(Yes, that black lump on the horizon is a cow.)
And here are a few more ranch scenes from Weston County, Wyoming…
My second night of grassland camping this fall was spent in South Dakota’s Grand River National Grassland—over 150,000 acres of beautifully desolate terrain in the state’s most sparsely populated quadrant. The silence here is deafening; this was easily the most silent night of camping I have ever experienced. The only sound that came to me in the darkness was the sweet twilight music of the coyotes (I shared that audio recording with you two months ago in this post).
If the skyline in the photo above looks familiar, it’s because I had previously written about my ascent of that butte on the left back in October of 2018. I had not planned to end up in this location once again…it was a happy accident. I drove in from the northeast this year, rather than from the west, and after several hours of looping across these wide open spaces on deserted gravel roads, I crested a hill and immediately recognized these buttes. Remembering the wonderful silence and solitude I experienced here two years ago, it seemed the perfect choice for my campsite.
I pitched my tent at the base of the hill you see above—a gentle but long grassy slope, topped by a rocky summit. Naturally, there was no way I’d leave the area without hiking to the top, so after striking camp the next morning, I walked up to check out the panoramic view of my neighborhood. Turns out that the summit of this hill was much more intriguing that the view from below suggested. Just on the other side of the peak, I found a garden of large and unusual rock formations…
Just a bunch of unnamed rocks atop an unnamed hill—a hill that likely sees very few visitors in any given year. But finding and exploring this hilltop was a wonderful surprise and a memorable experience. These small and unsung pieces of wilderness are responsible for my lack of interest in the popular and obvious destinations found in National Parks that draw tourists by the thousands.
On my next trip to Grand River, I hope to spend less time driving and more time hiking. I’m sure that other satisfying discoveries await me there.
That is the number of National Grasslands in the United States. They are places I visit frequently when I’m on the road…places that offer great opportunities for driving and hiking and stargazing, and are hard to beat when it comes to enjoying solitude and blissful silence. This year, I decided that I need to experience a quiet night alone in each of the twenty grasslands through the joy of dispersed camping.
On my 2020 journey, I was able to check three of them off the list. I started with a return to the first grassland I ever visited many years ago—Sheyenne National Grassland in eastern North Dakota.
The spot I chose for camping was nicely isolated in sprawling ranchland; there were no houses or farms or moving vehicles visible in any direction, no sound of human activity. After a colorful sunset, with the waxing moon riding through the twilight, the coyotes started their chorus.
The stars on this night were wonderfully brilliant. And my choice of a tent with screen windows paid off yet again. I awoke briefly at one point late in the night, and just as I opened my eyes, a bright shooting star zoomed directly overhead, flying from east to west.
On a hot and sunny day in a small northern Louisiana town, I had pulled over in the shade of an abandoned gas station to raise the top. When the police cruiser rolled in and parked behind the Pontiac, I had an inkling of the conversation that was about to follow…
“Had to double back and get a closer look at this car!” The jovial officer and I discussed vintage vehicles for a few minutes; his wife sat patiently in the passenger seat of the squad car, playing with her phone.
In Texas, an entire family emerged from a Cadillac and strolled over to my gas pump to admire the LeMans. The tweenage son spoke of his love for classic cars and how he hoped to own one someday; grandma mentioned that her late husband (born in Huntington, Indiana) once had a car from this era, and that he would have loved to have seen mine.
While I was filling the tank in Georgia, a friendly and enthusiastic mechanic came over to talk about the old Pontiacs that he once owned, eyeball mine, and offer suggestions for modifications that I could implement.
All of these conversations took place last month on my ride homeward. But I have engaged in hundreds of similar exchanges dating all the way back to the Pontiac’s very first road trip in the autumn of 1990; from small towns in Texas to remote villages at the end of the road in northern Canada.
Encounters such as these have absolutely nothing to do with my magnetic personality; it’s all about the car. Were I to roam the continent in a Toyota Camry, I wouldn’t get a second glance, and impromptu chats with friendly citizens would be nonexistent. As much as I write about solitude and scenery while on the road, these meetings are an important and fun part of every trip. I would hate to lose them.
But changes definitely need to be made in the way I travel with this car. My recent journey (27 days, 22 states, 6720 miles) was much harder on the Pontiac than any previous trip. Riding for hundreds of miles on dust and gravel in the middle of nowhere—which I’ve enjoyed for so long—continues to become more taxing than it was in years past. The annual repair list for the LeMans is getting repetitive and expensive.
