First Light over Texas

Whenever I’m in the vicinity of Culberson County, it’s a sure bet that I’ll be making several trips up and down all 55 miles of my favorite highway, Texas State Highway 54. During my most recent visit, I decided to see how it looked in the twilight of dawn. So, I rolled out of Van Horn while it was still dark and drove north, enjoying, as usual, the complete absence of other vehicles.

Texas 54 terminates at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, the highest terrain in the state. It was wonderful to see the mountains aglow as the sun cracked the horizon.


Acme Little Giant Do-It-Yourself Rocket-Sled Kit

rr still

Each time I travel the desert roads of Texas and New Mexico, I manage to catch at least one glimpse of a roadrunner. Usually, they just zip straight across the road directly in front of me, and by the time I reach for a camera, they’re long gone. I’ve never come close to capturing one on film (or the digital equivalent).

That changed on my most recent visit to the Davis Mountains. I had activated my phone’s video camera to record a scenic stretch of road. Almost immediately, a roadrunner joined the party. You’ll see it enter the road from the grass on the right, zigzag up my lane, cross the centerline, then run up the left edge of the pavement. As I pass, it hops into the grass and flies away. Far from a spectacular piece of cinema, but I’m happy that I finally got a lens on one of these beasts.

This short video has been slowed to just 20% of its original speed and there is no audio track. You’ll have an easier time seeing the bird if you play the video in full-screen mode (the icon in the lower-right corner of the video window).

Click HERE to view the video on my Vimeo channel.

Runtime: 55 seconds


Deep in the Heart of Texas

I have previously written about my favorite spot in the Davis Mountains of Texas, which I last saw in 2004. Naturally, this view topped my list of things to see when I rolled through the area in October of 2015. So, after a chucking my luggage into the hotel room and grabbing a quick dinner, I drove up into the hills, wondering if the valley was still as beautiful and unspoiled as I remembered.

Absolutely perfect autumn weather for an evening drive in the mountains, just as it was in ’04. The sights along the road all seemed familiar, and very little, if anything, appeared to have changed. I took that as a good omen. Anticipation was reaching the saturation point, and certain landmarks looming ahead told me that I was very close to my destination. Rounding the final curve, I pulled over, cut the motor and smiled broadly. There it was, exactly as I had left it. Welcome back, Carl. Eleven years had changed nothing…

…though it’s a safe bet that the trees had grown a little taller and a little fuller in my absence.

I walked over to the edge of the slope and stood there, basking in the scenery and the silence, which was broken only by a few chirping birds and insects, and three rather clumsy deer stumbling down the steep hillside behind me.

At this point, I placed my cell phone on a small tripod and recorded two minutes of video, which you can view here.

So, was everything the same after eleven years? That verdict would require the onset of total darkness, still a couple of hours away. Seemed like a great excuse to continue driving through the mountains, watching as the final moments of daylight painted the sky and the landscape…

…and then back to the spot in time to watch the young crescent moon as it fell slowly behind the hills to the west…

Now it was time to prepare for the main event. The nearby McDonald Observatory was built here for a very good reason, as the Davis Mountains are home to some of the darkest skies in North America. The folks at the observatory have even assisted local residents and businesses in procuring outdoor lighting fixtures that minimize light pollution. And plenty of other people in the area are behind the effort to keep the skies dark.

When I came here back in ’04, I was blown away by the starlight on display, an intensity unequaled elsewhere in my travels. Sadly, I only had a low-resolution pocket digital camera with me on that trip, so astrophotography was off the menu. This time, I brought the gear to make it happen.

Looking at satellite images of this area, I spotted a few buildings within this large valley that appeared to be the homes of ranchers. I don’t know if they existed during my last visit or if they were recently constructed. Regardless, I was hoping that they wouldn’t spoil the view.

Darkness was now firmly in command, and the show in the sky was nothing short of stellar, once again. And happily, the stars were the only source of light visible in any direction; the valley remained dark. If any of the homes down there had outdoor lights burning, they were buried in the rolling hills and invisible from my vantage point.

Adding to the romance of the evening, the coyotes took up their call, just as they did two weeks earlier as I was shooting the Harvest Moon eclipse in South Dakota. For me, that sound is the most wonderful part of photographing the night sky in the West.

I hope this area will maintain its sublime beauty for a long time to come. And I hope it won’t be eleven more years before I return.

Right Place, Right Time

After my 2016 visit to the Dog Ear Buttes of South Dakota, I posted this trip report, where I mentioned my long-standing desire to conquer the summits of these little hills on the prairie. When I returned to the buttes this past September, I had no plan in place for tracking down the landowner so I could get permission to hop the fence; I figured I’d wing it once I got there. Turns out, it couldn’t have been easier.

As soon as I had parked on the side of the road, a van came around the curve and slowed to a stop beside me. I introduced myself to the friendly family inside and asked if they happened to know who owns the land south of the road. “We do.” Cool. I asked if they would mind if I walked to the top of each hill. They gave their blessing, as the cows were grazing in another pasture that day. I thanked them and we said goodbye. As they drove on to their destination, I rolled a short distance westward, looking for the best spot to climb the barbed wire.

