Travel Sketchbook: a young artist's adventure

"The end of the path is there, waiting, and you will find it, when the time is right.  But it is not the reason for your travels.  The reason is simply to travel.  To find the hidden delights..."

--my travel diary, on the train coming home from my adventure, November, 2003

I stand at the top of a mountain, contemplating the possibilities of life.  This is one of only a very few photographs from my trip.  I didn't take a camera or a phone, only a sketchbook and some paints.

Seeking Solitude

When I was 22, just after college, I went traveling alone for three months.  I didn't have much of a predetermined plan, only a growing desire to see Frida Kahlo's house in Mexico City, and a yearning to be independent before my wedding, which I had planned for the following June.  I traveled light, with everything fitting into a backpack, and I mostly stayed with friends or in youth hostels.   What follows is a narrative of my adventures, including excerpts from my diary (those are italicized), and paintings and drawings from my sketchbook.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

I started my trip in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I grew up.  My mom drove me to the Doylestown train station, and I took a train to Philadelphia, and then to Chicago, and finally Santa Fe.  I think I was on the train for three days total, sleeping in my seat, and eating bread and Nutella for every meal.

Sept. 11, 2003  "Naked Hula-hooping in Santa Fe"  This was a view from Cecily's back yard.

"I am staying with my good friend Cecily.  My first night here, Cecily and I walked around Santa Fe and went into a restaurant where her romantic interest works and sat outside on the patio, even though it was starting to rain.  We drank two bottles of wine...and danced together outside in the thunderstorm..."

"Yesterday I climbed up a hill where the Cross of the Martyrs stands... I could see the mountains, valleys, trees, and houses for 360 degrees all around.  I spent a few hours there, eating lunch, reading, and painting a watercolor of the landscape, including those breast-like mounds: Monte Luna y Monte Sol."  

Sept. 12, 2003 "Monte Sol y Monte Luna in Santa Fe, NM"

 " entire landscape within the confines of your skin..." --Georgia O'Keeffe

"In the evening, I went to some museums, including the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.  I am in love with the COLORS of her oil paintings and the FREEDOM of her watercolors."

"The next day, I found a trail that led up into the mountains.  The trail led up and down and switch-backed around, in between evergreens.  There were two kinds of trees: juniper with frosty-blue berries and soft, fern-like needles, and pon trees, which were a warmer green, with sharp needles.  The juniper trees grew like crazy, curving dancers' limbs, all twisted and wild.  At every moment, I was presented with a spectacular view.  I painted a spirited watercolor of some prickly pears."

Sept. 13, 2003 "Prickly Pear Cactus"

"Yesterday I hiked to the top of Mount Atalaya.  I saw a hummingbird drinking out of a small, red trumpet-shaped flower, so I got very close to the flower and sat very still for a long time, and soon the hummingbird came very close to me to taste his beloved nectar."

Sept. 16, 2003 "A view from the top of Atalaya Mountain"

"Yesterday morning Cecily and I woke up before dawn to watch the sunrise.  We climbed to the top of the Cross of the Martyrs hill and gazed, blinking, at the blinding white radiance that was the sun.  I did a painting of it, but there was no way I could capture its effect."

Sept. 17th, 2003 "Sunrise" 

The Grand Canyon, Arizona

I took a Greyhound bus from Santa Fe to the Grand Canyon Youth Hostel.  In the morning, I took a shuttle to the Grand Canyon.

"I went walking towards the rim with my small green day pack full of necessities like food, water, my pennywhistle, and art supplies.  I hiked down and I found myself alone in the canyon for many miles.  Oh, the silence!  Not a sound... Occasionally, the call of a blackbird...  The beating of the afternoon sun, the monstrous, exquisite reality of the canyon, the caking of red dust on my shoes and pant legs...  After several hours of hiking, I reached the bottom, where the Colorado River flows."

