Road Trip 2017 #27 – Armstrong Redwoods

After our morning in Calistoga, we headed to the nearby Armstrong Redwoods.  We were intending to visit the Muir Woods the following morning but thought that the Armstrong Redwoods would serve as a gentle introduction for the boys and would give them an opportunity to be a bit feral.  On a hot and sunny day, it was lovely to wander in the shade and cool of a grove of gigantic trees.  These type of sequoias are native to the Pacific coast and would once have covered a much greater expanse than they now do.  This species of trees are the tallest living organisms on the planet and it is possible for them to grow to be two thousand years old – though most are bright young things at just several hundred years old.  They can be 16 feet in diameter and can be over 300 feet tall.  It is impossible to convey the scale of the trees and my photography could not capture it accurately either.  I found it very peaceful to walk among these towering giants – well, as peaceful as a mother of four can ever feel – and looking up towards the canopy made me feel dizzy from the perspective.

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We visited the Colonel Armstrong tree.  At about 1400 years old, it is the oldest of the trees in the grove.  It takes its name, of course, from the man who decided to preserve this woodland and for whom the park is named.  The tallest tree in the park, meanwhile, is the Parson Jones tree.  It stands at 310 feet.



There is an easy trail to follow around the park and which led us past the most notable trees.  The icicle tree is one that has unusual burl formations on it.  Strangely enough, these burls – which are apparently incredibly heavy – grow in icicle shapes.  These are a way for the tree to grow downwards, I think, though I am far from certain.  People like to saw them off and use them to build furniture, though obviously the ones in the park are now protected.  The icicle tree is fenced off precisely because vandals have made off with its famous burls in the past.  We also found a few trees that had “goosepens”.  These are little caves inside the trunks of the gigantic trees.  The boys loved that they could all climb inside the interior of a tree.  It’s the type of place they would make into a gang hut if we had redwoods in our garden.  They got their name because apparently early settlers could keep their geese and other domestic animals inside the caves as natural enclosures.  The caves form when the trees are damaged, including by forest fires.  Since redwoods are fire resistant, they smoulder in unusual ways and I guess these hollows are the result if a tree already has a “wound”.  There was also a slice of tree with the rings marked for various historic events to illustrate just how many hundreds of years these redwoods can grow for.  There were also a number of trees that had fallen down and been left to become a different part of the ecosystem and massive stumps where trees had been felled.  These trees gave my boys ample opportunity to climb and jump.









Hungry after our walk outdoors, we ate a mundane meal with indifferent service in a nearby town.  It had looked like such a promising place to eat too so that was disappointing.  Still, it filled a hole and stopped the children from getting hangry and it set us up for our final trip of the day: Bodega Bay.


Road Trip 2017 #26 – Calistoga

It is not often that, when travelling as a family of six, there are opportunities to be spontaneous with the itinerary where accommodation is concerned.  However, for a variety of reasons, we decided to stay north of San Francisco for an additional night.  We had to change rooms within the hotel we were staying at but otherwise our plan came together.  This change of plan meant that we didn’t have to rush around on the fifteenth day of our vacation and nor did we have to factor in a long journey to the next destination.  Instead – after the very long drive the previous day – it meant we could stay local and undertake short journeys only.

We were staying in between Santa Rosa and Calistoga so decided to go and explore Calistoga.  Mr Pict and I had been there before as part of a route through Sonoma wine country and redwood forests.  I had eaten the single most scrumptious cake of my life – a chocolate mousse cake – in a redwood forest back in 2000 and hoped we might stumble across the store where I had bought it.  Alas, I did not find the store so could not repeat my edible experience.  Something we could repeat, however, was a trip to the Old Faithful geyser.


The geyser had certainly built up as a tourist attraction in the intervening seventeen years.  It was very basic back then – just the geyser and a paddock of fainting goats – but now it had been turned into a lovely spot to relax in.  It was even possible to bring a bottle of wine and enjoy a luxury picnic there.  That was not something we did, of course, but I could imagine it being a splendid spot for just such an afternoon of nibbling and quaffing.  Old Faithful is a geothermal geyser that was apparently released into activity by some chap drilling for a well in the late 19th Century.  It earned its name because it reliably erupts every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the season.  When we were there, it was going off every 20 minutes and each blast lasted about 8 minutes, the water shooting tens of feet into the air and creating rainbows in the sunlight.  Our kids had never seen a geyser before so it was really cool to have them experience one that erupted so frequently.




