Now What?

Little did I know when I acquired this yellow bandana in 1991 that it would be with me longer than the Pontiac I had purchased just one year earlier; a car that I assumed—for the better part of three decades—would be with me always. But way back then, I would never have guessed that my taste in travel would evolve to its current state, and now the LeMans is on the market, waiting for its new owner. Still, there’s no reason that this bandana—which has been peppered with road dust across hundreds of thousands of miles of North American travel—can’t continue to ride along as I explore new corners of the continent in my next vehicle.

I got an excellent taste of the road ahead during last month’s western excursion. In a borrowed 4WD GMC Envoy, I set out to do something I had never before attempted: complete a long road trip without spending a single cent on lodging. And I pulled it off quite easily. Motel charges have always been far and away the biggest chunk of any journey’s total cost. But this year, I traveled for 15 days and covered more than 4000 miles, all for less than $900 worth of gas and groceries—the trip’s only expenses.

In recent years, each motel stay seemed to be more unpleasant than the one before. And frankly, those experiences are the primary driving force behind my desire to purchase a vehicle that’s big enough to be a home away from home. This trip in the Envoy was a great way to test out the transition from conventional lodging to vehicle camping. With the rear seats folded flat, and the simple addition of an air mattress and sleeping bag, I had exactly enough room the stretch out at full length; not an inch to spare on either end. Even so, I was perfectly comfortable and slept surprisingly well each night—a much more satisfying sleep than I’m used to from nights in motels or tents. If I can be that cozy in an SUV for two weeks, a nice roomy van with a real mattress is going to feel like a luxury suite. Here’s hoping that I’ll never have to spend another night in a motel while I’m on the road.

So lodging charges are now relegated to the “good riddance” file, joining the fees that one has to pay at developed campsites. Whenever possible, I’ve avoided pay-to-stay campgrounds; the few I’ve experienced in years past were just as noisy and irksome as motels. You know from reading this blog that my preferred way of enjoying the wilds of North America is through dispersed camping on federal public land—national forests, national grasslands and BLM lands—and I’ve been making the most of these tranquil no-cost campsites for quite some time. But with each season, I’m learning that there are more and more free camping opportunities out there, particularly at the state level, such as in wildlife areas managed by the state DNR (big thanks go out to Jeff at the Iowa DNR for all of the helpful information he shared with me last month). With so many dispersed camping options available, I have a great chance of camping fee-free for the rest of my traveling days.

A key contributor to the deep sleep I experienced on this journey was the isolation of my chosen campsites. And that’s been another big incentive to get out of the LeMans and into a rugged van—being able to make my way to sites that are located deeper in the wilderness, using roads, tracks and trails that are inaccessible to the Pontiac and its low ground clearance. During several of last month’s stops, I had an entire road and all of its potential campsites to myself, because I had ventured down a track so narrow, uneven, rocky or deeply rutted that RVs and vehicles pulling trailers dared not follow.

My recent sleeping bag upgrade was a success, living up to its rating; I was perfectly warm each night, even at 9,000 feet up in the mountains of southern Wyoming, with overnight temps in the low 20s (°F). Even though I’ll be atop a proper mattress in the van, I intend to stick with the superior warmth of the sleeping bag, rather than messing with sheets and blankets.

I’m glad that my tent-camping days are behind me now. And while there’s much to be said for sleeping in comfort at my age, there’s just as much to say about driving in comfort. This was my first long journey in more than 30 years that didn’t see me riding on the back-breaking bench seat of the Pontiac. Driving in that comfortable, modern seat last month did a great deal to reduce fatigue. Heated seats, lumbar support, cruise control…all are going on the “must have” list for my van purchase.

While my van will indeed be outfitted for driving and sleeping comfort, it’s definitely not going to be a showcase of craftsmanship. Many campervan owners are embellishing their vehicles with decorative wood trim and furnishings. I’ll have none of that; no cabinets, no drawers, no countertops, no closets, no fold-out seating or tables…likely, no wood whatsoever. Nor will my van be rigged with indoor plumbing (I’ll shower and brush my teeth outside, as I did last month) or kitchen equipment (I previously addressed the lack of any need for cooking while camping in this blog post). Other than my bed and a 12-volt refrigerated chest for my food, the remaining space will be used to stow my gear—below window level, that is; I want all of the glass in my van to remain unobstructed so I can enjoy the view in every direction. Overall, I’m aiming for an interior that is utilitarian, modest and durable.

