High Plains Drifter

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It didn’t take long for me to realize that driving on four-lane highways is a painfully boring way to travel; it happened at an early age, well before I purchased this Pontiac in 1990. So, when I left my hometown later that year for the big move to California, I was looking forward to cranking out thousands of miles on scenic two-lane asphalt.

On that long journey, and on others shortly thereafter, I learned that U.S. numbered highways were usually my least favorite of the choices available. Those routes quite often serve as the main drag through towns and cities, and are commonly clogged with heavy commuter and truck traffic; red lights seem to far outnumber the green ones. I soon renounced the federal roads and took to the state highways. (There are exceptions, of course. Many scenic vistas can be found on U.S. highways; I especially suggest that you never pass up a chance to experience the driver’s paradise that is U.S. 50 through Nevada and Utah.)

The state roads served me well for many miles, many years; generally speaking, the scenery was great, the traffic thin, the pavement smooth, and I had the option to make good time, when the need was there. Still, there was enough high-speed traffic to make these roads less than ideal for photo ops; pulling over onto the narrow shoulder to point the camera at something pretty was a risky maneuver.

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Also, as my journeys became longer and as I pushed westward into more sparsely-populated areas of the plains, I became more enamored with the solitude I was experiencing. My dimensions regarding “elbow room” and “personal space” had always been high, but now, I wanted even more room. How many vehicles sharing my road was too many? That threshold began to drop rapidly. To get the photos I wanted, to get the solitude I wanted, I would need to get off of the state routes and embrace the county roads.

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Now, I was in my element. There was no traffic here, just the locals heading to or from their homes, pastures and fields. Of course, this freedom came with a price: A noticeable lack of asphalt. The majority of the county roads in the region are unpaved, and rightly so. It would be impractical to pave thousands of roads that see very little activity other than the occasional truck, 4×4, tractor or combine. Dust, mud and gravel are ubiquitous on the plains; if I wanted to explore the middle of this continent via county roads, I’d have to get dirty, and accept the fact that pavement would be the exception, not the rule.

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This being a passenger vehicle with low ground clearance, I was wary of driving extensively on gravel and dirt roads. I had been on them many times, but only for short distances to reach specific destinations, never for the long haul. Would I enjoy riding on these farm roads, mile after mile, or would they be a festival of ruts and craters designed to trash my suspension?

Happily, the vast majority of these county roads have offered a smooth ride; the surfaces are typically hard-packed earth topped with a light layer of gravel, and the bumps, ruts and large holes are not common enough to turn me away. Dust was a problem, initially, seeping up through all the holes in my floor pan and trunk, but the body restoration, completed in 2011, nicely sealed the underside against dust and water infiltration. As for the occasional coating of mud, that can be washed off.

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So, in exchange for a little extra wear on my tires and a slightly shorter life for my front-end parts, I get to enjoy the Big Sky in my own way. I love having a road all to myself…having the option to stop safely whenever I want to photograph a decaying old barn, or the local wildlife, or an interesting cloudscape. And, as I often do, I can turn off the engine, sit and just listen to the silence.

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Getting lost is something that I’m unable do (is that a good thing or a bad thing?). My sense of direction is too strong, probably because so many hours of my youth were spent indulging my fascination with maps and atlases (strange that I didn’t pursue a career as a cartographer or navigator). These long autumn journeys in the Pontiac are not about going from Point A to Point B and back to Point A; they’re circuits…big, improvised loops. I always have a few specific places I want to hit on each trip (mountains to climb, friends to visit), but the roads I take to get there are chosen on the fly, with preference given to those I’ve never traveled before. And if, at an intersection, I have no preference, I’ll let the car decide. Sometimes we’ll turn, sometimes we’ll continue straight on. Who am I to argue?

The best roads of all
Are the ones that aren’t certain
One of those is where you’ll find me
Till they drop the big curtain
~ Bruce Cockburn

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