Fool on the Hill

Every journey through South Dakota includes a drive to the top my favorite hill in Yankton County. Alone and standing high above the surrounding farmland, it offers broad unobstructed views of the evening sky. It’s a quiet and peaceful place to watch the Sun and the Moon as they fall toward the prairie.

Last month, on the day following the New Moon, I parked on the hilltop and set up the tripod, camera and 200mm lens. The sky was generally clear, but a wall of clouds on the western horizon had me wondering if I would see the entire show.

While I waited for twilight to arrive, I spent time shooting the colorful layers of the evening clouds at full zoom…

But a surprise was waiting at the bottom of that cloud wall…a thin window of open sky right at the horizon. It was strange to see the lower limb of the Sun appear out of that dark mass and then watch the remainder of the sunset through the slim gap…

Then it was time for Luna to sink through the clouds—just a 3.3% waxing crescent at the time of these photos…

The lights at the bottom of the next photo belong to distant farmhouses…

~ ~ ~

Tip Jar

Financial considerations will play a major role in my future travel plans, and supplemental income will be needed if I hope to continue exploring rural roads and remote corners of North America. I have created a support page at Ko-fi.com. If you enjoy reading these posts and seeing the images I gather as I roam this continent, you can view my page and, if you wish, make a donation by clicking the blue button…

Ko-fi allows you to make a secure one-time donation in any amount you choose…you are not required to subscribe to anything or set up recurring contributions.

If you prefer a more tangible return on your donation, you can also help by purchasing prints and other merchandise from my gallery at Fine Art America. Visit the gallery by clicking the image below…

My appreciation goes out to everyone who follows my blog and comments on my photos and stories from the road. Thank you all for your support!

One for My Baby and One More for the Road

As I told you last month, my spring journey in the LeMans was less than satisfying. Rather than have the 2021 travel season end on that sour note, I had the remaining mechanical issues fixed so I could enjoy an autumn road trip similar to those from the glory years of Pontiac travel, when I would roam leisurely under the big sky along the prairie roads of South Dakota—roads traveled lightly enough that I had them pretty much all to myself.

Clear skies prevailed during my visit; cool mornings, sunny afternoons and cool evenings. I spent a lot of time behind the wheel while rolling toward no particular destination…waving to farmers working the fields, waving to livestock, stopping for quiet walks down dead-end country roads, photographing abandoned buildings, enjoying beautiful sunrises, sunsets and twilight skies, watching the Moon, driving at night under the stars and, of course, listening to plenty of great road music.

This month’s road trip succeeded in washing away the bad taste from that May misadventure. And the Pontiac performed perfectly on this journey. Mind you, I kept my promise and stayed on well-maintained farm roads this time around; there was no camping involved, and no travel on rocky 4×4 wilderness trails. I confidently declare that my days of tent camping with the LeMans are over. The search for a proper backcountry camping vehicle begins in earnest this winter.

~ ~ ~

Tip Jar

Financial considerations will play a major role in my future travel plans, and supplemental income will be needed if I hope to continue exploring rural roads and remote corners of North America. I have created a support page at Ko-fi.com. If you enjoy reading these posts and seeing the images I gather as I roam this continent, you can view my page and, if you wish, make a donation by clicking the blue button…

Ko-fi allows you to make a secure one-time donation in any amount you choose…you are not required to subscribe to anything or set up recurring contributions.

If you prefer a more tangible return on your donation, you can also help by purchasing prints and other merchandise from my gallery at Fine Art America. Visit the gallery by clicking the image below…

My appreciation goes out to everyone who follows my blog and comments on my photos and stories from the road. Thank you all for your support!

At Home

Step inside this house, girl
I’ll sing for you a song
I’ll tell you ’bout just where I’ve been
It shouldn’t take too long
I’ll show you all the things that I own
My treasures, you might say
Couldn’t be more than ten dollars’ worth
They brighten up my day

“Step Inside This House”
Written by Guy Clark
Performed by Lyle Lovett

Abridged

(Double exposure by Sarah S.)