(Above: View to the west from the north summit; the Pontiac parked below)

(Above: View of the north summit from the south summit)

Once over the fence, I made straight for the north summit. Not difficult hiking, certainly, but steeper than it looks from the road. The ground was stony and dry, studded with yucca and prickly pear. In short order, I was standing on the rocky peak of the north Ear, enjoying an unobstructed view of the big sky and the sweeping prairie.

(Above: Looking eastward from the south summit; a vulture gliding through the center of the frame)

I then made the easy stroll across the saddle to the top of the south Ear. The only movement I noticed in this panorama was a single soaring vulture, making a slow circle around the buttes; not an uncommon sight on the plains, but this may be the only time I’ve seen one circling below my eye level. Pretty sweet. (You can spot the vulture during the first few seconds of the video I’ve linked below.)

(Above: View to the south from the south summit; 18 miles to the Nebraska line)

In addition to the great view up there, I enjoyed the absence of noises from the civilized world; I tend to linger in places where I can bask in the silence of the wind.

You can follow this link to Vimeo and watch a 45-second video showing a slow 360° rotation atop the south summit.

Love at First Sight Is Not a Myth


The year was 1990. I wanted to replace the decaying ’57 Fairlane (my first and only vehicle at the time), and I knew, somehow, that a vintage convertible was the way to go. As to which model I should purchase, I had no idea. I knew that I didn’t want anything obvious like a Corvette or Mustang; I wanted something uncommon, and I had a vague vision of the body style that I was after. I approached the search with an I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it attitude.

I grabbed a fresh batch of ads once they hit the stand each Thursday morning and started making calls. I looked at several cars in the area over the next few weeks…Skylark, Cutlass, LTD, Chevelle, Cougar, et al, all in the 1964 to 1974 range, all in various states of disrepair. Some were too far gone, some just didn’t appeal to me for one reason or another.

On Friday, May 25, I drove about 50 miles north of town to check out a car that sounded promising. The man I spoke with told me that he was the second owner of a 1969 LeMans and that it was in good running condition. He had been storing it in his barn ever since his daughter (yes, the farmer’s daughter), who had been driving it, purchased a new vehicle and didn’t want the Pontiac anymore.

Through miles of rolling farmland I drove, following the directions he gave me to find his remote corner of the county. I had just nosed into the driveway when I saw before me the barn, the farmer and the Pontiac, which was parked atop the highest point of his yard. I stopped right where I was and just stared, grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato. Cue the choir of angels, the harps and the soft lighting. I knew instantly that the search was over; this was my convertible. The only thing standing between me and this LeMans was another prospective buyer, who was walking slowly around the car with a bargain-hunter’s gaze.

I kept my distance. I killed the engine and sat quietly near the end of the driveway, trying to be invisible, trying not to spook him. I pretended to read the classifieds I had with me, but I was watching him intently, beaming in his direction the telepathic message: This is not the convertible you’re looking for. Get back in your car and drive away. I couldn’t hear their conversation at that distance but it appeared to end on a “Well, I’ll think about it” note. I turned my eyes to the paper and tried to look casual as he rolled past me and turned onto the county road. I exhaled heavily.

As I was walking up the hill, I reflected on the fact that the LeMans was the mystery convertible pictured in my mind when I began my search; one must have crossed my field of view, who knows where or when, and got stuck in some corner of my brain. I was quite taken with the lines and curves of this machine…a beautifully designed body, and certainly much sleeker than my Fairlane.

Still wearing a big grin, I introduced myself to the owner and began my inspection while we talked. There were some obvious problems with this vehicle: fading paint, rust in the rear bumper, Bondo in the quarter panels, a large rip in the top, a well-worn driver’s seat and evidence that mice had moved in. But my priority was to find a car that was mechanically sound, with a powertrain in good operating condition; body and cosmetic issues, I could live with.

Test drive? Sure. I had no doubt that this purchase was a done deal, but I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to drive this beauty. So I fired it up, made a quick run southward through a few intersections, then turned back. The car was running beautiful; in fact, it was running so well that I couldn’t accelerate from a dead stop without spinning the rear wheels, no matter how gently I hit the throttle.

Time to haggle? Ha! No way I’d take the risk that he would wait for a better offer to come along. If he wanted $1500 for this car, he was going to get $1500. To me, that price seemed like a bargain. I pulled out every dollar I had on me (200 odd bucks) and asked him if this would hold the car until I could get to my bank, withdraw the rest of the cash and find a ride back up here. He agreed, but since he needed to leave to take care of some business that afternoon, he asked me to come back the next morning. Perfect. We shook hands, he moved the LeMans back into the barn, and I made a beeline for the bank, making damn sure I got there before they closed for the long holiday weekend.

On Saturday morning, May 26, 1990, a friend drove me and my wad of bills up to the farm. The bills stayed there; the keys, the title and I headed home in the LeMans. Flying down the highway with the wind swirling around my head, I was really enjoying those first 50 miles of many thousands yet to come.