In case you’re wondering, I am not looking to hop aboard the “van life” movement. That term primarily applies to full timers who live and travel in their vans all year long. My current formula of taking a trip and then returning home will remain in place; I enjoy the balance of a road life and a home life. But having my own campervan will change a few things about the way I travel. For instance, with the elimination of lodging costs, I’ll be able to journey more frequently than just once or twice per year. And with the superior sheltering effects of a van, a large chunk of the calendar (i.e., winter) now becomes part of “travel season.” Finally, while I was never that excited about touring the eastern half of the country in the Pontiac, my camping experiences last month in the high country of Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest have given me a new appreciation for quiet campsites on the piney tops of hills and mountains. Shorter trips closer to home are now on the menu, and I won’t always have to cart myself two time zones away to revel in some natural peace and quiet. I can choose from a wide range of destinations to suit my mood and my available time, whether it’s just one or two nights at a national forest in my home state, or a six-week epic adventure through Newfoundland & Labrador.

I will not be participating in the rendezvous scene or in other social gatherings that are popular with many van lifers and those in the RV crowd. I’ll continue to steer clear of developed campgrounds, metropolitan areas, festivals, national parks and other places where people congregate. I’ll also be relinquishing the highways and roads and campsites to the traveling public during the summer months and on major holidays. I’ve never been keen on summer travel anyway and I don’t see that ever changing. My goal remains to journey as a solo wilderness explorer, giving myself as much personal space as I can find.

By the way, last month’s “anonymous driver” experience was a new one for me. In my 32 years of convertible travel, the LeMans was a green light for total strangers to approach me and start a friendly conversation. I always treasured those encounters, but it turns out that I also liked being invisible on this recent road trip. No one gave me a second glance; I was just another guy in just another SUV. Sweet.

The Pontiac has always been a useful and eye-catching prop for adding a sense of scale to landscape photos. As for the van I end up purchasing, I expect it to be nondescript and utterly forgettable. And while it may appear now and again in my campsite pictures, it’s a safe bet that future photos and blog posts will focus less on the vehicle and more on the scenery…and my enjoyment of the silence and the solitude.

On the subject of silence, let’s go back a few weeks to my previous blog post, where I wrote about the joy of listening to great music while riding in the Pontiac. Here’s a fun fact about last month’s road trip: I did not use the Envoy’s stereo at all during the entire 4000-mile ride; not a single song heard the whole way; nothing but the sound of the tires on the road. Didn’t plan for it to happen like that, but…

Maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear my favorite music in a vehicle that afforded no view of the big prairie sky overhead. I suppose this long winter break will give me enough time to reset my brain’s music center, and I’ll be ready to wade into my playlist during next year’s first excursion. In any case, boredom never intruded during those 15 days of silence. I’ve never been afraid to be alone with my thoughts, and that time was put to good use—processing everything that I was learning about this new approach to travel, and mapping out my priorities for the road ahead. I now feel that the journeys yet to come are going to be even more rewarding than my initial expectations.

And the cherry that capped this trip was the confirmation that selling the Pontiac was the right thing to do. While I had reservations earlier this year about losing my old friend, the success of October’s journey has certainly made it much easier to let go.

 

The Last Ride

More than 32 years after my very first ride in the Pontiac, our last drive together is now in the books. With the LeMans currently listed for sale, I’ll be shifting my focus toward future road trips and launch the search for the vehicle that will be making those journeys. (Of course, there are still plenty of old Pontiac photos and video clips in storage that will pop up occasionally as I unearth them…maybe even a story or two that has yet to be told.)

Music would play a big role in this final cruise, as it always does when I’m in the LeMans, so I thought of the tracks I had to hear one last time from this particular seat. I have previously written about the artists and genres that enhance—and are enhanced by—driving on prairie roads under a big sky. That applies closer to home as well. In fact, on most of my sunrise and sunset excursions along the farm roads in my home county, this vehicle is essentially a rolling jukebox, and the day’s drive is really just an excuse to enjoy some of my favorite songs in the best possible setting. I’ve listened to far more music while riding in the Pontiac than I have in my everyday vehicle or inside my home.

