Soundtrack

Radio is not a practical source of music when you’re driving across the vastness of the open prairie. Fact is, my Pontiac’s stock AM radio died before I ever bought the car. During those first years on the road, I ran a 12-volt hookup to the back seat where I had perched a large boombox that could play tapes and CDs. After that unit died, I had a Pioneer CD player installed under the dash. When the road dust finally clogged up that player after many years of solid service, I replaced it with a modern car stereo that plays MP3 files on USB sticks, eliminating the need to drag along dozens and dozens of CDs every time I hit the road. I now have hundreds of my favorite road songs and albums available at the touch of a small remote control.

Music has always been a critical component of my road adventures in the LeMans. And as I started venturing deeper into the unfrequented areas of the continent, I noticed that my listening habits were shifting accordingly. Such spaces demand music with its own spaciousness…a sparser approach to studio production, with just the right amount of reverb and ambience to open up the sound. The singer-songwriter genre has come to the fore of my playlist; the strum of an acoustic guitar superbly compliments the hum and the feel of rolling wheels. And the ultimate musical expression on a twilight drive through the grasslands is the cry of a pedal steel guitar—the closest that humans have come to simulating the plaintive song of the coyote.

It will come as no surprise that the hours centered around sunset are my favorite for rural exploration. Adding the beautiful colors of the evening sky to the intoxicating blend of aural and visual delights, and the freedom of an open and desolate road, brings the enjoyment to a level that is difficult to describe. I’ll just say that it is a spellbinding and deeply satisfying experience to be caught in that feedback loop…the scenery magnifying the impact of the music, the music heightening the glory of the scenery. Fahrvergnügen, indeed.

A few songs are so powerful when heard in the splendid isolation of the Great Plains that I refuse to listen to them at home or in other vehicles; those tracks are reserved solely for use in the Pontiac while I’m basking in that solitude. To hear them in any other setting would be a dreadful anticlimax.

Artists such as Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Cowboy Junkies, Gordon Lightfoot, Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt—to name but a few—have a keen ability to capture the freedom and romance found in wide-open spaces and behind the wheel on roads less traveled. Their music is the ideal accompaniment to open air and forward motion, their lyrics are devastating in such wild and lonely places.

Over many years of driving these roads and revisiting various locations and moods, there are several songs, albums and artists that have come to be paired repeatedly with certain elements of the journey, as they fit so well together—the weather or the appearance of the sky, a particular time of day (there’s one large folder of tunes dedicated to night driving), the surrounding terrain, or a specific place on the map. Gordo rules the stereo when I’m riding through Canada’s boreal forest; Neil’s classic album Harvest Moon is played each year during the celestial event of the same name; Stevie Ray Vaughan is the perfect choice for those long, lonely roads in western Texas.


The songs from those vintage tapes and discs that I’ve loved for so long are not the only tunes that travel with the Pontiac…I’m always adding newer titles to my library as I discover them. One of the greatest gifts to the world of driving music in the past decade has come from The Barr Brothers. I was already familiar with the Barrs from the imaginative albums of their first band, The Slip, whose music I aired often during my weekend shifts at a local radio station. (Unfortunately, I left the station around the time when The Barr Brothers released their debut album; had I stayed on, they’d have gotten some serious exposure in this market.)

Earlier this month, on a Sunday sunset/twilight tour through some remote corners of my area code, I put in enough miles to enjoy all four of their albums back to back…

The Barr Brothers  (2011)

Sleeping Operator  (2014)

Alta Falls  (2015)

Queens of the Breakers  (2017)

Click above to hear “Wolves” by The Barr Brothers (YouTube video)

Like The Slip before them, The Barr Brothers have crafted a unique sound. Their creative instrumentation appeals to me, and the spacious quality of their music certainly amplifies the exhilaration of riding across beautiful landscapes under a big sky.

Looking back at my travels over the last several years, I recall many parts of the continent where the Barrs have provided a wonderful soundtrack to the passing scenery, including my premier journeys to northwestern Colorado (May 2019) and northern Quebec (September 2019).

No doubt I’ll be enjoying their albums yet again later this year when, once more, I head westward into the Great American Desert.

Riding with John (Prine)

One of the (many) ideas that I’ve had on the shelf for years is to write a long post about the songs and artists that I listen to in the Pontiac when I’m rolling through the beauty of rural North America. Someday, I’ll get around to it; for now, I’ll name one songwriter whose music gets played frequently on each and every road trip—the great John Prine, who left us yesterday at the age of 73.