At the top of each state’s page in the road atlas is a small cluster of statistics about that state. The one that always caught my eye was the elevation of the state’s highest point. It wasn’t until 1996 that I decided to do something with that information, when I started including those peaks as destinations on my long road trips. The first to fall was Missouri’s Taum Sauk Mountain (elevation 1772′) on September 1, 1996. More visits to state summits would follow in quick succession on that journey and over the next few years.

But it wasn’t long into the process when I realized that checking every summit off the list was an unreasonable expectation. For one thing, I had no desire to fly all the way to Hawaii again just to stand atop Mauna Kea. Then there are daunting and dangerous peaks such as Rainier and Denali where solo climbing is either heavily discouraged or prohibited outright—unless you’re a professional mountaineer (which I definitely am not). To reach those peaks, you have to be led up as part of a group. And if I can’t make the summit alone, I’ll pass. I’m not a fan of being guided anywhere.

To the east, I encountered several high points that were—sorry to say—just plain uninspiring, such as the center of the road in a residential neighborhood (Delaware), an observation tower packed with tourists (Tennessee), and shrubbery-clogged summits with absolutely no view of the distance (several eastern states). Though I “ascended” a majority of the peaks in the East, in truth, many weren’t worth the gas or the time invested.

On the plus side, there were plenty of enjoyable ascents in the mix. My favorite high points are those stretched along the western edge of the Great Plains, from Guadalupe Peak in Texas all the way up to the Cypress “Hills” of Saskatchewan (pictured below). These are worth visiting more than once, and I’ve done so. I’ve also experienced great joy from topping dozens of unnamed or infrequently visited hills, buttes and ridges scattered across the West. As for official state/provincial high points, my count stands at 31 (29 in the US and two in Canada). Maybe more summits from the list will be conquered, maybe they won’t.

The point of this little story: Even an incomplete to-do list can be rewarding.

And speaking of incomplete…

I now face the very real probability that the Pontiac will fall short on its grand tour of North America. Just three jurisdictions remain to be visited, but they’re the three most challenging—Newfoundland & Labrador, the Yukon and Alaska.

Perhaps you noticed that very little was posted here while I was touring the Southwest back in May. That trip did have its share of wonderful moments, but as for the bigger picture, it was probably the least satisfying Pontiac journey on the books. At the beginning of each year’s driving season, the car is inspected and all known issues are fixed, usually resulting in a hefty repair bill. In spite of all that, gremlins had come along for this ride. The starter died on Day One, keeping me in Missouri for an extra night. And upon reaching Las Vegas, New Mexico, some bizarre engine performance issues appeared. What was supposed to be a four-week road adventure got slashed to two weeks, and I limped the car along a direct route homeward.

After last year’s long autumn tour, I wrote about the need to quit using the Pontiac for backcountry camping and 6,000-mile marathon drives. And I did stay on pavement for nearly all of this spring’s journey, logging just a few miles on gravel to get to the ranch and to assorted campsites. But the May trip was indeed proof that the Pontiac should stay closer to home from now on.

I had high hopes that the LeMans would get to travel the amazing Trans-Labrador Highway, as well as make it all the way to the Arctic coast at Tuk. From the reports I’ve read about the route to the Arctic and from email exchanges with drivers who’ve actually been there, I’m confident now that Yukon’s Dempster Highway would reduce the Pontiac to rubble.

I still plan to explore the extreme limits of the Canadian highway system, but just think how much better those trips will be in a vehicle built to handle such rugged roads; a vehicle with its own bed, so I won’t have to sleep in a flimsy tent in polar bear country or try to arrange lodging in remote hamlets. I’ll be able to take it as slow as I wish and savor each journey.

Is this the end of the road for Pontiac travel? No. But the end will certainly arrive, and probably much sooner than I ever expected. For 30 years, I said I would never sell this car…now, I can see it happening. No way I could ever feel shortchanged about it; after 31 years, 243,000 miles and seeing so much of North America, it’s been a great run. And it’s not over yet.

Who knows…a bag full of money might drop from the sky and I won’t care if I have to rebuild the LeMans after every wilderness journey. And I can’t rule out the possibility that this car will indeed make it across one or more of those final three borders. The far more likely course of events sees a 4×4 campervan handling the long-distance and high-latitude adventures from here forward while the Pontiac returns to what it does best—floating down well-maintained prairie roads while I sing along with the stereo and enjoy the view.