Rolling across scenic North Dakota

(If the video above does not display, follow this link to YouTube.)

Once I had gathered about 30 or so of my favorite driving songs, I hit the road late in the afternoon. Good driving weather on this day, with high thin clouds in the west, a crescent moon to the south, and clear skies in the east. In the end, I rode for more than three hours and logged over 100 miles on this grand finale.

The Cowboy Junkies have released plenty of music over the years that pairs so well with a drive on lonely country roads. I played their version of the Allen Reynolds song, “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” which features a chorus that seemed especially appropriate for the occasion…

Someday I’ll get over you
I’ll live to see it all through
But I’ll always miss
Dreaming my dreams with you

Once the sun went down, it was time for a track that is steeped in reverb, and has always been, for me, the ultimate prairie night-driving song: “Once Upon a Time in the West,” the opening track from the second album by Dire Straits. This one sounds great when played loud enough to fill sky around you. And once is never enough; when I do ride at night, I usually play it three or more times.

What to choose as the very last song I would ever hear in the Pontiac? I had to think about that for a moment, but the answer came to me faster than expected and with no room for uncertainty: “Lenny,” the beautiful instrumental track that Stevie Ray Vaughan wrote for his wife, Lenora, and which closes out his 1983 debut album, Texas Flood. Few tunes scream “coda” as perfectly as this track does, but there’s another reason—one that dates back 32 years—why this choice worked so well for my last moments in the LeMans.

When we started out on that first cross-country journey in 1990, it had only been a couple of weeks since Stevie’s tragic death. Even before that event, I had planned to stop for a few days in Austin, Texas to visit my friends there. The city was certainly humming when I arrived that September, and we took in a lot of live music downtown. Before I left, my friend suggested that I dub his SRV CDs so I could enjoy them on my long drive ahead. With a fresh pack of blank TDK 90-minute cassette tapes, I did just that, as well as copying some of his other albums by Texas guitarists that were new to me. Continuing westward and leaving my friends and Austin behind, I enjoyed my very first miles of driving a car through a wide open landscape. And it was there, rolling along US Highway 190 in the vast emptiness of western Texas, with Texas Flood playing on the stereo, that I first felt the incredible power of those four key ingredients working together—a convertible, a big sky, a lonely road, and great music.

US 190 in Texas

Over the years, I have listened to these wonderful tunes inside my home, as well as in sedans and other mundane vehicles. Trying to compare those musical moments to my experiences in the LeMans is definitely an “apples & oranges” scenario. Having an unobstructed view of the surrounding sky as you roll down the road makes all the difference in the world when hearing these songs. Without a doubt, the hardest thing about letting go of the Pontiac, the hardest thing about living without a convertible, is the realization that listening to some of my favorite pieces of music will never be as fulfilling.

Thanks for the ride.

 

Two for the Road

This week saw my final Pontiac ride with a co-pilot. Turns out that she was one of my earliest passengers in this car as well. Here we are in 1991, when we both lived in California…

And a photo from our ride earlier this week…

One more from our catalog—a sunny November day in 2013…

Thanks for riding along, T!

(First two photos: © Teresa Stephens)

 

The Low Road

Two years before the Pontiac conquered the highest paved road in North America, we took a drive down the lowest road in the Western Hemisphere—Badwater Road in California’s Death Valley, at 274 feet below sea level…

Naturally, I ventured down the final eight feet to the true bottom of things, and sat on the salty floor of Badwater Basin…

A deserted alien landscape like this is just the sort of place I’d love to spend hours, if not days, roaming at will across the basin’s 200 square miles. But this was a cloudless summer day, and though I had arrived at Badwater—and departed—early in the morning, the heat was already noticeable. On this particular journey, I was underequipped to take on such a hike in those conditions. No doubt I’ll return to explore the basin on a future road trip…probably during a cloudy week in January.

Exiting Death Valley on California Highway 190, I resumed course for the coast to visit my friends. The car’s top was up during this drive to give me shelter from the burning sunlight; good thing, too, as I would find out a few minutes later. I was climbing out of the valley on the grade that leads up to Towne Pass. This grade is 17 miles long, and with several lengthy stretches of laser-straight road in front of you, there are times when it’s not visually obvious that you’re ascending a fairly decent slope. But the Pontiac’s drive train certainly felt the tug of gravity that morning as it climbed the grade in the rapidly warming desert air.

