Drawing on the Road

Posted on Jul 1, 2010 in Japan

There are still a lot of places I want to share, but I thought I’d change gears this morning and talk a little about some of the drawings I’ve done while traveling.

I’ve always owned sketchbooks, but I’ve never really been a sketchbook sort of guy.  I’d buy them because they looked cool, but they’d remain empty because of two reasons.  I only drew at home, where I always had piles of paper that were easier to draw in than a book.  And, had I drawn in a pretty book there is about a 100% chance I wouldn’t like the drawing and it would be entombed inside a pretty leather book for future generations to see.  Which would mean I’d have to throw the book away.

My friends never had that fear.  My friends in school carried sketchbooks with them all the time, and constantly drew in them.  Because apparently, drawing was fun for them.  They did it non-stop. Drawing was compulsive and gave them great joy, like sledding or eating candy or swimming.

“Hey, guys, it’s summer!  Grab your swimsuits and goggles, we’re going swimming!”

Could have been substituted with…

“Hey, look.  A sketchbook.  Grab your pencils and erasers, we’re goin’ drawing!”

There would be hundreds of drawings inside their books.  Thousands.  Drawings of people sitting, people walking.  A used coffee cup.  A spoon.  A chair.  A lump.  Pretty much the drawn equivalent of Twitter or the updates on Facebook, only back then they couldn’t punch a button and let their followers in Finland know they’d just seen a seagull make poopy.  Instead, they took the time and effort to reproduce these things in their book, and thoughtfully not share them.

But now I was asking to see inside their book.

“What’s the lump?”  I’d ask.

“Oh, a sand dune I saw at the beach.”

The BEACH?  He took this book to the beach and then drew in it?  Seriously?  When I went to the beach I brought a Frisbee.  Or a football.  Or a kayak.  Or a friend.  But this guy brought a sketchbook.

I asked why.

“So I could draw what I saw.”  He said.

Seriously?  Instead of doing anything else?  Anything?  Like maybe something fun?  Or falling down some stairs?

But he was having fun.   Having fun drawing people and seagulls.  Had I attempted this, I would have done a horrible drawing of someone jogging with their dog, become frustrated that I drew it in a BOOK, and wonder if I could remove the page without wrecking the book.  I’d get impatient and try to tear the page out so as to leave no trace it ever was in the book in the first place, then wreck the binding and end up throwing a twenty-dollar sketchbook in one of those beach garbage cans that have big labels on them reminding you to throw things inside the trash can instead of letting a sea turtle swallow it.

Drawing for me was the opposite of riding a bike.  I could ride my bike all day with no destination, because riding was fun.  For me, drawing is a destination-oriented activity.  I draw because I want a drawing of a mermaid.  Or a comic strip.  So I draw because I want to do a specific drawing.  Its a lot of work to get it right.  A lot of erasing is involved.  And when I get it right, it was worth the effort, and I’m happy I did it.  But I would never think to do it while at the beach, or when I was traveling.

But all that changed about twenty years ago when I was on a little island named Lanai.  It was right after Hurricane Iniki had swept through the Hawaiian Islands, and had scored a direct hit on Kaua’i.  It was only a few days after the storm had passed.  Lanai was deserted.  I was one of only about six people at a beach hotel that normally would have had thousands of guests.  Seriously.  Six.  I never saw the other five.

I wandered the empty corridors and pathways alone.  I ate at the breakfast buffet with no one else.  My spoon clinked softly in the deserted dining room.  Waiters stood around, watching me.  Waiting for me to finish my eggs  so they could clear my plate.  I was like some super-rich kid living in my dead parents mansion.  In this scenario I had no friends, just a dedicated staff that saw to my every need.  Because I was insane.  At least that’s how it felt.

There were probably twenty staff for every guest, so there was nothing for them to do.  Except wait for me to do something.  I suddenly felt as though I wasn’t doing enough.   So I walked around a lot.  And swam a lot.  And I booked a drive through the interior of the island in a jeep.  A blue Geo.  A tiny jeep that happened to be evil.  No, not evil.  Cursed.  More on that another time.  One night I drove the little doomed  jeep inland to a big lodge and ate dinner in their fancy restaurant.  The lodge catered to a well established crowd that had been coming there their whole lives.  The quiet of the dining room, the very old guests, the empty corridors.  It had this dreamlike, otherworldly vibe.  After dinner I took a walk to the little Victorian hothouse behind the lodge that they grew orchids in.  It was placed well back against a forest.  In the daytime it must have been pretty.  But now it was night.  It was lit up brightly all by itself against the forest.  It seemed to beckon me.  I walked up the hill to it.