(If you don’t see a video directly above this line, follow this link to my YouTube channel.)

Tip Jar

Since financial considerations play a major role in my future travel plans, perhaps this is the right time to look for sources of supplemental income. This week, I created a support page at Ko-fi.com. If you enjoy reading these posts and seeing the images I gather as I explore this continent, you can view my page and, if you wish, make a donation by clicking the blue button…

Ko-fi allows you to make a secure one-time donation in any amount you choose…you are not required to subscribe to anything or set up recurring contributions.

If you prefer a more tangible return on your donation, you can also help by purchasing prints and other merchandise from my gallery at Fine Art America. Visit the gallery by clicking the image below…

My appreciation goes out to everyone who follows my blog and comments on my photos and stories from the road. Thank you all for your support!

 

Dark Camping

A look at my disdain for campfires…

Certain people who follow this blog are aware of the fact that, in my youth, I took advantage of any opportunity to play with fire. But some of these people may not know just how much my interest in fire has waned over the years…to the point where I no longer own a grill, I don’t use candles in my home, and I think that fireworks belong solely in the hands of professionals.

As for campfires, they are certainly obligatory in the eyes of the camping public—the universal symbol of “Look, we’re camping!” Seems like every depiction of camping in advertisements and entertainment includes happy people sitting around a fire. For the record, when I’m camping, I’m happy too. But, as with travel and…well, lots of other stuff, I can’t follow the popular script when I camp. I avoid developed campgrounds and opt instead for dispersed camping, getting as deep into the middle of nowhere as the Pontiac can take me, where I can savor the silence and solitude. And, while I’m there, I don’t build fires. I think the last time I started a campfire was back in my Boy Scout days.

This post is not a lecture decreeing that you shouldn’t be building campfires (even though parts of it may read that way); rather, it’s just a look at the reasons why I find campfires undesirable. I raise the issue simply because I was asked about it during one of my camping adventures back in May, when I was touring Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Darkness

One of the primary motivators that leads me to these desolate areas is the reward of viewing incredible starscapes that I could never see here in the light-soaked Midwest. Cloud cover, horizon clutter, and (especially) proximity to light sources all weigh heavily on the when and the where of my campsite selection.

A sure way to destroy your night vision during an evening of skywatching is to spend a couple of hours staring into a campfire. After that, you’d be lucky to resolve anything in the sky smaller than the Moon. But when you go easy on your eyes and give them a fair opportunity to adjust to the darkness, you might be surprised at just how well you can see by starlight alone. There have been nights out on the grasslands when—even in the absence of moonlight—the night sky had illuminated the countryside to the point where I could discern the colors of nearby plants and rocks. And on moonlit nights, navigating the terrain is a breeze…no flashlight or lantern required.

Beyond my campfire moratorium, I further preserve my night vision by avoiding the use of traditional flashlights with blinding white light. Instead, I carry an assortment of red flashlights which are much easier on the eyes. Once the sun is down, I use these red lights exclusively, both inside my tent while setting up shop and outside while fiddling with my camera and/or telescope.

Those of you who camp are likely familiar with the many labels used to differentiate the various modes of camping, such as “boondocking,” “dry camping,” “wild camping,” “stealth camping” and so on. Scanning the Internet, I’m not finding any consensus on a term that denotes fire-free camping, nor am I seeing any meaningful use of the phrase “dark camping.” So, this blog post serves as notice that I’m officially taking credit for applying the term “dark camping” to the act of camping without fire. (Notary Seal)

Safety & Liability

It makes sense that a skywatcher like me would set up camp in those regions where clear, dark skies are a common occurrence—deserts, grasslands, the Great Plains in general. It also makes sense that locations with frequent fair weather see much less precipitation than other parts of the country. As you’ve probably noticed from the photos I’ve been sharing for many years, a lot of the places I visit appear quite brown and dry. They also tend to be fairly flat and wide open, which lends them another quality—they’re windy. Prairie winds can be both strong and unpredictable, going from zero to sixty with no warning at all. Dry grass, high winds and campfires…not a good combination.

