The National Scenic Trails that run through the United States vary in length from the New England National Scenic trail of 220 miles to the North Country National Scenic Trail, measuring 4,600 miles. Whether the shortest or the longest, these trails will have you hiking for days, weeks, or months at a time. Having hiked two of the more famous trails, the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, I can tell you that when you are on a hike for that long, you can get lost in the scale of the undertaking. More than once I have reached the end of the day and realized that I had spent more time looking at my feet than taking in the world around me. The scenery has a way of rolling by without registering as the miles melt away.
In my opinion, it is perfectly alright to zone out some days and just pound the miles. When you are hiking for 6 months straight, you really don’t have to worry about whether or not you have spent enough time appreciating nature. In reality, these zone-out periods are probably crucial to the success of completing a thru-hike, because if you stopped to observe every detail, you wouldn’t make it. Winter is always coming.
In contrast, there are times on the trail where I couldn’t stop myself from halting in my tracks to observe lichen covered rocks, fields of chest high lupine, wild flowers less than a centimeter across, or trains of ants crossing the trail. I distinctly remember stopping dozens of times on our second to last day on the PCT to observe water droplets on the alpine brush. The light was catching the droplets so perfectly, creating hundreds of shimmering silver spheres, and I could not help but stop to appreciate. I will definitely be trying to capture those in a piece of art at some point in the future. There is great beauty in the small details of nature, and one of the gifts of spending months in the outdoors is taking moments to enjoy them.
Creating a large number of pieces of art is similar to a thru hike in the sense that sometimes I feel like I’m caught up in a whirlwind of landscapes, and then suddenly I crave the detail. This feeling struck me the other day with great intensity. I had just finished my watercolor painting of the Balsamroot Blooms on Sonora Pass, when, though I was happy with the loose-ish style in which I had done the landscape, I suddenly had an overwhelming desire for a finely detailed piece. I wanted to work with my smallest brush and highlight minute details.
I chose a wildflower to fill this craving because, so often, those were the details on the trail that grabbed my attention. In 2600 miles you cover a lot of wildflower terrain, and I certainly plan to paint many. This painting (larger version can be viewed in my Portfolio) is of a California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, a wonderfully colorful bloom with delicately textured petals. It was just what I was looking for. I spent several hours gently layering yellow, golden orange and brown striations up and down the petals, and a few more texturing the elongated bud and pulling out the fine veins on the thin skin shedding from the stem. There is a very satisfying and somewhat magical feeling to honing in the focus and capturing just one simple piece of the world in all its detailed splendor.
Overall, the landscapes are very important part of capturing the PCT through art, but sometimes you just crave the details.