It was unlocked.

Inside it was extra humid and the air was still.  The smell of flowers was overpowering and it was difficult to breathe.  The interior was bright, so everything outside the windows was as black as ink.  I was suddenly aware how clearly anyone outside this little greenhouse could see me.  I had found the perfect place to be murdered in.  I would be discovered by the gardener in the morning.  The inside of the hothouse would have a pink hue because of the sunlight tinted by the blood splashed on the glass walls and ceiling.

At least that’s what I suddenly decided, so I got out.  I paused for a moment just outside the little house to get my bearings.  I was still a hundred yards from the lodge.  It suddenly became very windy.  And the next thing I’m not making up.

Something in the forest screamed.  It wasn’t an animal, I’m certain.  It sounded human.  And it wasn’t more than a few feet inside the tree line.  I ran for the lodge.  To this day I don’t know if someone was having a bit of fun or what.  I jumped into the blue Jeep and drove the dark road back to my hotel.  I was freaked out.  Wind gusted against the jeep.  My headlights lit the fence posts that lined the road.  I passed them quickly.  They were bleached out white, and looked like petrified ghosts.  Every ten posts or so there was a white owl perched on one.  I figured they were waiting for mice to be lit up by cars driving past.  Screams in forests, white owls watching from ghostly posts, deserted island.  I couldn’t wait to be back in my empty hotel.  I dropped the car with the lonely valet and made my way to my room.

I turned a corner and was shocked to see the concierge just standing in the middle of the hall.  Like those twins in The Shining except there was only one of her.  A gust of wind swung a heavy overhead lamp on its chain.  Her shadow moved back and forth on the floor and wall in time to the swinging lamp, so that the squeaking chain made it seem as though her shadow needed oiling.  She had nothing to do and wanted to talk.  Things had changed, I was told.  Although there wasn’t any damage to property and the airport was functioning like normal, things were different now.  Shifted.  A beach near the hotel was gone.  The sand had been swept away, exposing a base of round black lava rocks.  Trees were chopped up.  A lot of birds were missing their eyes.

So for no good reason I decided to take a stroll to the missing beach before I went to bed.  The pathway was dark, but with the hotel just a few hundred yards away I was sure I couldn’t get lost.  I made it to the missing beach, and saw that a thunderstorm was closing in.  Lightning flashed inside the clouds.  It was all strangely beautiful.  A cat started crying somewhere beside me.  I parted the tall grass and found a black cat hiding.  It stood up and hissed.  With the storm closing in I headed back to the hotel.  I lost the path a few times but made it back.

The next morning at the deserted buffet I thought about all the stuff that happened and wondered how I would remember it.  I hadn’t brought a camera that night because it had been too dark to take pictures.  And then I remembered I had brought one of those empty journals.  So I decided to draw some of the things I saw.  I sat at the table and drew the cat in the grass.  The owls on the fence posts.  The hallway concierge.  The orchid house of murder.  As I drew, a little red bird came to help himself to my butter.  Sure enough, he was missing one of his eyes and a foot.  I drew him too.

And later on, after I got home, I looked through all the photographs I took.  And the drawings.  Much to my surprise, I liked the drawings better.  Even though they were far from accurate when compared to how a photograph would have depicted them, emotionally they were more true to the scene.  Because they carried with them the vibe I felt when I drew them.  The cat was weird and elongated.  The concierge more haunted-looking.  The owls more ominous.  The hothouse more malevolent.  As years passed I didn’t look at the photographs from that trip that much, because they look like any other pictures you’d see of a hotel or Hawaiian hills.  But I looked at those drawings again and again.  They always felt fresh and brought back vivid memories.

So now I carry a sketchbook when I travel, just in case I need to record something a camera can’t.

Like this crow.  Or raven.  I can’t remember how to tell them apart.  Something different about the way their tails are shaped but I can’t remember which is which.  Anyway, I was walking around Sapporo when this big crow slapped me on the back of my head with his wing and then flew up into a tree and yelled at me.  I tried to get a picture of him but even though he was really close, all the pictures turned out blurry.  Probably because he was a ghost.  So I went back to my room and drew him.  And I already like this drawing better than the photograph even if the photograph hadn’t been blurred by evil.

Oh, and the next picture is where I was drawing in the first Hotel I stayed at.  It is my closet at the Tokyo Peninsula Hotel.  The closet in my room was nicer than the studio in my actual house.  The last picture is of the pages in my sketchbook warping because of the humidity change from California to Tokyo.