Bicycle and plein air painting
Lewis's bike at Lake Michigan with a storm brewing (Michigan City, Indiana)

In 2019, Lewis Williams began plein air painting his way from California to Maine – by bicycle. Here, he gives us an update on his journey, including the biggest bonus, which came unexpectedly.

Plein Air Painting My Way ’Cross the USA — By Bicycle! Part II


A dream that started for us almost two years ago is coming to fruition now, as my wife and I “Paint The Way ‘Cross The USA – By Bike!” On the eve of my 60th birthday, reevaluating my life and my art to that point, this idea came to me as a way to shake things up, take on a real challenge, and open new opportunities as I move into my next 60 years.

We, like so many others, had to find a way through all the Covid roadblocks in our way to say, “Let’s get this dream on the road!” We left western Colorado on February 26, 2021 for our San Diego, California start on March 1. Our route moved us through California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, in desert sun and snow, along the historic Old Spanish Trail into Santa Fe. We then followed The Santa Fe Trail up into Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri to the 1821 origin of the trail in Franklin, Missouri.

No longer following trails, we crossed Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and are, as of this writing, in South Bend, Indiana.

Lewis Williams painting en plein air at Lakeshore Trail, Chicago, Illinois
Lewis Williams painting en plein air at Lakeshore Trail, Chicago, Illinois

Daily painting by bike as we go has been an exciting opportunity, as safe cycling roads are difficult to locate, and weather and bugs often try to have their say. We have had innumerable unforgettable experiences, many accidental, such as coming across the remains of the WW2 era Japanese Relocation Center, Amache, at Granada, Colorado; or discovering cougar tracks in the mud along Tsegi Creek near Navajo National Monument, Arizona.

Losing a really good painting off the roof of our trailer near Kanab, Utah, was fun, as was meeting my cousin for a ride on the famous Katy Trail that runs the width of Missouri.

We made seeing great art a big part of our travels, getting to paint in artist Thomas Hart Benton’s Kansas City home and studio; touring the Museum of Art and nearby home of Grant Woods in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; seeing the famous murals in Hannibal, Missouri; and having a too-quick visit to the Art Institute of Chicago and its immense collection.

Learning how to live, sleep, and make art in a van for five months calls for creativity and patience, and three months in, my wife and I are still at it! Having so much time on a bike offers time for self-reflection and meditation. Visual stimulation and subject matter abounds for the art mind.

Painting a rock bridge over a creek at Wapsipinicon St. Park, Iowa
Painting a rock bridge over a creek at Wapsipinicon St. Park, Iowa

We have not had much luck engaging local and state plein air groups (even though I have plein air stickers on the van), which may be a result of Covid. On the days I paint in more public places, such as the Chicago Lakeshore Trail, I am amazed at the interest that the act of making art draws from complete strangers.

Plein air painting of an alley in Hannibal, Missouri
Plein air painting of an alley in Hannibal, Missouri

Truly, the biggest blessing of this trip is the new friends we make, and the frequent comment, “You have inspired us…!” Some say they’re envious, and that is fine, but to inspire – that is really something. Young and old, they see something they can connect to in the act of breaking away from the norm, making a creative and bold move and heading away on a journey. The inspiration has rekindled an old spark in their psyche, a dream they left simmering on a back burner for too long…any dream, and sometimes the dream is of art.

I offer that gift to anyone out there, that your choice to journey and be creative can and will inspire, and what an offering to share with your neighbors. Plein air painting can do that.

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  1. I am 74, had a double lung transplant 19 years ago, a hip transplant 5 years ago (so I don’t think I will be riding around Australia). I have been painting for 70 years (yes I did my first painting when I was 4).
    I have been an art teacher in various levels of state education here in Victoria/Australia for for over 35 years & drawing & painting teacher for 15 years in more local community centres. I paint concepts (totally made up from an idea in my head) but the paintings often end up sort of landscapeish. But I do find this story inspirational – both as a love/drive of painting & for the variety of topics.
    I am still painting at 74 – several days a week (if no longer every day) – I am still exploring techniques and styles and media.
    I only have to walk in to my garage-converted-to-studio and the smell of oil paint gets my brain into the painting mode.
    My painting inspirations are Rembrandt, Van
    Gogh, & Matisse & also love Gauguin & Monet.

    • My reoly keeos vaporizing, I’ll try this a third time!!! Thanks for the contact, and staying out there and getting after your art. Its a great reason to get up in the morning! Your art influnces are also mine! Stay healthy and keep creating!

  2. I’m heading out for a road trip to paint in a couple of weeks, but I am going via motorcycle–across country and back again, stopping wherever I see something that I feel needs to be captured on canvas.
    I’ve done these trips before, but mostly on the West Coast (Highway One vistas are surely sublime to paint!)
    I pull a trailer behind my motorcycle, and camp along the way.
    Oh, I’m a 72-year-old female!

  3. Well Elin, you are inspired just as I am, with a little different cycle! We love hwy 1!! Did it years ago on our honeymoon, and started this trip on it heading north out of San Diego! We have the support van, but when the shoulder is wide enough i haul my art junk in a tow behind trailer. One if my best art friends is a wstercolorists, 72 yrs old, and is known as the Artist On A Harley, towing his fancy trailer!. Have fun and thanks for the response!

  4. A very cool way to live! I rode my mountain bike, loaded with art gear, around Switzerland when I was 39, in 2 weeks. Camped on the ground with my sleeping bag. I still am inspired by the visual input from that trip. I’m 68 now. These days I live full time in my toy hauler trailer. The back end of the trailer is my permanent art studio and I paint every day. Soon heading to Wyoming and the Pacific Northwest to paint. Thank you for your inspirational story.


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