In the blink of an eye, my forward view was obliterated by a cloudy, gooey mess. I lost a moment in time and then, as the motor knocked twice and quickly died (thankfully, preventing any internal engine damage), I realized what had happened: a seam on the 27-year-old factory radiator had opened up like a tube of biscuits, and the entire contents of the cooling system flew onto the windshield…the convertible top keeping the hot liquid from getting inside the car.

Forward momentum completely gone, I stood on the brake to keep my place on the hill, shifted into Park, removed the keys from the ignition and sat for a moment listening to the deafening silence and taking in the surreal view that was devoid of other vehicles and humans in every direction. Then, after walking up front and inspecting the carnage under the hood, I wiped off the windshield as well as I could and contemplated my next move (of the very few available to me). Looking back toward the valley, that formerly not-so-obvious slope now appeared to be monumentally steeper.

(Google Street View of the approximate point where the radiator exploded, facing up the grade toward Towne Pass.)

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but executing a modified reverse downhill 3-point turn in a powerless vehicle on a narrow highway with sloping gravel shoulders and no guardrails is not a particularly fun thing to do, and I hope I never have to pull it off again, but it worked. I was now freewheeling down the long slope at 60 mph, about a mile or so back to the small rest area I had passed earlier just north of Emigrant Campground, where I coasted to a stop under the partial shade of a scrawny desert tree…

A very basic rest area, it featured the important amenities: a picnic table, restrooms and—best of all—a payphone, with the numbers of the nearest emergency towing companies conveniently displayed. I placed a call to an auto repair shop in Lone Pine, California, then I lounged around in the shade while waiting for my ride.

Once the Pontiac was loaded on the flatbed, we made the 72-mile drive to civilization. And it was a trip that can match any amusement park thrill ride. The highway featured plenty of wicked curves and a dearth of guardrails. Sitting in the passenger seat, I could look down steep dropoffs that came frighteningly close to the edge of the road and see rusted old hulks of cars that had long ago crashed to the desert floor some 50 or more feet below us. But these tow-truck drivers have made the trip in and out of Death Valley hundreds of times, and they have the skills to get you to Lone Pine intact.

My new radiator was ordered and would arrive early the next morning, so I walked to a motel a short distance from the shop and spent a peaceful night in that quiet little town just east of Mount Whitney. In the morning, the Pontiac was repaired quickly by a excellent crew who handles this kind of work on a high-volume basis (location, location, location), and I was back on the road; my Death Valley adventure delaying my arrival on the coast by just 24 hours.

And let’s raise a glass to towing insurance (these days more commonly known as Emergency Road Service), which I’ve always had on my auto policies and still costs me just $5 a year. My insurance agent of 30+ years frequently shares my Death Valley towing story with clients to emphasize the value of towing insurance. Once I had arrived back home, I handed this receipt to my agent and he wrote me a $288 check right on the spot…

P.S. – Gotta love the days when you could get your old radiator removed, a new one installed—plus thermostat, gasket and coolant—all for less than $250, parts and labor.

 

Kodak Tri-X 35mm film
Kodak Gold 400 35mm film (single-use camera)

 

I Wanna See You Dance Again

One of the very few annual Pontiac rituals I observe is a long rural drive during the rise of the Harvest Moon while listening to Neil Young’s classic album of the same name. This usually occurs while I’m out on the Great Plains, where finding an unobstructed horizon and a cloudless sky is a virtual certainty.

But there’s no Pontiac road trip this year, and the car will be up for sale a few weeks from now. Leading up to the moonrise of September 9, I was skeptical of my chances for a successful Harvest Moon viewing experience here in Indiana. Over the decades, I have missed out on countless celestial events due to cloudy weather in the Great Lakes region. Would my very last Pontiac/Harvest Moon pairing be ruined by a gray sky? To my great surprise, the prairie weather came to visit me for a change; the scattered high clouds that were passing by earlier in the day had cleared out as evening approached…

Just as the sun went down—about five minutes before the Moon was due to arrive—I spotted a location with a fairly clear view of the eastern sky. And as it turned out, I did not end up watching the moonrise from my home state as expected. Rolling up State Line Road, I found a narrow gravel road leading off toward the wind farm on my right, and I parked the Pontiac about 100 yards into the state of Ohio. A couple of minutes later, I had the camera and tripod set up and ready to go. At the exact time and azimuth predicted by my MoonCalc app, the big orange globe cracked the horizon…

After shooting several frames of the Moon rising over Ohio’s corn and soybean fields, it was time to put on the music and make the long, circuitous journey homeward via lightly-traveled farm roads.

