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Cancelled trips

Ruby Beach sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Since I posted this drawing and some others this summer, people have been asking me what’s with the stamps in my sketchbook. I guess the short answer is that each one is a little piece of personal tradition.

But you know I don’t really do short answers.

Chandler O'Leary's national park passport book

The long one, then.

I grew up in a nomadic family. Between the moves required by Dad’s job in the Air Force and a fierce wanderlust that runs in all the O’Leary veins, we had a lot of reasons to travel. Dad and I, especially, would spend hours poring over our dog-eared Rand McNally road atlas, plotting routes over the back-est of back roads (the squigglier the line on the map, the better) and stops at as many points of interests as we could cram into a journey from A to B.

When I was ten, we made a circuit of our then-home state of Colorado, and devoted our time to exploring every national park and monument we could reach along the loop. At each park’s visitor center, we noticed a rubber stamp and ink pad stationed at the front desk. When we finally asked a ranger what they were for, she handed us a small blue notebook and proceeded to explain about the National Park Service’s Passport program.

Chandler O'Leary's national park passport book

A stamp to collect at every NPS property in the country, and a tidy little book to hold them all? I was hooked.

Chandler O'Leary's national park passport book

Dad and I found ways to sneak a national monument or two into every road trip and relocation—and even took impromptu vacations just to add a new park to the list. My favorite memory is when I was in high school, and Dad popped his head into my room:

“Have any plans this weekend?”

“Uh, no…”

“Wanna go to Montana?”

So we jumped in the car and drove 600 miles just to flip General Custer the bird at Little Bighorn (I had just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, so he wasn’t exactly stirring me to patriotism). I mean, if you’re going to do it, you might as well go all out, after all. And we had the stamp to commemorate the moment.

Chandler O'Leary's national park passport book

The Passport program also includes collectible paper stamps, which can be purchased from afar (as opposed to the ink cancellations, which are free but can only be obtained in person). I’m pretty lukewarm about these, though; by the time I jumped on the bandwagon they had already phased out the super-cool two-piece design pictured in the lower left corner above, in favor of the cheaper, lower-quality one-piece stamp in the upper right. Since those have been revamped yet again into a pressure-adhesive sticker—and who knows what heinously non-archival chemicals might be in the glue—I’m even less of a completist about them now.

Chandler O'Leary's national park passport book

Anyway, I’ve burned through most of the regional sections in my Passport,

Chandler O'Leary's national park passport bookChandler O'Leary's national park passport book

and every inch of overflow space.

Voyageurs National Park and figure drawings sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So I’ve branched out a bit.

What I didn’t know as a kid was that my Passport helped me develop my interest in nearly everything I love most: traveling, design, archiving, printmaking, history, typography, bookmaking, and so on.

At some point along the way, I realized that what I really mattered to me (beyond the travel itself) was the act of adding to an ongoing work—and then looking back to see what I had accomplished. That what I had been doing all along, by compiling this little individual history, is creating some form of artist book. And that my frustrations over an imperfect format were really a desire to create my own.

Daily Sketchbook drawings by Chandler O'Leary

A page from my daily book—more on that here.

So now all of my sketchbooks are Passports, each custom-tailored—

Mt. Rainier National Park and figure drawings sketch by Chandler O'Leary

each infinitely flexible, ready for whatever adventures wait to be documented.

Daily Sketchbook drawing by Chandler O'Leary

Here it is, nearly twenty years later, and I’m as eager as ever. Moreover, it’s my goal to collect every last cancellation within the entire National Park System before I stamp the big passport book in the sky. I’m about a quarter of the way there.

Daily Sketchbook drawing by Chandler O'Leary

And I’ll probably have to build a library for all the sketchbooks I’ll fill between now and then.


12 thoughts on “Cancelled trips

  1. Lara

    That is very cool! I want to do the passport program now. We’ve been letterboxing a lot this summer, and it is really fun to find the homemade rubber stamps and stamp them in our book. They are usually something to do with the area we find them in.

    And also, thank you so much for the blueberry jam recipe! We already blew through the few blueberries I managed to pick this season, but I am saving it for next year. So thoughtful of you to send it to me. ;)

  2. lolly

    I have so much love for everything on this post (well, your whole blog, honestly…) I grew up out west too and so enjoyed those trips to national parks. love the way you use these passports as sketchbooks. its very “early modern” to repurpose the paper like that! (says the archivist!)

  3. Hearthstone

    I’m recalling what your passport documents, that we went from Little Bighorn to Devil’s Tower in the same day. They’re not very near one another. (I know you guys were all mad at me for blowing thru Mesa Verde that time, but I was concerned to find a room somewhere for the night.) Remember how, after driving 600 miles, we got bummed out with Custer and his Last Casino in about 20 minutes? We decided to go back to a happier place, Bears Lodge. Via unpaved roads. And almost ran out of gas in Alva, Wyoming, on the last leg to Belle Fourche for the night. How did we know that the son of the Postmistress of Alva had a gallon of gas with our names on it? We didn’t, until we stopped and asked. (That was one of my scarier moments as a parent.) I hope the nice man at zip code 82711 got our thank-you note.

  4. Allison

    Aaah, friend. I am so thankful for the time we both lived in Minnesota. It helps me to hear your voice as I read your blog. I love love love getting these glimpses into your sketchbooks and traditions. Thanks for the inspiration. xoxo

  5. Christina Rodriguez

    I’d only just begun listening to “The Last Stand” audiobook about Custer and Sitting Bull when I had to return it to the library. Your post reminded me that I want to reserve it again and finish the story.

  6. Elissa

    I have a N.P. passport too and I really treasure it – I’ve had mine for 15 years and counting.

    I never before considered it as an ongoing work. Even though I may not write or sketch in it, it really is a travel journal.

    1. Chandler Post author

      Hi, Mary! YES, they are awesome! And they’re free! All you have to do is go to the visitor center at any national park, monument, historic site, etc. and they’ll have them. Some parks have several different stamps (and/or several different visitor centers), and it becomes something of a scavenger hunt. At some parks the stamps are simply left out at an obvious spot in the visitor center; at others (usually the less frequently-visited parks) you have to ask a ranger, but they all have at least something, and finding out what it is is half the fun!

  7. Dan

    What a cool post! Thanks for linking it out of (your wonderful) Drawn the Road! I love the passport program and wish I’d started as young as you did. It’s such a fun scavenger hunt, and I definitely find myself stopping at NPS sites I wouldn’t otherwise seek out just to get a stamp and learn about them.

    1. Chandler Post author

      Thanks, Dan! Yes, the stamps have definitely been responsible for my desire to see all the parks and other NPS sites. I try really hard to actually spend time at the site (rather than just grabbing the stamp and leaving), but it’s definitely given me that extra push to seek out lesser-known sites and take detours out of my way. Which, of course, is part of the fun of it all.

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