountains, and it’s cold by Lower 48 standards. However, this year I am prepared.
We took the Suzuki out for several short jaunts around Eagle River: to buy camping equipment, to get an oil change, and to the auto-parts store for a set of universal cargo crossbars. The old-timer ran like a champ.
I audited its deficiencies in my head. There was a small chuffing sound on acceleration, but it faded quickly as the car warmed up. I bought a can of gas additive, since the car has been sitting since May. An occasional thud from the back sounded like a stiff rear spring.
There is also a small exhaust leak, and I planned to take the car to a garage in Anchorage this morning. I know the muffler shop; they fixed a sheared bolt on the same car last August. They did a good job at a fair price.
I was fighting a battle with my own impatience. All day I debated whether I should keep that appointment or just leave Anchorage at first light.

I usually paint in winter in latex gloves with chemical hand-warmers. I bought these in the fishing department, and I think they will be warmer.
This is a small SUV and we plan to sleep in it as well as work out of it. Every square inch needs to be packed intelligently. We finished this task in the late afternoon and headed to Anchorage on AK 1, Mary driving.
And that’s when all hell broke loose. The car started to misfire and decelerate. “Feel that crosswind,” my daughter said, fighting the wheel. I was baffled, because the trees were standing straight. A moment later, the rear end started swaying like an old cow.  A rear track bar had snapped.
So we sat on an expressway, surrounded by our meagre worldly goods, waiting for AAA. This morning I will go to the shop and explain my troubles. Then I’ll look for a welding fabricator to make a new track bar.

This is what we call “not good.”

I’m only a little worried. OK, I’m a lot worried.
Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but go out to Lucky Wishbone for dinner. This drive-in was founded in 1955 by George and Peggy Brown. She has since passed away; he is now in his 90s and still overseeing his establishment from a centrally-located table.
Modest in design, the place is basically unchanged except for the hundreds of old photos adorning the walls. They serve real malted milkshakes, good burgers and great fried chicken. That included giblets, which our friend promptly ordered and devoured.

Giblets to the left, other parts to the right. Delicious!

I am profoundly grateful that our breakdown happened in Anchorage, where we have friends and the city has good restaurants, garages, and mass transit. That is so much better than being stranded on the Al-Can, munching on beef jerky and praying that someone comes along who can help.