"So, at the bottom of the Canyon, I wandered around a little bit, watching the stream flow, the golden evening light covered the various geometric faces of the Canyon, as the sun moved downwards.  I tried to paint one such moment, but without much hope.  No artist could ever paint this.  Better to paint emotions, or theories, or abstract colors."

Sept. 19th, 2003 "Looking up from the bottom of the Canyon"

I slept that night at the bottom of the Canyon in a hostel.  The next morning, I joined a couple of people who were hiking up together, including one 81-year-old man, Sam.  Despite his age, Sam was in good physical condition.  He set a slow, steady pace, much like Aesop's "Tortoise."  It was his sixth time hiking the Grand Canyon.  "And probably my last," he told me. 

Phoenix, Arizona

After hiking the Grand Canyon, I took a bus to Phoenix, Arizona, where I was welcomed by Paulette and Walter, the parents of my good friend, Kat.  They showed me many wonderful things: sunsets, museums, restaurants, and my first saguaro cactus!  

Sept. 30, 2003, "Saguaro Cactus"

Sept. 30, 2003, "Saguaro Cactus"

Tuscon, Arizona

After Phoenix, I went to Tuscon, and visited a family of kind, wonderful people.  They lived outside of town, in the beautiful Sonoran Desert.  I remember being surprised that a desert could be so filled with LIFE!  I stayed with them for a while, sleeping in a hammock outside their house under the stars.  One morning, I was awakened by javelina sniffing around me: wild desert pigs!


San Miguel de Allende

After Tuscon, I got on an airplane to León, Mexico.  I took a long taxi ride to San Miguel de Allende, where I stayed a night or two with some acquaintances.  Then I got settled into a youth hostel downtown, the Hostal Alcatraz.  I stayed there for about a week, and I got very homesick.

 I also had an awkward and unpleasant experience that involved a nude modeling job for an expatriate artist, who turned out to be a gross, lecherous old man.  Although I escaped physically unscathed, I was shaken and disgusted by the whole thing.  I found refuge in the Botanical Gardens, on a hill high above the town.  I painted a picture of myself as a tiny naked fairy in the flowers growing there.  

Oct. 5, 2003 "El Charco del Ingenio"

"I'm standing outside the tiny little balcony connected to our hostel dormitory, overlooking a lovely little courtyard full of pink flowers, ivy crawling up the wall, square maroon tiles, and pretty little tables.  This courtyard is a haven separating us from the busy Calle Reloj.  There are two slender lemon trees growing here, and quite a few hummingbirds, industriously gathering nutrients from them.  Across the way, I can see the rooftops of many buildings.  And also the majestic, ancient dome of one of the churches..."

Oct. 7, 2003  "Capilla de la Tercera Orden y Templo de San Francisco"


I was ready to leave San Miguel.  I had joined a peace organization for travelers called Servas, which connected me with families that were happy to host me for a day or two for free.  I looked at my map of Mexico, and at my book of Servas addresses, and then I went to a pay phone and I called a family in Querétaro.  Could I visit them?  My Spanish was very broken, but they understood.  Yes, I could.

Oct. 9, 2003 "La Fuente en Calle Vergara Sur"

"This morning, I awoke in a room of my very own.  I went downstairs and enjoyed breakfast with the family -- coffee, sweet bread, melon... Afterwards, I walked a mile or so into the center of town, wandered the various streets, admiring items in shops.  I bought a postcard of the aqueduct "Los Arcos."  Later, I found a beautiful fountain with a sculpture of a naked woman playing the harp.  Water streamed down the harp to look like thin harp strings.  I did a watercolor painting of it, and many people stopped to admire it.  Painting is a great conversation starter when traveling to other countries.  A good way to meet people!"


After a few days in Querétaro, I took a bus to Guanajuato.  There, I painted the Callejón de Besos.