While the lonely roads, the beautiful sky and the sublime soundtrack did a great job of setting the mood, the evening was also enhanced by less-obvious elements, such as the reflection of moonlight on the pearl-colored vinyl of the Pontiac’s seats and boot cover…

As always, I made sure that the drive was long enough to listen to the entire album at least once. By the time I rolled the Pontiac into the garage for the night, more high clouds had arrived from the southeast, nicely illuminated by the Moon above…

Here’s 100 seconds of video from Friday night’s drive. Yes, shooting video at night with a cell phone rarely yields great results, but at least this will give you a little taste of the ride, complete with the sound of the wind and the music…

(If the video above does not display, follow this link to YouTube.)

I don’t know where I’ll be next September, or even what I’ll be driving by then. Whatever it is and wherever I am, I’ll find some way to enjoy each year’s Harvest Moon experience.

 

1969 Pontiac for Sale (Seriously)

Yes, it’s true. For the first 30 years that I drove this car, I had convinced myself that I would never let it go. But these last few long road trips made me realize that my taste in travel is evolving, and as I toured my favorite roads in South Dakota back in October, my gut was telling me that I wouldn’t be seeing them again from this particular driver’s seat.

After 32 years and a quarter of a million miles together, I feel satisfied that I’ve experienced a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment with this LeMans. The time has come to go our separate ways.

So before I hand this Pontiac over to the local classic car broker—who will put it up for sale to the general public later this year—I want to give the Riding with Carl audience an exclusive preview. I have no problem selling this car to a stranger, but I’d much rather see it go to a friend or a follower who knows its colorful history.

If you’d love to drive the Pontiac that (most likely) has seen more of the US and Canada than any other ’69 LeMans convertible in existence, here’s your chance. The odometer currently stands in excess of 357,000 miles. Still, the car is very solid mechanically; it’s running smoothly and the front brakes were converted from drum to disc just last year. The top and the interior have already been refurbished. Finish off the remaining body work, add a paint job, and you’re all set. Who knows, maybe you’ll look this good behind the wheel…

I’ll enjoy the remainder of the current driving season on the quiet county roads here in my area code, and that will be that. The new owner can take possession sometime after November 1, 2022.

If you or someone you know is sincerely interested in owning this LeMans, you can leave a message in the comment field below, or email me directly at…

To all of you who enjoy following along as I explore North America, please know that the road trips and the photos will continue as before…only the vehicle is changing. From here forward, I’ll be driving something that will get me deeper into the wilderness, and I’ll be showing you scenery from roads that the Pontiac just isn’t qualified to travel. I’m looking forward to my first visits to the farthest reaches of the continent: Alaska, Yukon, Labrador and the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk. Onward and upward!

Your Support Is Appreciated

Rising gas prices and repair costs will certainly impact my future travel plans, and supplemental income will be needed if I hope to puchase a campervan so I can continue to explore rural roads and remote corners of North America. If you enjoy reading these posts and seeing the images I gather on my journeys, please consider purchasing a print or other merchandise from my gallery at Fine Art America. Visit the gallery by clicking the image below…

Additionally, I have created a support page at Ko-fi.com. 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’d like to make a donation to my travel fund, just click on the blue button…

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

Analog, Part II: The World on Paper

Last week in Part I, I told you how I had purged a giant pile of analog media that I’d accumulated over several decades, including all of my old slides, negatives and photographic prints. I can get by just fine with the digitized versions of those hard copies, which are now residing in the landfill. However, there are two analog collections I’ll be keeping indefinitely. The full effect of these items can be realized only on paper; their electronic cousins fall well short of the mark.

