Home Away From Home

October’s road trip found me once again right in the center of Colorado at one of my favorite spots in the West—the Buffalo Peaks Ranch, home to the Rocky Mountain Land Library.

As in 2019, I camped at the ranch in the cold, thin air; this time, pitching my tent next to the Middle Fork South Platte River, just below the beaver dam…

My favorite part of any photo taken at the ranch is the long, flowing beauty of Reinecker Ridge, glowing here in the last rays of the day’s sunshine; black cows in the distance, grazing at the base of the ridge…

Valley in the morning light…

Cows beneath a passing cloud…

(Kodak Plus-X 125 35mm film)

 

The ridge makes an imposing backdrop for the distant barns…

(Kodak Plus-X 125 35mm film)

 

Beautifully aged wood…

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

The last few tufts of October’s green grass…

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

Old treasure glowing in the sun…

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

More interesting artifacts, found by Ann…

Ann and Jeff, the dreamers who have worked so hard for many years to bring the Land Library to life. It was so nice to see them once again, and to spend my last few hours in South Park talking about the past and the future of the Buffalo Peaks Ranch…

Hey, it’s a library, so I took some time out to read on the front porch…

(The book? Flatland.)

You can read about the Rocky Mountain Land Library, get involved and show your support, all through this link. And check out the thousands of wonderful titles on the library’s shelves by viewing the many RMLL posts on Instagram.

 

Comanche

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

One of my favorite quiet and beautiful corners of the West—a corner that, I’m happy to say, seems to be underexplored by the majority of the traveling public—is the mesa country of northeastern New Mexico and the farthest western reaches of Oklahoma.

My autumn journey brought me into this wonderland once again, and I enjoyed my third and final night of grassland camping in 2020 with a return to southeastern Colorado’s Comanche National Grassland; my campsite less than two miles north of the Oklahoma line…

If you’re a fan of Level III Ecoregions, this location lies on the boundary between the Western High Plains and the Southwestern Tablelands. More simply put, the area doesn’t appear very “grassy” as compared to nearby grasslands, such as Cimarron to the east and Rita Blanca to the south. (These three national grasslands sit right in the bullseye of the Dust Bowl.) This part of Comanche certainly has a desert feel about it—plenty of pale sun-baked soil and exposed rock, plus cactus, yucca and other such plants common to arid regions…

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

I rolled into Colorado by driving north from the Black Mesa area on a scenic dirt road that passes through Cañon Gallinas, home to a dry creek that feeds the Cimarron River. Winding through the narrow, peaceful valley, I took a few moments for lunch in the shade of a creekside tree and enjoyed looking at the rocky wall of the low canyon just across the road. Moving on, the road soon made a short climb and I was back on the high plains. The whole area was nicely absent of other travelers as well as any sound of human activity. Finally entering national grassland property, I started scouting for the perfect place to set up camp.

With the help of the official grassland folding map, I found a Forest Service “road” leading to some high ground that looked promising. I slowly nosed the car up this fairly steep and rocky two-wheel track, which was well beyond the Pontiac’s skill level. After several squeaks, scrapes and clunks from below, we arrived at the top without any damage the oil pan or other vital underside components.

I stopped the car and walked ahead, verifying that the road becomes even more harrowing beyond this point. Happily, there was no reason to go any further. The pullout of bare packed soil was the perfect place to leave the car for the night. And pitching my tent here would not only offer maximum silence and solitude, but also the opportunity to explore two playgrounds of beautifully eroded sandstone. A stone castle to the north of camp (seen in the second photo above, beyond the car) stood about 30′ tall. South of camp was a maze of unusual rocky features, all under 20′ in height. It was like looking at southern Utah in miniature…a collection of little chimneys and buttes and canyons. Seemed to be the kind of place where some outlaw might have attempted to dry-gulch Jim Hardie

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

Once camp had been established, there was enough daylight remaining to explore the nearby rock formations for a couple of hours. While I was hiking and climbing over the stone shapes, I noticed that many of the rocks were hosting lichens in neon lemon-lime…

Someone (perhaps a mantid?) tucked her eggs into these cases for the winter…

Last year’s road trip set a record for clear skies; apart from one rainy day in South Dakota, a big blue empty ceiling was the norm for more than three weeks. This October day was no exception, and as I was at the southern apex of my journey up to that point, the temperature had reached the low 90s by the time I made camp. Not a problem, though, as the bone-dry Sonoran air was exquisitely comfortable. Hot or cold, summer or winter, I’ve never been a fan of humidity or precipitation; I hope to add much more desert hiking and camping to my future western adventures.