"The Callejón de Besos is an alley so narrow that the upper balconies almost touch.  A legend went along with this famous alley.  The story goes that a beautiful rich Spanish girl lived in one house, and she was in love with a common miner named Carlos.  Since the girl's father had forbidden the romance, Carlos secretly rented the room across from his beloved, where, standing on their respective balconies, they could exchange many kisses.  I had fun painting it and a lot of people came to watch me and talk to me, especially little kids."

Oct. 14, 2003 "Callejón de Besos"  (Alley of Kisses)

"I had some fun this morning walking to the Mercado Hidalgo, and buying guavas, tangerinas, fresh bread and jam, bell peppers, and bananas.  Then I went to the Casa de Diego Rivera where many of his paintings and sketches were displayed.  I especially liked his pencil drawing of Frida Kahlo nude... I mailed Ian a letter..."

The letter I sent to Ian, my fiancé, from Guanajuato...

Mexico City and Teotihuacán

After several days in Guanajuato, I took a bus to Mexico City, where I stayed with a wonderful woman named Dolores and her 22-year-old nephew, Lalo.  I wandered around Mexico City for hours.  I went to the Frida Kahlo museum (her famous blue house!) in Coyoacán, a district within the huge city.  

I reconnected with one of the girls that I had known back in Querétaro, from the host family there, and three of her friends from the University, including a 28-year-old architect major named Arturo.   Arturo offered to take me to Teotihuacán, where his parents lived, about 40 minutes east.  He told me I would be able to see the sun rise over the pyramids.

Oct. 21, 2003 "Teotihuacán"  

"In his mother's car last night, after midnight, we went for a drive around the outskirts of the pyramids.  Templo del Sol y Luna looked rather ominous in the dark, filling me with a delicious terror of the unknown...   We waited and watched the sun rise over the Aztec ruins, and when the sun was up, we climbed the Templo del Sol."

"When we were walking around one of the upper levels which was a walkway encircling the pyramid, the wind blowing like crazy, cold and fierce, the clouds billowing up over every horizon...He took me by the shoulders and gently guided my back to the wall of the pyramid, and we kissed."

When Dolores came to pick me up that afternoon, I said goodbye to Arturo, feeling quite guilty and bewildered by the whole encounter.  But Dolores took me back to Mexico City and taught me how to drink tequila by sucking on a lime and then slapping my wrist and making the salt fly up into my mouth, and I soon let my Teotihuacán adventure fade into a good memory.

After a few days, I was ready to move on.  I had planned to meet up with an old high school friend in the city of Puebla, so I hopped on a bus and went.


"Puebla is a city of wide, spacious streets, tall buildings in warm colors of goldenrod, ripe melon, and faded gray, covered in thousands of hand-painted tiles with intricate designs in cobalt blue.  The city is filled with domes, towers, crosses, pidgeons, sculptures, beggars, men whistling, sunlight, and fountains, shops and gutters, colorful restaurants, and heaps of trash..."

Oct. 23, 2003 "Azulejos," the beautiful hand-painted tiles covering the buildings of Puebla.

I met up with my best friend from high school, Faye.

"We walked around, had ice cream, fancy coffee, and went to a bar to hear music: a man singing love songs on his guitar...I'm happy Faye is with me-- we are sharing a bed and a room in the Hotel Victoria, for only 60 pesos each.  Today we wandered all around the city, to the Mercado and into churches and jardines... We walked up a distant hill for a lovely sunset view over the city."


Faye and I took an overnight bus to Palenque, where we checked into a hostel for only 50 pesos apiece.  

"Faye and I have a good sunny room with bright yellow and turquoise walls, two large beds with thin sheets, and a wide sunny window...It's very hot here--a jungle!  Extremely humid."  

"We arrived at the Palenque Ruins very early, after riding in a combi.  The door wouldn't close, and I thought I might fall out when the driver went around the curves of the dark jungle roads.  But Faye held onto me.  The ruins didn't open until 8 am, so we sat outside in the dark as the sun rose, listening to the monkeys scream, the zaraguatos with huge, echoing throats.  Slowly, the vendors began to arrive, climbing off the backs of pickup trucks, and what looked sort of like hay carts.  Dogs, chickens, tourists, and the sun."