The boys also loved that there were friendly animals they could interact with and feed.  There were llamas – one of which flopped onto the ground just like our three-legged cat does – and Jacob’s sheep with four prominent horns, and the famous fainting goats.  Tennessee Fainting Goats are a breed that goes rigid when in a state of panic and often fall over as a result.  Really they should be called Toppling Goats since they don’t really faint.  Last time I visited, I remember thinking it was a bit mean to have a small herd of these goats right next to a geyser.  If startled every time it erupted, the poor wee beasties would be going stiff and falling a few times every hour.  This visit, however, we learned that they quickly become used to their environment so were no longer phased by the geyser at all.  While this meant that we didn’t get to see them do the thing they are renowned for, we felt happy for the goats that this was the case.  With their bug eyes and diminutive frames, the goats are pretty adorable anyway, even without the collapsing antics.






We decided to chill in those surroundings for a while since we had declared we were having a lazy (or lazier) day.  We borrowed some bocce balls from the ticket desk and had a few games.  Bocce is essentially the same game as boules or petanque so we all knew what we were doing and – none of us having much skill – could play as equals.  We played as teams and got quite competitive.  It was great fun.  There were also games of noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe) set up on shaded tables, and we just enjoyed chilling out in the shade on comfy seats, watching the geyer and the goats.




Regular readers of this blog will know that I love to poke around in cemeteries.  It is one of my favourite things to do.  Having not had any other opportunities to do so, therefore, I decided we should visit the Pioneer Cemetery in Calistoga.  We used the Google Maps app to find the way and were led into a state park.  We parked the car and wandered through woods until we emerged into a clearing.  The clearing was where a church had once stood and where some graves remained.  Unfortunately, I quickly realised that we were in the wrong cemetery.  How could that be?  It turns out that Calistoga has two Pioneer Cemeteries.  We had chosen the wrong one when we used the sat nav app.  Still, it was not an entirely wasted trip since the youngest Pictling found some great climbing trees and the 10 year old finally found some lizards he had been hoping to see for the entire trip.



Back in the car we hopped and along to the correct Pioneer Cemetery.  By that juncture, however, I had lost the interest and reached the tolerance threshold of two thirds of the group so only the 10 year old and I got out for an explore.  The cemetery was built on a steep slope so the graves were arranged in terraces, almost like tiered paddy fields.  This way of organising things was handy as it meant that it was easy to map out different sections of the cemetery.  There was a useful map at the entrance that labelled each section and an alphabetical list of all those interred with a number corresponding to the relationship between their grave plot and the map sections.  If only all cemeteries were this organised!  We knew who we wanted to find so we studied the map and headed off.  Two of the survivors of the Donner Party are buried in the cemetery, sisters Lovina Graves Cyrus and Eleanor Graves McDonnell.  They were among a group of settlers who got trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains by snow in 1846 and who famously resorted to cannibalism to survive.  The sisters had been 12 and 14 at the time of the tragedy.  Their father was among those who perished when they set off to fetch help and their mother was one of those who was eaten*.  We found Lovina with ease but could not find her sister, despite the fact she should have been in the same small square of cemetery.  We found another nearby grave marked with the surname McDonnell so assumed that Eleanor perhaps had no grave marker.  Not to far away, we found the grave of Eli Philpott.  He was a stagecoach driver killed in the course of a robbery not far from Tombstone, Arizona.  A posse headed by the famous Earp brothers went out in search of the murderers and apparently this whole event was one of the catalysts that led to the gunfight at the OK Corral.  We were going to have a pootle around some of the many Civil War graves in the cemetery but we were conscious that everyone else was waiting for us so instead we had a quick stroll, encountered more lizards, got our legs badly scratched by thorny vines, and headed back to the car in order to head off for the next location for the day.



  • If you are interested in the story of the Donner Party, I recommend reading ‘Ordeal by Hunger‘ by George R Stewart.

Whale – or Arting with Cats

This week’s Art Journal Adventure prompt was “water”.  I do enjoy prompts that are as vague and open as that as it allows my mind to dance among many possibilities until I find the one that sparks with me.  I decided to paint an illustration of a whale using watercolour.  I love whales and often draw whales, even as doodles on pieces of scrap paper or the bottom of shopping lists.  My challenge for this whale was to work really loosely (well, by my standards anyway) with the watercolour and to have the bare minimum of a guideline sketch.  I sprinkled on some salt hoping to create a sort of barnacle effect.  The white space was just too boring around the whale so I added some spatter.  And that was when things really went wrong.