And now that I’m enjoying more wilderness camping, it’s clear that I need to acquire a second vehicle that will allow me to travel farther into the backcountry. While I have had some wonderful camping experiences on recent trips, there were a few occasions when I was forced to settle for campsites that were not as remote and isolated as I those I had hoped to reach; the Pontiac’s five-inch ground clearance makes it impossible to explore many of the Forest Service roads, which quite often are nothing more than a pair of deep ruts running through open grassland, or uneven and high-centered tracks across rocky desert inclines.
Add to that the fact that tent camping has become much less comfortable as I’ve aged, and the best choice would be a van that is outfitted for sleeping. But it can’t be just any van…I’ve seen these “roads” up close, and I know that 4WD and high ground clearance are absolutely essential to reach the places where I want to hike and camp. In addition to opening up new terrain, a 4WD van will also expand the calendar, allowing me to camp throughout the year in all types of weather.
Incidentally, I have no interest in starting a separate blog for trips made in the van/camper. I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and photos that both of my vehicles will bring to this site. I’ll begin my van research over the winter months, and start shopping sometime next year. As for the convertible…
Only six photos remain to be added to the Pontiac’s North American Tour album: Three first-time visits (Alaska, Yukon, Newfoundland & Labrador) and three updated pics with the top down (Oregon, Washington, British Columbia). Likely, that means only two more marathon journeys in the years ahead. A drive to Alaska will knock five of those photos off the list; I’ll probably hold off on that adventure until I’ve relocated to the western US. While I’m still on this side of the continent, I’ll undertake the Newfoundland & Labrador voyage via the daunting Trans-Labrador Highway. Beyond that, I hope to limit future Pontiac travel to a maximum of 3000 miles per trip, while shifting most of my dirt-road exploration to whichever 4WD camper I end up purchasing.
I can’t guarantee that we’ll be touring until 2050, but I’m confident that more LeMans road trips, photos, and random roadside conversations await.
The Pontiac’s odometer currently stands at 350,071.9 miles.
I fear for the Great Plains because many people think they are boring. Money and power in this country concentrate elsewhere. The view of the Great Plains from an airplane window is hardly more detailed than the view from a car on the interstate highways, which seem designed to get across in the least time possible, as if this were an awkward point in a conversation. In the minds of many, natural beauty means something that looks like Switzerland. The ecology movement often works best in behalf of winsome landscapes and wildlife. The Great Plains do not ingratiate. They seldom photograph well—or rather, they are seldom photographed. Images of the plains are not a popular feature of postcards or scenic calendars. And, in truth, parts of the plains are a little on the monotonous side. Convincing someone not to destroy a place that, to him, seems as unvaried as a TV test pattern is a challenge. The beauty of the plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them, and in what they are not.
~ Ian Frazier, Great Plains
Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado
Preceding yesterday’s Halloween blue moon was the Harvest Moon of October 1. This autumn’s road adventure marks the first time in the past 14 years of travel that I’ve packed only film cameras and left my DSLR at home. I have lost interest in digital photography in recent years and I find that I’m much happier when shooting film. However, DSLRs are clearly the superior choice when it comes to astrophotography; if I hope to capture the Milky Way or the northern lights, I will pack my digital Nikon.
The rise of the Harvest Moon is something I look forward to each year. As that date approaches, I tweak the Pontiac’s course to put myself in an area with good weather and an open horizon. This was my first attempt at preserving the event on color film.
(My time-lapse video of this moonrise can be viewed here.)
Crook County, Wyoming
Kodak Ektar 100 film (35mm)
Here in the eastern US, I have never heard a coyote sing. But on my western road adventures, I’m lucky enough to hear them most evenings if I’m lodging in a rural setting. Happily, they always put on a show whenever I’m camping in the grasslands. They begin singing shortly after sundown, and the music usually surrounds me—one or more coyotes off to the left of camp, and others calling from my right. Lying alone in my tent, halfway between them, I often wonder if they’re talking about me.
So it was on that night last month when I slept in South Dakota’s Grand River National Grassland, a beautifully silent place to hike and camp. Once the coyotes began their chorus, I activated my phone’s audio recorder.
To give you something to look at while you’re listening, I’ve married the recording to this time-lapse video of the rising Harvest Moon, which I captured a few nights later in Wyoming. Note: You may want to send your dog or cat out of the room before you play this video…
A very lonely place, especially in a storm…
Read about the Pleasant Hill bus tragedy.
Kiowa County, Colorado
Who was Everett Ruess?
Over the years, when writing about my wilderness adventures or sharing photos online, I have often dropped the name Everett Ruess into my posts. It is well past time that I share the reason for doing so.
