Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado
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.
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.
Yes, it’s that same hill in South Dakota you’ve seen many times before…the one I visit at least twice each year, the place where I love to park to watch the sun and the moon. I bookended my 2017 western adventure here; above is a September sunset, below, one from October. Note the southward drift of the setting sun in that three-week period.
I’ve written about my love for exploring the backroads of North America…roads that see very little traffic, roads that I can have all to myself and enjoy at a relaxed pace while taking in the scenery. However, back in the ’90s, when I had the ability to sit for hours on end, there were a few occasions when I was intent on making good time, for one reason or another. On these trips, I drove the LeMans over 1000 miles in less than 24 hours…no sleep, stopping only for restrooms, gas, food and a few photographs of the scenery:
April 1992: New Mexico to Oklahoma to Texas, 1095 miles in 22 hours
May 1994: Texas to Indiana, 1049 miles in 18 hours
September 1996: Indiana to Oklahoma, 1255 miles in 23 hours
September 1996: California to Colorado, 1051 miles in 17 hours
September 1998: South Dakota to Indiana, 1124 miles in 17.5 hours
And prior to those events was one grand piece of insanity that occurred in June of 1991: a sleepless marathon run from Marin County, California to northern Indiana: 2337 miles in 38.5 hours.
That journey was not a conscious attempt to set a record or to make a statement. I’m not sure why it worked out the way that it did. Attribute it to the energy of youth, or the hubris of youth.
In any case, never again. It’s been many years since I’ve had interest in that type of travel.
Any such trips in your past that you’d like to share?