Abridged

(Double exposure by Sarah S.)

At the top of each state’s page in the road atlas is a small cluster of statistics about that state. The one that always caught my eye was the elevation of the state’s highest point. It wasn’t until 1996 that I decided to do something with that information, when I started including those peaks as destinations on my long road trips. The first to fall was Missouri’s Taum Sauk Mountain (elevation 1772′) on September 1, 1996. More visits to state summits would follow in quick succession on that journey and over the next few years.

But it wasn’t long into the process when I realized that checking every summit off the list was an unreasonable expectation. For one thing, I had no desire to fly all the way to Hawaii again just to stand atop Mauna Kea. Then there are daunting and dangerous peaks such as Rainier and Denali where solo climbing is either heavily discouraged or prohibited outright—unless you’re a professional mountaineer (which I definitely am not). To reach those peaks, you have to be led up as part of a group. And if I can’t make the summit alone, I’ll pass. I’m not a fan of being guided anywhere.

To the east, I encountered several high points that were—sorry to say—just plain uninspiring, such as the center of the road in a residential neighborhood (Delaware), an observation tower packed with tourists (Tennessee), and shrubbery-clogged summits with absolutely no view of the distance (several eastern states). Though I “ascended” a majority of the peaks in the East, in truth, many weren’t worth the gas or the time invested.

On the plus side, there were plenty of enjoyable ascents in the mix. My favorite high points are those stretched along the western edge of the Great Plains, from Guadalupe Peak in Texas all the way up to the Cypress “Hills” of Saskatchewan (pictured below). These are worth visiting more than once, and I’ve done so. I’ve also experienced great joy from topping dozens of unnamed or infrequently visited hills, buttes and ridges scattered across the West. As for official state/provincial high points, my count stands at 31 (29 in the US and two in Canada). Maybe more summits from the list will be conquered, maybe they won’t.

The point of this little story: Even an incomplete to-do list can be rewarding.

And speaking of incomplete…

I now face the very real probability that the Pontiac will fall short on its grand tour of North America. Just three jurisdictions remain to be visited, but they’re the three most challenging—Newfoundland & Labrador, the Yukon and Alaska.

Perhaps you noticed that very little was posted here while I was touring the Southwest back in May. That trip did have its share of wonderful moments, but as for the bigger picture, it was probably the least satisfying Pontiac journey on the books. At the beginning of each year’s driving season, the car is inspected and all known issues are fixed, usually resulting in a hefty repair bill. In spite of all that, gremlins had come along for this ride. The starter died on Day One, keeping me in Missouri for an extra night. And upon reaching Las Vegas, New Mexico, some bizarre engine performance issues appeared. What was supposed to be a four-week road adventure got slashed to two weeks, and I limped the car along a direct route homeward.

After last year’s long autumn tour, I wrote about the need to quit using the Pontiac for backcountry camping and 6,000-mile marathon drives. And I did stay on pavement for nearly all of this spring’s journey, logging just a few miles on gravel to get to the ranch and to assorted campsites. But the May trip was indeed proof that the Pontiac should stay closer to home from now on.

I had high hopes that the LeMans would get to travel the amazing Trans-Labrador Highway, as well as make it all the way to the Arctic coast at Tuk. From the reports I’ve read about the route to the Arctic and from email exchanges with drivers who’ve actually been there, I’m confident now that Yukon’s Dempster Highway would reduce the Pontiac to rubble.

I still plan to explore the extreme limits of the Canadian highway system, but just think how much better those trips will be in a vehicle built to handle such rugged roads; a vehicle with its own bed, so I won’t have to sleep in a flimsy tent in polar bear country or try to arrange lodging in remote hamlets. I’ll be able to take it as slow as I wish and savor each journey.

Is this the end of the road for Pontiac travel? No. But the end will certainly arrive, and probably much sooner than I ever expected. For 30 years, I said I would never sell this car…now, I can see it happening. No way I could ever feel shortchanged about it; after 31 years, 243,000 miles and seeing so much of North America, it’s been a great run. And it’s not over yet.

Who knows…a bag full of money might drop from the sky and I won’t care if I have to rebuild the LeMans after every wilderness journey. And I can’t rule out the possibility that this car will indeed make it across one or more of those final three borders. The far more likely course of events sees a 4×4 campervan handling the long-distance and high-latitude adventures from here forward while the Pontiac returns to what it does best—floating down well-maintained prairie roads while I sing along with the stereo and enjoy the view.

(If you don’t see a video directly above this line, follow this link to my YouTube channel.)

Tip Jar

Since financial considerations play a major role in my future travel plans, perhaps this is the right time to look for sources of supplemental income. This week, I created a support page at Ko-fi.com. If you enjoy reading these posts and seeing the images I gather as I explore this continent, you can view my page and, if you wish, make a donation by clicking the blue button…

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 prefer a more tangible return on your donation, you can also help by purchasing prints and other merchandise from my gallery at Fine Art America. Visit the gallery by clicking the image below…

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

 

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.