Warning: This report contains spoilers…
Like many people, I had never heard of Everett until I read the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild—the biography of vagabond Christopher McCandless. In the middle of that story, a chapter entitled “Davis Gulch” introduced us to an artistic young explorer named Everett Ruess who was swallowed by the Utah desert in 1934; he was 20 years old. The account of the life and death of McCandless was a very interesting read, yet as I continued through the remaining pages, my mind kept drifting back to that all-too-brief chapter about Everett. Upon reaching the end of the book, I immediately returned to “Davis Gulch” for a second pass. It was clear that I needed to track down a biography and learn much more about this enlightened wanderer.
Krakauer used that chapter to highlight the similarities between Ruess and McCandless. Certainly, they did share a number of qualities, but I feel that their differences carry the day. That said, I cannot claim to fully understand all of the motivating factors that led Chris McCandless to that abandoned bus in Alaska. Reading his story, I could sense there was something going on inside Chris that I would never be able to decipher; likely, that something just isn’t a part of my fabric. Not so when reading about Everett—I identified with him instantly and effortlessly. Of all the celebrated wilderness adventurers, Ruess speaks to me like no other.
The best way to know Everett is by reading his beautifully written letters and journals; both collections are presented in the book Everett Ruess, A Vagabond for Beauty & Wilderness Journals. Featured are a great many of the letters Everett wrote to his friends and family during his solo adventures from 1930 through 1934.
At age 16, Everett set out on his first journey into the wild beauty of the West, exploring near Big Sur and Carmel before moving on to Yosemite National Park in the summer of 1930. He was away from home for most of the following year, spending February through October immersed in the glory of the Canyon Country in Arizona and Utah (including Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks). Everett returned to the desert between March and September of ’32, while also venturing into southwestern Colorado. 1933 saw his grand tour of California’s Sierras; for five months, beginning in June, he slowly rode up through Sequoia National Park, (what would become) Kings Canyon National Park, and on once more to Yosemite. In April of 1934, he left home for the last time, returning to the canyons of Arizona and Utah that he loved so much. His final letter, written near Escalante, Utah, was dated November 11, 1934.
The pages of this book overflow with Everett’s lyrical descriptions of the sublime western landscapes that surrounded him. But more than that, the letters and journals reveal the evolution of his emotional maturity, as he wrote of the things that truly mattered to him and of the deeper human connections which he desired but rarely found. On several occasions, Ruess referred to his longing for the elusive companionship of someone with an equal ability to appreciate the splendor found in wild lands.
Unlike some champions of the wilderness, Ruess was not a hermit, nor was he a misanthrope. He liked people, he just liked solitude better. While he managed to spend a great deal of time alone during these adventures, much of his travel brought him into national parks, and crossing paths with humans was inevitable. Everett often wrote fondly of his encounters with farmers, ranchers, cowboys, vagabonds, artists, naturalists, park rangers, CCC workers, tourists, campers, sportsmen and Native Americans. Most were merely passing acquaintances, but he did keep in touch with a few.
For Ruess, the beauty he found while wandering through the backcountry was its own reward. As an added bonus, it also served as inspiration for his art. Everett was a highly creative person, and his artistic talent was not confined to a single discipline. He wrote poems and essays inspired by places he had discovered or by events that happened along the way. He would rise before dawn to paint watercolors as the day’s first light illuminated beautiful rock formations. With his camera, he captured dramatic vistas as well as portraits of the people he met. And he created sketches of the scenery which would later be turned into blockprints.
All of this was taking place during the peak years of the Great Depression, and Everett managed to live quite frugally while on the trail. In addition to their letters, his parents would ship care packages to the post office of the nearest desert town, loaded with such items as camping gear, boots, books, art supplies, and edible treats. They would also mail what few dollars they could spare. When passing a ranch or a farm, Everett would offer to perform odd jobs in exchange for a meal or a night’s lodging. Often, he was able to sell or trade one of his prints or watercolors to acquire food and equipment.
At a time when employment and opportunity were scarce, Everett pondered his future, and was at a loss regarding its direction. More than once he expressed his dread at the thought of leading a conventional existence. Were there a way to be paid as a professional wanderer, he surely would have taken that path.
I don’t think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.
Between adventures, Everett returned to Los Angeles to be with his family, attend school and work on improving his artistic technique. In October of 1933, he decided to spend the fall and winter living alone in San Francisco, and for those five months, he was on a mission to absorb as much culture as possible, through art exhibits, museums, concerts, operas, plays, lectures, films, books, and gatherings of creative people. By day, he would roam the city and paint. As exhilarating as these cultural experiences proved to be, Everett knew from the beginning that his stay in San Francisco would be temporary; once April arrived, he would be back on the trail with two new burros, exploring the desert’s rugged beauty.