When you’re dispersed camping in the middle of thousands of wild acres, you can’t just build a fire anytime or anywhere you please. It’s your responsibility to be aware of the current fire restrictions that are in place at the county and state level, as well as restrictions issued by the various US agencies when you’re camping on federal land. Of the locations where I camped (or wanted to camp) back in May, nearly all were under county-wide burn bans at the time. Such bans apply to campfires and can sometimes prohibit the use of grills.

Burn bans are increasingly common in this part of the world as the West continues to heat up and dry out, and they’re not to be taken lightly. Find yourself responsible for sparking a wildfire and there’s likely more than a ticket in your future…you’re looking at the possibility of financial ruin, maybe even incarceration. I’m happy to report that people were taking the bans seriously during my journey in May; I did not see any campfires or open burning in those areas.

Food & Cooking

One day while scouting online for potential wilderness campsites, I caught a glimpse of a developed campground listing in the area. Though I bypassed it automatically, the most recent review for the place caught my eye and made me chuckle. It came from one very unhappy camper who, quite upset over the burn ban in place at the time, asked indignantly, “How are we supposed to cook our food?!?”

Well, a great way to avoid that problem in the future is to pack food that doesn’t need to be cooked.

With camping, I prefer the simple and light approach; I don’t want to be bogged down with a ton of gear. That’s partly why I cringe at the sight of campers lugging around store-bought bundles of firewood and unpacking bulky, heavy cast iron skillets and dutch ovens. That feels like overkill for a camping adventure. If full-blown cooking is that important to you, I think you’d be better off just renting a well-equipped wilderness cabin…or putting up a tent in your backyard.

On top of that, the idea of turning your campsite into an outdoor kitchen seems so unnecessary when you consider the sheer abundance of food items that require no cooking whatsoever. There are thousands upon thousands of options, and before your mind leaps right for the junk food, those options include plenty of items from the healthy side of the aisle. Sure, you can live it up on Slim Jims, donuts and beer for the entire weekend, or you can go the other way and fuel yourself on nothing but organic produce and nuts. Throw in everything in between and the possibilities are limitless.

I’m not about to list each of those possibilities here, but I’ll give you the broad strokes based on the foods I carry into camp as well as those I eat at home in the summer when it’s too hot to use the oven:

~ Fresh fruit, fruit cups, canned fruit, dried fruit
~ Fresh vegetables, canned vegetables and baked beans, dried vegetables, pickled vegetables, pickles, olives
~ Fresh salads, bagged salad kits, cold deli salads (potato salad, pasta salads, cole slaw, etc.)
~ Nuts…so many nut choices, as well as a wide variety of nut butters
~ Trail mix, snack mixes (packaged or homemade)
~ Bars…bars by the thousands…granola bars, keto/protein bars, energy bars, nut bars, fruit bars, oat bars, rice bars, breakfast bars, crunchy bars, chewy bars (The bar aisle in some stores should have its own zip code.)
~ Bagged and boxed snacks…potato chips, vegetable chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, popcorn, crackers
~ Baked goods (packaged or homemade)…bread, cornbread, rolls, croissants, donuts, pastries, pies, cakes, cookies
~ Jerky…beef jerky, bison jerky, deer jerky, bacon jerky, salmon jerky, trout jerky, even vegan jerky made from mushrooms
~ Shelf-stable meat and seafood…Underwood Deviled Ham, Vienna Sausages, dry-cured whole salami, boxed pre-cooked (real) bacon, tuna and salmon (cans or pouches), canned sardines, mackerel, herring, oysters, shrimp, crab, etc.
~ Canned pasta (Is there anything better than eating SpaghettiOs straight out of the can?)

And like most campers, I don’t head into the wilderness for weeks on end; the majority of camping adventures in this country are only one, two or three nights in duration. So I don’t haul much food when I’m on the road, other than a few small snack items for the car. When it’s time to gather my meals for the campsite, I stop at a grocery store in the last town en route to the backcountry and load up on fresh food in the deli and produce sections, where I might purchase a salad kit or a ready-made Caesar salad for that night’s camp dinner, a big sandwich for the following day, a pint of seafood salad or some other cold deli dish, and a pint of fresh blueberries (maybe even a six-pack of those tiny donuts for breakfast).