The alternative title to this blog post is ‘Arting with Cats’.  My art table is set up in a corner of the kitchen that has large windows on two sides.  It is flooded with light which makes it perfect as an art space but it means it also attracts the cats who, being cats, like to bask in the warmth of the sun and who share my interest in watching the birds visit the feeder outside the window.  As such, the cats commandeered my art table.  We reached a compromise whereby they now have just under half of the table – their cat bed indicating which is their territory – and I have the rest of it.  I stick to my side of the bargain.  Do they?  Of course not.  They are cats.  Many is the time that they have padded across my art work or have knocked – deliberately! – boxes of pencils or paint sets off the table.  When annoyed that I have not fed him earlier than usual, Satchi sits on my art table and picks up my paintbrushes in his mouth, one by one, and drops them onto the floor.  On this occassion, I had just gotten up from the table to clean my brushes when Satchi plonked himself right in front of my art journal and swished his huge, fluffy tail right across the page.  He thankfully did not manage to do much damage to the whale itself, as it was almost bone dry, but the spatter dots smeared and smudged.  Ugh.  Had it been anything other than my art journal, I would have been very annoyed and frustrated.  However, my art journal is for experiments, some of which go wrong.  This page, therefore, becomes another record of what goes wrong when one attempts arting with cats.

32 - Watercolour Whale

Road Trip 2017 #25 – Yosemite

Fourteenth day of our road trip and we visited our tenth National Park.  The entrance to Yosemite is just north of Mammoth Lakes so we were able to arrive pretty early in the morning.  We were still at a high elevation at that end of the park and the mountains we passed had snow drifts tucked into their crevices and there were chunks of ice floating on the surface of the water.  We wound our way along the road, past rock faces lashed with small waterfalls and fast running creeks glimpsed through the trees.  Every time we turned a corner, we were met with a new, beautiful, striking vista.  One scene reminded my husband and sons of Rivendell, where some fancy elves live in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  We also saw the famous sights of El Capitan and Half Dome but only from the car.  There was no free space to park anywhere close that would have given us the opportunity to get out and have a look.





Yosemite has been protected land since the time of Abraham Lincoln  – and thanks in large part to my fellow countryman, John Muir – and it really does have that feeling of wilderness to it.  It is also incredibly vast.  We had lots of choices for places to hike to and in the end we plumped for the Yosemite Falls.  It was an easy walk that led us through woodland.  The route was paved the whole way but the younger boys and I chose to wade through some shallow water anyway, just for fun and to cool our feet.  It was not long before we could hear the strong rumbling of the waterfalls and a little further on we could feel the spray even before we could catch sight of the falls.








Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in the park and falls, in two drops, a total of 2425 feet.  Our walk brought us to the bottom of the lower falls where we could watch the water pounding into the pool and flowing out into the creek, hear its roar, and be cooled by its spray.  Despite the noise, despite the crowds, there was something restful about watching the falls, something mesmerising about it.  We spent some time taking in the view of the falls.





I wanted to cram in a visit to the Ahwahnee Hotel, as it’s interiors were used as the inspiration for some of the decor in the Overlook Hotel, the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.  As a big fan of the movie, it was a big pull for me.  However, Mr Pict was keeping a better eye on our timings than I was and pointed out that we still had a very long drive ahead of us.  Sadly, therefore, I had to accept that on this occasion I would have to abandon the film nerd bit of our visit to Yosemite.



The drive north was indeed long.  Long and boring.  Boring largely because it was relentless.  The landscape outside the car was actually fairly interesting, so it was not like the cabin fever boredom that sets in when driving through featureless desert.  There were rolling hills, golden grasses dancing in fields, and clouds in the sky.  Actual clouds.  I think they were the first clouds we had seen on our entire road trip.  Our route took us up and down steep mountains, on twisting roads, through areas devastated by wildfires with trees turned to charcoal.  What we did not pass was anywhere we could stop to eat.  By late afternoon we were ravenous but the only towns we passed through were too tiny to have a grocery store or place to eat.  This was not good planning on our parts.  We had water and the kids had access to some snacks but we were hungry enough that the cranky moods were kicking into gear.  The long stretches of nothingness somehow seemed longer because of our hunger.  We passed through Calaveras County, a place I had heard of because of Mark Twain and his jumping frog.  Having heard of it, I had some hope we would pass through a place big enough to at least have a convenience store we could grab some sandwich fixings from.  Alas, no.  We must have been in the depopulated part of the county.  We kept on trucking.  Finally, we reached civilization in the form of a truck stop.  We ate there – nothing special but we were grateful all the same – and then headed to our sleeping quarters for the evening, a hotel just north of Santa Rosa.

