I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, in a town called Waynesboro. It’s one of the largest towns on the Appalachian Trail, but that’s probably not saying much if you’re reading this in Queens. Or, say, Baltimore, where I’m writing this. To much of the urban world, Waynesboro looks like a dozen buildings lost in endless cowfields.

But that’s why I always look forward to driving home. Part of me loves the energy and complexity of cities but the rest of me prefers open space and quiet. If I stay away from the mountains too long, I start to feel lost.

Mountains, through a frosty car window

My favorite route follows Route 340 down from Harpers Ferry. We often end up driving late at night, thanks to the complications of work and baby and traffic in our best-laid plans, but this has become another enjoyable part of the ritual: wife and daughter go to sleep and I get a few hours to myself. I watch the Blue Ridge rise on the horizon while the exurbs dissolve into open fields and forest. I drink terrible gas station coffee and listen to (usually) The Postal Service.

Every now and then I get lucky and the night is perfectly clear. On those nights the stars get brighter as we get further from the city. Some nights you can see the hazy band of the Milky Way running across the top of the sky. The sky is especially clear on cold winter nights.

I get a lot of good thinking done on these drives.

I decided to do this picture as a digital composite, using the workflow I worked out over the last year or so. For this one, though, I needed dense, black tones and textures but wanted to keep the clean lines that digital is so great for. I strugged for a long time with how to approach the mountains; I needed the wash to be just so and the horizon needed to feel really wide. The perspective was really hard to get right.

Sketches of “homeward”

This piece prints great on cotton watercolor paper: the black sky is really velvety. I used very high resolution (the Photoshop file is 2GB) and it looks really good in the 16 x 24 “poster” size. I stuck with print sizes that fit in standard frames, but in hindsight I wish I’d done a huge, windshield-sized one. Maybe later.