Books

I’m not a fan of eBooks or audiobooks. To me, reading is much more than absorbing the author’s words…it’s a sensory experience involving—among other things—the feel and the smell of well-aged paper and cloth-covered boards. Those sensations may be inconsequential to many readers, but they greatly enhance my enjoyment of books.

I’ll say no more about the allure of hardcover books because I’ve already addressed the issue in one of my earliest blog posts, which you can read here: Kindle? Not In My House

And you can browse the following link to see other books from my shelves that have been featured in this blog: Carl’s Library

Now, on to what I really want to talk about today…

Maps & Atlases

Frankly, I didn’t read fiction or fantasy in my youth; I was drawn to the encyclopedia, to dictionaries, and to books dealing with science and nature. And for no particular reason that I can point to, I became fascinated with maps. More than just the occasional glance, I would actually read an atlas, visiting it repeatedly, poring over every inch, memorizing place names, studying topographical features. In grade school, I scored highest in the class at naming all the states and all the countries of the world on blank maps that simply showed the shape of their borders. Long before I first drove a car, I knew where most places were located and which roads connected Point A to Point B.

Enter the Pontiac in 1990, and my exploration of the continent moved from the printed page to actual roads and highways. On my earliest trips, I kept the navigation simple with the classic Rand McNally Road Atlas, handed out for free each year by my auto insurance agent. Hiking in remote areas was the next ingredient to be added to my adventures, and it was immediately clear that I needed much greater detail than the road atlas could provide. So I began buying rolled topographic maps (aka “quadrangles”), which I had to order by mail from the USGS and the Geological Survey of Canada.

Detailed topo data became much easier to haul around once the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer line hit the market. They were released slowly, one state at a time over several years, until all 50 states were represented. No longer did I have to buy those rolled quads; here in one handy atlas was all the key data for an entire state—all the topography, every place name, every dead-end dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

Then I discovered the beauty of our national forests and grasslands, which led to a whole new collection of maps—the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) provided by the US Forest Service and available at ranger stations near each grassland and forest. And I’ll give you three reasons why these maps are indispensable; three key pieces of information you can’t obtain by looking at the desolate prairie that surrounds you:

1. Our national grasslands are a chaotic jumble of private and public land, with heavily checkerboarded boundaries. There are no signs marking these divisions; the MVUM is the only way you’ll be able to differentiate the public grassland from private property.

2. No signs once again for the areas approved for dispersed camping—my favorite way to spend the night when traveling in the West. The MVUM shows you the location of the dispersed camping zones.

3. The MVUM is your best tool when trying to identify the exact location of Forest Service “roads,” many of which are nothing but the hint of an indentation angling through the dry grasses of the plains.

Now I’m fully equipped with all of the navigation data I could possibly need. On any given western road trip, my vehicle carries about twenty pounds’ worth of atlases and folding maps…even today, in the age of GPS. Why?

First off, let me note that I’m using the term GPS in this post as a catch-all for its numerous forms: vehicle-integrated GPS, dashboard GPS, handheld GPS, Google Maps and Apple Maps and other digital maps, whether in a browser, in an app or as downloaded files, whether on a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, brain implant, etc.

And my goal here is not to deride GPS; it’s a great tool for its intended purpose. Visiting a city for the first time, looking for an unfamiliar address, trying to reroute around a traffic jam, finding a restaurant, gas station or hotel while traveling…GPS is very helpful in these situations, and I use it myself now and again, such as earlier this year while visiting friends on the East Coast. But there’s another way to travel…the Riding with Carl method of wandering aimlessly along lonely, dusty roads, seeking silence and solitude in the unpopulated corners of the Great Plains and the boreal forest of Canada. And in that context, GPS is the wrong tool for the job.

GPS wants to lead you to a specified destination via the fastest and most direct route possible using heavily-traveled highways and streets; it will not help you in your quest to intentionally “get lost” in the backcountry. Having analog maps and the ability to read them will allow you to find that two-track road which leads to the backside of the mesa; chart a course—by vehicle or on foot—to an unnamed pond or the headwaters of a creek; discover places of interest that most people would bypass. My habit of scanning atlases just for fun has allowed me to visit several intriguing, out-of-the-way locations. No one told about these places, nor did I see them mentioned somewhere online—I found them simply because they were noted on a map.