Though Ruess had doubts about his ability to forge a career as an artist, his creative drive never left him; whether in the city or in the wild, inspiration found him and new pieces were constantly taking shape. And he was always on the lookout for opportunities to receive advice and constructive criticism. Within days of leaving home on that first adventure along the California coast, Everett showed up unannounced at the studio of famed photographer Edward Weston; he quickly became friends with Weston and his two youngest sons, Neil and Cole. Three years later, Ruess repeated that move just after his arrival in San Francisco with a visit to the studio of painter Maynard Dixon, and in short order, befriended Dixon and his wife, photographer Dorothea Lange. They saw each other often; effectively, the power couple played the role of surrogate parents to Everett while he was in the Bay Area. Maynard shared valuable insight that would help the young man develop his artistic eye; Dorothea and Everett enjoyed many photographic and cultural outings together, including this little jaunt to a presentation by one of my favorite authors:
On Tuesday, Mrs. Dixon and I went to Berkeley to hear Rockwell Kent. We enjoyed seeing the cuts and paintings shown very large on a screen.
There was also a meeting with Ansel Adams…
(The Adams photograph which Everett describes can be viewed here.)
It’s no surprise that I hold Ruess in high regard, nor that he comes to mind now and again when I’m reveling in my own adventures under a big sky. Though he had his burros and I have my Pontiac, we share an affinity for solo wilderness exploration, as well as three of my greatest diversions—photography, music and books. He wrote often of the books he was reading while on the trail, occasionally quoting passages that moved him. And my thanks go out to Everett for recommending a few titles that I had yet to discover, such as Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Generally, I am not prone to envy; however, there is a little of it at play in this case. To be sure, carpooling with Everett and Dorothea to the Rockwell Kent lecture is on my time-travel wishlist. But the envy I have in mind applies to broader aspects of Everett’s life—his education, for one. It’s astonishing that these letters and journal entries were written by a teenager. Ruess strikes me as exceptionally articulate and erudite for his age, with a remarkable grasp of philosophy. That certainly cannot be said of me or my friends when we were 16. (Can I blame that on growing up in the age of television? Were all students back then as bright as Everett?)
Additionally, I envy the freedom of movement that Ruess enjoyed in the early ’30s. While hardly ancient history, it’s far enough back that the West was much more wild and open than it is today. I would love to see it as he did…fewer inhabitants, fewer highways, no cell towers, less development, and much less fencing.
It is out of admiration for Everett—not envy—that I write this post; admiration for daring to follow his heart into the wilderness, for the ardent joy he derived from the beauty of the West, and for the wealth of living he packed into those final five years.
A web search will reveal that the vast majority of the public’s interest in Everett Ruess centers on the mystery of his disappearance. I find that unfortunate; his intense love of nature, his art, his writing, his ability to find bliss in solitude, and his passion for living life to the fullest are worthy of much greater appreciation. As to the how and why of his departure, I really don’t care…but then, the mystery and crime genres have never appealed to me. I can certainly understand why his family and friends cared enough to go looking for him, but at this point in time, I’d rather see people focus on Everett’s brief yet fascinating life and, with finality, declare his whereabouts as “unknown.”
Frankly, I can think of no better ending for a true lover of the wild. And, for the record, should anyone wish to pull out the phrase “That’s the way he would have wanted to go” once I have gone over the Big Ridge, qualifying circumstances would include an accident while exploring lonely roads in the Pontiac, or a mishap while hiking or camping in the wilderness—lightning strike, severe weather event, landslide, being eaten by wild animals, falling from a cliff, direct hit by a meteorite, and so on. Spending my last moments in a hospital or, for that matter, anywhere indoors? No, thanks—that’s the most dreadful possibility I can imagine. If I have any control over my exit, I’ll be guided by the words Everett wrote to his brother Waldo in 1931:
…I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.
~ ~ ~
Photograph of Everett Ruess (top of page) by Dorothea Lange, 1933
Illustrations and text by Everett Ruess, 1930-1934
Everett Ruess, A Vagabond for Beauty © 1983 by Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.
Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess © 1998 by Gibbs Smith, Publisher
Everett Ruess Combination Edition © 2002 by Gibbs Smith, Publisher
(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library)
I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Philosophy and aesthetic contemplation are not enough. I intend to do everything possible to broaden my experiences and allow myself to reach the fullest development. Then, and before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.
~ Everett Ruess, letter dated May 2, 1931
Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas
(Much more on Everett coming up in next Sunday’s post…)