With a clear sky and a warm, still night on tap, there’s was no doubt that the next several hours would be devoted to skywatching. Here in one of the darkest areas of the country, many miles from the nearest tiny town, a great show was guaranteed.

And the nearby rocks provided the perfect place to enjoy the show; a small natural amphitheater, just a short walk from the tent, was centered by this convenient pedestal of flat stone, about waist high and probably 8′ in diameter. Wouldn’t be surprised if this slab had occasionally seen use as a dining table by those who camped here in centuries past…

So I had a quick dinner, gathered the few supplies I’d need for the evening and walked over to the rock garden. I took my seat in time for yet another sunset colored by the wildfire smoke that had been hanging over the country for several weeks…

As usual, the coyotes were on schedule with their post-sunset serenade, then fell silent.  This was going to be a comfortable night; along with the warm rocks, the warm air and the absence of wind, I was happy that there were no biting bugs around to spoil the party. I never saw or felt any flying insects during my entire stay here. Plenty of crickets, though, and I was glad of their company; they provided a superb and gentle soundtrack for the show. And a soloist showed up to further enhance the mood: a solitary bird hiding in a nearby shrub, who kept hooting the same triplet of low, lonely tones throughout the night.

Each evening’s progression through the three stages of twilight is typically a 90-minute affair. It’s my favorite time of the day, but I always catch it in segments of varying length while driving or hiking or capturing photos or talking with friends or otherwise partially occupied.

Here, I was totally alone and focused on nothing but the sky for the full duration of the evening—the first time I’ve ever done so. And in this setting, my sense of time was completely distorted. That 90-minute transition felt as though it passed in a matter of minutes. I watched as a blank canvas of graduated color was pierced by a single point of light (Jupiter?), followed by a bright star off to my right. Then a dozen more winked on, which became one hundred, rapidly accelerating to ten thousand, until, much sooner that I thought possible, I was looking into the Milky Way.

Though the moon was hours away from cracking the eastern horizon, there was so much starlight pouring down that I could easily see the rocks and plants all around me. But looking at the ground was a rarity on this night; the sky was filled with amazing stuff, so much so that I stared into it for hours without boredom intruding for a single second. I was having a wonderful time, with laughter and expletives flowing freely. I counted several meteors streaking high above, which were probably pieces of Halley’s Comet…the earliest days of the annual Orionid Meteor Shower. I rotated my position frequently so I could enjoy all 360 degrees of this spectacle. However, my eyes returned quite often to a favorite reference point—the bright “W” of Casseopeia as she whirled around Polaris.

I can’t say exactly how many hours I spent sitting on that rock, but I’m quite sure it was the longest skywatching session of my life. And there was more to be seen after turning in for the night; I watched a while longer from my sleeping bag, gazing through the tent’s screened skylight, and spotted another shooting star or two before sleep arrived.

(I have no starlight images from this evening to share with you; I did not pack a DSLR or telescope on this trip. And even if I had, I was just too engrossed in the stunning overhead scenery to have taken time out for imaging. I recall previous nights in the wilderness when fiddling with cameras and optics proved to be a distraction that prevented me from fully appreciating the experience. So, in lieu of photos from Comanche, please enjoy this starry sky that I captured in western Texas five years earlier.)

After a peaceful night’s sleep, I was up and out in time for the sunrise…

…and another opportunity to climb around the rocks as they soaked up the early sunlight…

I’m certain that I’ll return to this spot once I get my campervan; one night here is just not enough. I lingered that morning, not wanting to leave. Putting the stone table to further use, I found it to be a great place for my morning stretches and exercises.

Best night of camping ever. We’ll see if my next visit to this area is just as memorable.

 

Grand River

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.

A small, solitary wildflower growing near my tent.

 

Twenty

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.

Above: View from my tent at dawn; a still mist hovering above the grass

 

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.

Above: My campsite in the late-day sun

 

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.

 

Riding with Carl: The Next 30 Years

USA Pontiac travel 1990-2020

 

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.

Photo above by Sarah S.

 

Great Plains

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

One Moon Ago

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)

Night Music

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…