Yes, all of the paper maps I carry are available in digital form (you can access MVUMs for free on the Avenza Maps app). Additionally, there are several hiking and trail apps out there to help you navigate in the wilderness. So why choose a paper map over a smartphone? Here are some practical reasons why I don’t like to rely on GPS in the field…

One very basic issue involves sunshine. Of all the smartphone models available, I’ve yet to see one that can compete with direct sunlight; even jacked to 100%, the screens simply aren’t bright enough to display all of the detail that I’m able to see on a printed page.

Connectivity may not be a problem for those of you who live in metropolitan areas, but I can testify that there are still large parts of the desert, the plains, the Mountain West and the Canadian wilderness where cellular and data signals do not exist. That’s fine with me. It feels good to be offline while immersed in the wild, and I don’t want to see a cell tower erected on every butte and mesa. True, some navigation apps allow you to pre-download all of your mapping data so you can access it while offline, but that’s not the case with every app or device. Personally, I think that digital mapping is great as a backup option, but I prefer analog navigation as my primary source of info—a source that’s not at the mercy of a missing data signal or a depleted phone battery. (And with tech being prone to freezing up or losing its connection or running out of juice, I also recommend carrying a rugged analog compass—something I always have with me whenever I’m in the backcountry.)

What I dislike most about smartphone navigation is that it offers such an impractical field of view. In a navigation app, the map data is presented in layers. Let’s say I’ve zoomed in to get the fine details of a very small local area. If I pull back to see that area in the larger context of the surrounding terrain, the detailed layers below vanish one by one. This means I’m constantly pinch-zooming in and out to determine where one point or feature is in relation to significant trails, roads, towns or other landmarks; I’m unable to view the entire picture at once. Maps and atlases give me everything in one convenient package…the big picture and the fine details, all available at a glance. With my many years of map-reading experience, I can gather the information I need much easier and much faster than I can when working with images on a tiny screen.

Interesting to note that DeLorme is more than an atlas maker…the company was an early player in the market for digital maps on CD-ROM and then went on to produce their own GPS units. In 2016, they were acquired by Garmin—one of the biggest names in the GPS business. And Garmin knows they have a good thing going; the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer line is still in print and still selling very well. I’m glad that Garmin and their customers respect the enduring relevance of analog maps.

Mapping our route to Pawnee National Grassland.
Photo above by Sarah S.

Like the appeal of hardcover books that I mentioned at the top of this post, there’s something about paper maps that I find fulfilling…an aesthetic quality that is lost in digital representation. More than just navigational tools, maps can be appreciated for their beauty, as with a painting or any other work of art.

My large wall maps showing the Pontiac’s North American travel history, 1990-2021.

 

Analog, Part I: The Purge

It was just five years ago that I posted a lengthy query to my online friends about the future of my vast photography catalog—thousands of slides, negatives and prints that I’d been accumulating since I started shooting in 1976. What happens to a lifetime’s worth of photos when you have no kids to inherit them? Do photographs still hold the same importance that they held for the Analog Generation? Do I really care? Should I really care? And so on.

In addition to my own boatload of film, there were thousands of family photos (mostly Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides) dating all the way back to the early 1940s. Sorting through all of this material and scanning the good stuff was a task that had been on my list for a long, long time, but the scope of the project seemed so daunting that I perpetually shoved it aside. Well, thanks to a pandemic that encouraged me to spend a greater amount of time at home during the past two years, that daunting project was finally tackled…and completed far more easily than I ever expected.

In deciding what to keep and what to dump, I asked myself if the image met any one of these three criteria:

– Was it good enough to be shared in my portfolio or on social media?
– Could it be monetized as a stock image?
– Did it have a strong sentimental or family quality?

Very early into the sorting process, I realized that my current approach to shooting with 35mm film is much more selective than it was in the last century, when both film and processing were cheap and easily accessible. The pile of slides and negatives destined for the landfill rapidly grew as I frequently commented, “Why did I keep this crap?” I had saved rolls that were nothing but camera tests and/or lens tests; rolls featuring multiple frames of the same scene with different exposure settings or different Wratten filters applied; rolls of dark, blurry and grainy concert photos from the 1980s; rolls containing far too many shots of scenery without a person or a true subject in the frame (something that I find more and more unappealing with each passing year).