The menu changes from one place to the next, with each store stocking different selections and each deli counter and bakery offering its own unique tastes. Plus, each small town that I pass through has one or more mom-and-pop restaurants to explore; I have no shortage of opportunities a grab a take-out order and haul that off to camp…maybe a plate of BBQ or some beef lo mein. There are even gas stations that have sold me some surprisingly tasty hot and cold sandwiches. It’s no exaggeration to say that I could camp every day for the rest of my life and—without ever lighting a fire or using any type of cooking gear—I’d never have to eat the same thing twice.

As for the irate camper mentioned above, if he was carrying food which needed to be cooked, then he must have had a cooler or mobile refrigeration to keep that food from spoiling before it arrived at the campfire. And when you have access to cold storage on your camping trip, your no-cook food choices increase substantially. Now you can pack even more fresh food; you’re not limited to the amount that has to be eaten on your first day in camp. Load up with more salads/salad kits, more fresh produce, more deli salads, and then throw in cold cuts, smoked salmon, fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt, dips, spreads, milk and milk alternatives, OJ and other fruit juices, and so on.

If you’d like to have a go at flameless campsite cooking, there are plenty of solar ovens and related devices on the market, but even those don’t interest me; that’s just one more thing to buy, one more thing to pack, one more thing to take up valuable vehicle space. On those rare occasions when I do want to warm up half of my sandwich, I get along fine with the old standbys: placing it on a sun-baked rock, parking it on the hood, trunk or dashboard of the Pontiac (all of which are black), and on cloudy days, I can just set it right on the engine block.

I’ve warned you that a van is in my camping future, which will allow me to reach those rugged and remote areas where the Pontiac just can’t cut it. And as the van research moves forward, friends and family are helping me with interior layout suggestions. Certainly, I’ll be reserving space for a small refrigerator, but I can’t imagine that I’ll ever want to carry any sort of cooking apparatus in this van…not even a simple gas-fired camp stove. I truly have no need for such things.

What about the fish we just caught?
Yes, you’ll need a way to cook those. Personally, I don’t fish.
What about coffee?
Never touch the stuff.
What about s’mores?
Bleh. Little Debbie Zebra Rolls are far superior…

Warmth & Social Gathering

Unless a coyote and a scorpion wander into camp to hang out with me, my campsites have no social component.

As a heat source, a campfire will indeed warm you up while you’re sitting nearby drinking coffee, roasting marshmallows or telling stories, but it’s a poor choice for keeping you warm throughout the night. Sleeping close enough to a campfire to feel its heat is not a great idea. And it’s a downright reckless idea to leave any fire burning unattended while you sleep.

The key to staying warm while camping is quite simple: dress for it…be prepared for the worst weather that could possibly show up. By investing in the proper clothing and camping gear, you’re assured of being warm, dry and comfortable no matter what surprises the weather may throw your way.

Smoke

Like a magnet, smoke from any fire finds me every time. Bonfires, patio fires, campfires…it makes no difference. If I stand upwind, the wind will slowly turn until I’m in the crosshairs once more. Then I’ll move again, and the process repeats…and repeats. My throat, my sinuses and my eyes aren’t built to handle smoke of any kind.

I know that the aroma of wood smoke holds a special charm for many, but I can do without it. A breath of clean, sage-scented prairie air is much more to my liking.

Low Profile

If you’ve experienced wide-open places in the dark of night, you know that a campfire or any other light source becomes a beacon that can be seen from miles away. There are many instances in old Western TV shows and movies, as well as in Western fiction and even non-fiction books, when outlaws, a posse or other travelers on the range will stop for the night and camp without a fire so as not to betray their location.

Of course, the West was a much more hostile place back in those days. When I camp, I’m not doing anything nearly as exciting as running from a bounty hunter. All the same, I seek out these deserted areas to enjoy peace, quiet and solitude, and once I find a campsite, it’s my nature to avoid calling attention to my presence. Though not too likely, it is possible that my lonely campfire might provide an excuse for folks to say, “Hey, someone is camping over there. Let’s go check it out.” No, I prefer to blend in with the terrain and be swallowed by the darkness.

