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)

Self-Portrait

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…)

Never Lost

The Great Plains in those early days were solitary and desolate beyond the power of description; the Arkansas River sluggishly followed the tortuous windings of its treeless banks with a placidness that was awful in its very silence; and whoso traced the wanderings of that stream with no companion but his own thoughts, realized in all its intensity the depth of solitude from which Robinson Crusoe suffered on his lonely island. Illimitable as the ocean, the weary waste stretched away until lost in the purple of the horizon, and the mirage created weird pictures in the landscape, distorted distances and objects which continually annoyed and deceived. Despite its loneliness, however, there was then, and ever has been for many men, an infatuation for those majestic prairies that once experienced is never lost…

Henry Inman
The Old Santa Fé Trail
1897

Coyotes: An Update

Back in February, I shared photographs and video of the scant few coyotes I’ve spotted over the years. But I have since learned that I was wrong about the number of coyotes I’ve seen as well as which one came first. It just so happens that my very first coyote sighting took place during my very first road trip in the Pontiac during my very first hour in Montana.

The evidence appeared recently when I started to tackle a laborious and long-overdue project—digitizing the content from dozens of old videotapes that I shot back in the ’80s and ’90s. Foremost among those cassettes were the VHS tapes I recorded in the autumn of 1990 while on my long road adventure to California…a journey that was an unending parade of states and places I had never seen before.

It has been many years since I’ve watched this footage; there’s a lot of stuff on these tapes that I don’t even remember shooting. I spent a day driving around in Yellowstone National Park, and that tape—as you’d expect—is packed full of unusual and beautiful vistas. Moving on, I exited the park through its northern boundary and found myself alone in the rolling golden hills of Montana. The first resident I encountered in the Treasure State? This furry ambassador…

Click above to watch the video (YouTube)

By the way, please excuse the terrible quality of this video. I now have a large quantity of VHS clips available from this era (superior in quality to this one) and I hope to share many of them…once I get around to it. Stay tuned.

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.