It wasn’t at all difficult to let go of the clunkers; there was no agonizing over the fate of any particular image. The prevailing mood during the process was that of Good riddance! To my surprise and relief, I needed only two days to pass judgment on every photo in my collection.

In the end, less than 5% of that old film made the cut for digital preservation.

As for those questions I posted online five years ago while pondering the fate of my catalog, I don’t believe that anything in my philosophy has changed between then and now, it was simply a matter of needing to be immersed in the task and actually seeing most of these images for the first time in years to realize their relative unimportance.

So after scanning the few hundred desirable frames I had selected (and backing up the digital files in three additional locations), I was free to cart decades worth of clutter out the door:

All of my negatives, all of my slides, all of my photographic prints and contact sheets…gone.

Why stop there? Since I was on a roll, it was the perfect time to sort through all of my vintage media, digitize only the best material, and send those old containers on their way:

Movies on 8mm and 16mm film…gone.
Videotapes (VHS, 8mm, MiniDV, Beta SP, U-Matic)…gone.
DVDs…gone.
CDs…gone.
Audio cassettes…gone.
Vinyl records…gone.
And all of the bulky vintage devices used for playing such media…gone.

My home is now several hundred pounds lighter.

For the record, I have not renounced my belief in the superior quality of analog media. Music still sounds better on vinyl, and photos still look better when shot on film and printed on paper. But vinyl doesn’t travel well; I tend to listen to music while I’m on the move. And I don’t invite people to the house to look at photographic prints; if I want my widely-scattered friends to see a picture, it needs to be availble online. The old media may be gone, but the images, the audio and the video remain, now easier to store and share and carry with me. It’s all part of my continuing forward progress toward a more compact and portable life.

But I’m not yet ready to part with everything that I’ve acquired in decades past. Two analog collections are being kept—likely for many years to come. Their superiority over contemporary digital equivalents is profound enough to justify living and traveling with their bulk. A look at those items, next weekend…

 

Sharing Film with Friends

I’ve never had much love for social media. Mostly, I regard it as a semi-necessary evil, and it’s likely that I spend far less time exposed to it than the average account holder. However, in fairness, social media does have its constructive uses, and there have indeed been some bright spots during my time online; most notably, finding new friends with similar passions.

It was about six or so years ago that I started meeting many talented photographers who still shoot with 35mm film. And going beyond conventional photography, I was introduced to a variety of experimental techniques, and to the community of photographers who engage in international film swapping, sometimes referred to as “one film, two cameras”—shoot a roll, rewind it to the beginning, then mail the roll to a faraway friend who shoots the second pass. (For the team approach to double exposures, please remember to rewind carefully and leave the leader protruding so your friend can load the film. Also, don’t forget to double your camera’s ISO setting so each of you are providing half of the light needed for a proper exposure.)

A good deal of the fun comes from the fact that the final results are left to blind luck; we don’t coordinate our shooting locations or subject matter ahead of time. Sure, some frames don’t amount to much, but many others yield wonderful surprises. My favorite collaboration partner in this pursuit is Australian photographer John Baxter Weekes. The photo above and the next two below, we shot on Adox Silvermax 100 film…

The next three frames come from a shared roll of Kodak Ektar 100 film…

These three were captured on Kodak Tri-X film…

Of course, there’s no rule that says you have to limit yourself to double exposures. Here are a few frames from our quadruple exposure exercise; each of us shooting two passes on this roll of Fuji Velvia film…

A sample from our roll of Rollei Ortho 25 film…

Another film swap friend of mine is Walter von Aachen of Germany. Walter has a fondness for shooting with lesser-known 35mm films; here’s an image we created on Rollei Redbird 400, a redscale color negative film…

But there’s more to Walter’s work than double exposures. The mad scientist in him loves playing with “souped” films, where rolls of unexposed film are soaked in various beverages and other liquids, then slowly dried over several weeks at very low heat. As you can imagine, many labs don’t want to process film that has been treated in this way, so Walter does his own developing. Below are two frames that I shot on a roll of his color film (Kodak Gold 200, as I recall) that was pre-treated with vodka…

And these three shots were captured with Walter’s famous “Kaffee Kodak” coffee-soaked film…

If you’d like to participate in this sort of thing, check your favorite social media platform for tags related to souped films and film swapping. Enjoy!