Bonus points: Find my campsite in the photo below…

Romance

Campfires are a storied part of 19th century cowboy and pioneer life. Along the cattle trails and along the emigrant trails, the songs that rang out around those campfires are still being recorded and enjoyed today.

To the cowboys and families traversing the wild West for weeks and months on end, fire was a necessity, and the tenet of Leave No Trace was far from the thoughts of those who were focused on day-to-day survival in a harsh landscape. But this is not 1857. We have options today that were not available to those travelers.

I find nothing lacking in my camping experiences by the absence of fire. The West provides its own romance; it’s always there in the sensory splendor of my surroundings.

 

Leave No Trace

When traveling in the West, you’ll often see that phrase stuck to the back of Subarus and campervans, as well as printed on many of the brochures and maps handed out at national parks, national grasslands and other hiking and camping destinations. While on the road in New Mexico back in May, I was revisiting an old book that I had brought along and I found a new appreciation for the following passage, which takes the concept of “Leave No Trace” to a higher level. The book is God’s Dog: Conversations with Coyote by Webster Kitchell…

   After breakfast we snooped around the ruins, and then we climbed
to the mesa top. We looked down on Pueblo Bonito. We were silent.
Then I spoke what I was feeling.
   “It’s sort of sad and sort of moving to see the ruins people leave.
They worked so hard, and all that’s left are ruins. But because they
worked so hard and left ruins, we remember them. We know at least
they existed. They weren’t completely swept away by the sands of
the desert and the sands of time.”
   “We don’t leave ruins.”
   “And people don’t remember you a thousand years later.”
   “So what? Who wants to be remembered?”
   “We humans can’t imagine not existing. We want to exist at least in
someone’s memory. Or leave a monument that someone will find a
thousand years later and say, ‘Some clever folks lived here.’ ”
   “So what? If you’re not alive to appreciate their wonder at the
monument you left for them, what good does the monument do?”
   “It’s psychological, Coyote, an emotional thing. I admit it isn’t
reasonable. People want to be remembered, so they build monuments.
They have to make their mark on the earth, even if it’s only carving an
aspen. It’s part of being human; the persistence of being.”
   “The point of being alive is to be alive! Why do people waste their
lives constructing a monument so people will remember them when
they’re dead? They could have put that energy into having a good time
or making life better for the human race. Or for coyotes, for that matter,
like you do.”
   “It’s called ego, Coyote. I have been reading some heavy sociology
about the stages people go through. When they’re little, they are child-
like. They don’t have all this ego. They take life as it comes, as you say
they should. Then they get to a stage when they have to differentiate
between self and parents. They start to develop an ego. Which is fun!
It means I am I. I do not exist just as an extension of my mother or my
clan; I exist! And so I want to leave my mark on the earth; maybe on
the Universe.”
   “Maybe ego is what is wrong with humans. Maybe that’s why you
were evicted from the garden way back there.”
   “You could be right. Which may be why in later life, people become
aware that life and goodness and beauty transcend the human ego. In
later years, they get some child-likeness back, but at a more sophisti-
cated level. They see the whole thing and appreciate it and understand
it and don’t have the emotional need to carve their initials in it anymore.
They can just accept it as a wondrous happening, a gift.”
   “Well said!”

~ ~ ~

Quoted text © 1991 by Webster Kitchell

Give Me a Thin Slice

A new personal record: About four years ago, I photographed a slim crescent Moon that had only 2.39% of the lunar disk illuminated. I always look for these super-thin crescents on either side of the new Moon’s arrival, but where I live in the Midwest, the air quality, light pollution and horizon clutter make them difficult to spot.

Last month, on the desolate plains of New Mexico, with a big clear sky and an unobstructed horizon, I was able to image this 1.53% waxing crescent just 34 minutes after sunset on the day following the new Moon. Venus appeared first, and I knew the Moon would be close by…I just had to wait for the sky to darken enough for her to pop.

(Want to track lunar phases and positioning in real time? Get the free app from MoonCalc.org)