John’s lyrics range from deeply moving to fantastically humorous—sometimes both at once. His songs are a perfect soundtrack to the visual splendor and the joyous freedom that I experience on the road.

Even if you don’t spend time driving around the countryside as I do and prefer listening to music while you relax at home, be sure to explore the wonderful tunes in John Prine’s 50-year discography.

Farewell, John, and thank you.

~

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

“Paradise” by John Prine

Earth & Sky

Above, light from the rising sun illuminates large boulders on a hilltop in the Davis Mountains of western Texas.

The oldest entry in my blog was posted five years ago today, and tells of a spot in the mountains which is very special to me. The Pontiac and I have enjoyed five tours of these beautiful and peaceful mountains during the past 30 years; I’ve no doubt we’ll be visiting the area again.

Speaking of, here are links to a few archived blog posts about our most recent trip to the Davis Mountains in 2015…

The long-awaited return to the spot mentioned in the post linked above, including some photos of the incredible night sky:

Deep in the Heart of Texas

And a couple of posts featuring photos of the area’s wildlife:

Raptor’s Delight

Acme Little Giant Do-It-Yourself Rocket-Sled Kit

Rolling By

The semis roll through
Like stainless steel stallions
Goin’ hard, goin’ fast, goin’ wild
Rollin’ hard, rollin’ fast, rollin’ by

“Rolling By”
Robert Earl Keen

Kodak Panatomic-X 35mm film

Stinesville 1984

Working on assignments for my college photography courses was a great excuse to tour the country roads and small towns of southern Indiana in my ’57 Ford Fairlane. I shot plenty of Kodak Tri-X in the process—the first rolls of film I ever developed by hand.

Not long ago, while viewing those contact sheets for the first time in many years, I was trying to determine exactly which towns I had photographed, as I had made no notes. In one frame, I found signs containing the name Gosport; after that, shots of a bridge and a river. Moving chronologically through the roll, and with the help of Google Maps, I learned that I had gone south out of Gosport and the next town I came to was Stinesville. Google Street View confirmed it.

For decades, these photos existed only on the contact sheet. Recently, I ran some of the old negatives through my film scanner, and after enlarging the images on my monitor, I found details that I had never noticed before, such as the dog starting across the street at the bottom of the hill in the photo above.

The old buildings on Main Street are still standing, although the cars in the Google imagery are certainly different from the ones seen here.

If you look at Railroad Street (below) in Stinesville today, you’ll notice that the train tracks and telegraph poles have all been removed…

Another detail that I had never noticed prior to scanning the negatives: two kids walking near the base of the pine tree by the Stinesville Baptist Church. Neither the church nor the tree are standing there today…

(Click on any photo to bring up a larger version in a new tab.)

1984
Stinesville, Indiana
Kodak Tri-X 35mm film

Trees & Leaves

That didn’t take long. Today’s post includes the last few photographs I have to share from my recent excursion through eastern Canada. This trip generated far fewer images than past adventures of similar distance or duration. There’s a reason for that…

On most road trips, I’m winding my way across the wide-open prairies, deserts, badlands and high country of the American West. Roaming under the Big Sky is, photographically, very stimulating; each turn of the road or the trail presents a new look at the marriage of land and sky. I return from every western journey with hundreds of photos.

Driving or hiking through heavily forested regions is different; though still quite satisfying, it’s more of a relaxing, contemplative experience rather than a photo opportunity. When I’m immersed in the forest, I don’t reach for the camera nearly as often.

Am I anti-tree? Certainly not. I greatly enjoy hiking in the woods during fall and winter, as well as taking long drives through Canada’s vast boreal forest. However, to me, nothing is more enjoyable than watching the sky. When I’m boxed in by a multitude of trees (or hills or mountains, for that matter), I’m missing out on sunrises, sunsets, moonrises, moonsets, interesting clouds, soaring birds, approaching storms, the beautiful colors of twilight. Having an unobstructed view of the horizon is something that I treasure. My preference is to appreciate trees in smaller doses—a stand of aspens marking the path of a stream that snakes across a broad Colorado valley, for example. A solitary tree standing guard on the prairie is one of my favorite sights; on many occasions, I have visited this lonely old cottonwood that lives on a South Dakota ranch…

I find that spending time with a single tree, or with a small grove, is more rewarding than a journey among countless thousands of trees. Even so, the larger forests do have their charms, and I’ll keep on driving through the wilds of Canada, hiking in silent woods carpeted with freshly fallen snow, and visiting all of my favorite trees. As for day-to-day living, I hope to be doing that on the Great Plains someday…preferably, on a piece of land that has one tree within hiking distance.