Abstract Layers

As someone who is really into illustration, I very much struggle with creating abstract art.  That was precisely why I pushed myself to actually do this week’s Life Book lesson, which was taken by Jodi Ohl.  I find that I now enjoy the process of working in an abstract method, of layering and mark-making, of using colour and texture rather than shape and form.  However, because I have no real feel or instinct for it, I never know when I am “done” with a piece.  My impulse is to add some sort of representational element to provide the piece with a focal point but often, when I have done so, I regret it because it doesn’t cohere.  I worked on this piece gradually over the course of three days, adding bits and pieces whenever time was available to do so.  Each time I returned to my art table to work on it, I had a sense that it needed more and had an idea of what to add – some dribble here, a few marks there – but then I reached a point where I didn’t know what to add.  Did that mean it was complete?  Or did it simply mean that my well of inspiration had run dry for this piece?  Or was I just fed up of working on this piece and wanting to move on to something new?  Any or all of the above?  I decided this piece was done.  Maybe I will circle back to it at some point and add something; probably I won’t.

32 - Abstract Layers

Sketchbook Project

I recently registered to participate in the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project.  This will be my first time of participating it and I am eager to embark on a new challenge.  My sketchbook has arrived so now I just need to get drawing.  I will be blogging about my drawings as I complete each page but will be doing so over on my art blog, Pict Ink.  I will also be sharing the completed illustrations on Instagram.  Yes, I finally set up an Instagram account.  I am excited to have a totally new art challenge and hope you will hop over to my other blog to follow along.

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Road Trip 2017 #24 – Around Mammoth Lakes

After Bodie, we headed back towards Mammoth Lakes to see the local sights.  Our first stop was Mono Lake.  Mono Lake is a saline soda lake that is apparently even saltier than the sea.  Water from the lake was diverted to Los Angeles which substantially lowered the water level, increased its salinity, and exposed the tufa.  There was some sort of controversial and maybe debunked finding of non-carbon based life discovered in the lake – but that is science and I know nothing about that.  We opted to pull over at a park and take a walk down to the lake.  We should have done our research because there was no access to the water from the park.  Instead there was a boardwalk that led us down to the shore line to see the tufa.  It was a pleasant but frustrating short stroll, frustrating because I had wanted to see more of the landscape than I was able to see from the boardwalk.

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Next up was Hot Creek Geological Site.  This is a creek that tumbles down from the Sierra Nevada as very cold water but at the spot we visited, near Mammoth Lakes, the creek meets a magma-heated geothermal spring and heats up, bubbles, and steams.  From the car park, we could look down over a short wall to the creek below.  The pools immediately drew our eyes not just because they were steaming but mainly because they were a vivid, bright turquoise.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings decided to stay at the top while I took a walk down to water level.  Theirs was actually probably the better vantage point for viewing the pools but from ground level I could observe the creek water bubbling and little fish darting around.  I could also smell the distinctive smell of sulphur.





The kids were eager to go for a dip in some water so we took a drive through the lakes that give the town its name and finally reached Horseshoe Lake, one of the few lakes that permits paddling and swimming.  What we had not anticipated, as we drove up the mountains, was that there would still be snow on the ground at Horseshoe Lake.  The air temperatures had been so baking hot that it just seemed improbable that there could still be snow that had not melted but snow there was.  Our kids loved it.  It is not often that one gets to wear shorts and t-shirt in the snow after all.  The whole area had a weird, somewhat eerie quality to it because of the hundreds of dead trees.  Apparently an earthquake had led to carbon dioxide venting through the surface and killing off the trees.  Sounds like a safe place to let the kids play, right?  My kids decided they would act out the plot of ‘The Lorax’ given the setting.  I mean, what else would one do when surrounded by devastated truffula trees?  So there was a dramatic performance, snow to play in, but no swimming.  Despite the intention being to go for a swim or at least a paddle, as soon as they dipped a toe into the water they thought better of it.  It was freezing.  This should have been abundantly clear from the fact that dogs were playing in the water but the only humans out on the lake were in canoes.

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The whole Mammoth Lakes area is stunning and has a lot to see and do.  Mr Pict and I both agreed that we wished we had spent more time at Mammoth Lakes and sacrificed our time in Las Vegas – though we might have regretted not taking the kids to see Las Vegas.