Oct. 26, 2003 "Templo del Sol"  (Not the same one in Teotihuacán.)

"The ruins were so amazing: lush, sweaty, hot, green...Life curling up and around, twining around crumbling grey bones of an ancient empire...We came to a place where falling water crashed into flat water, the waterfalls fanning out over the protruding, globular boulders.  Las cascades.  El Baño de La Reína.  The Bath of the Queen.  We walked on a thin stone pathway to the other side, where the water flowed swiftly, level plunging upon level, a staircase of dark and cool life, the life of the jungle."


Faye and I had a few more adventures in the jungle, before we headed to Oaxaca, just in time for El Día de los Muertos.

Oct. 30, 2003  "Ellos venden flores para los Muertos"

"We are in Oaxaca...verandas, cafés, entertainment...We bought fruit and special traditional sweet bread with a wax face stuck into it, representing a dead person.  I painted a picture of people selling the beautiful, fragrant yellow and orange marigolds and other magenta flowers, in the plaza outside the indoor market... All the people came and stood around me, watching me paint.  It was funny when one lady walked over and discovered that SHE was in my painting.  She cracked up!"

Mexico City, Again


We went back to Mexico City and spent another day with Dolores, who was happy to see me again.  El Día de Los Muertos was still happening, in the Zócalo, the center of the city.  

"There were skeletons singing, skeletons on stilts, children dressed up like skeletons, laughter, music.  All through the street there were offerings to the dead spirits, fake graves decorated with pretty Bread of Death, sugar, and chocolate skulls, white sugar skulls, tangerines, guavas, and burning candles.  So beautiful and colorful....I am falling in love with Mexico."

Faye left soon afterwards to return to the U.S., but I lingered on for three more days in Mexico City.  I went to a few museums, including the Museo de Arte Moderno, where I took a liking to the paintings by Remedios Varo Uranga.  

At the Museo Nacional de Antropología, I found a lot of interesting ancient sculptures to sketch.

"I am overwhelmed by the evidence of rich, sculpture, textiles, information.  What does it mean to be human?  Why do we create beautiful things?  Where do we come from and does it matter?"

"When I got back to Dolores's house, Lalo let me in and he played for me the most beautiful, romantic songs on the guitar: serenados... I closed my eyes and let my stress drift away on the sweet, gentle notes he played.  Songs of love, soft and lovely.  It made me miss Ian."

Return to the U.S.A.

San Francisco and the Redwood Forest

I took a bus to Salamanca, and stayed there for one week, having many more adventures and learning how to cook amazing salsa.  Then I flew back to America, stopping "on the way home" in San Francisco, to visit my friend Terre.  I spent the final week of my journey with her.  Most memorable was a camping trip we took in Humboldt Redwood State Park.  

"Big, old, majestic, wise trees, the bodies of the giants...I've never seen anything like it.  In the pouring rain, we danced and rubbed noses in the moist lichen... Under our fingernails: deep, fertile soil.  We lay on the soft damp, leaf-covered ground, and watched each clear raindrop fall slowly down from the infinitely high canopy, onto our faces... We waded across the icy stream in the rain, naked, cold, laughing, feeling small and beautiful."

"We slept in the forest.  At one point, I had a vision, looking up at the vast trees, disappearing into the sky.  It was more like a painting in my mind's eye, a picture of Jesus ascending, up into the redwoods.  Perhaps the ancient redwood trees reminded me of a holy cathedral..."

November 7, 2003 "Jesus Ascending in the Redwood Forest"

I opened up my travel sketchbook and saw there was one page left.  I quickly painted my vision.  It was indeed Jesus, ascending.  But where His wounds had been, flowers grew...


I lay my travel sketchbook out to dry on the mossy roots of a tree and heaved a deep sigh.

I was ready to go home.