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.

 

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

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

Valley Abstract

All of the digital infrared images taken during my first visit to the Buffalo Peaks Ranch have now been posted. Two years after that trip, I returned to the ranch with an assortment of long-expired rolls of 35mm film, just to see what they would do. One of those rolls—Kodak Infrared film—was as old as my car.

I wasn’t expecting much from the IR experiment, but the results were ghostly and surreal, with strange artifacts and black skies; looked as though the photos had been taken during the night. Only a few of the frames contained anything resembling a photograph. Here, you can barely make out the shadowy figure of Sarah (right below the sun) heading up the trail to the South Platte River.

South Park, Colorado
Kodak Infrared film (expired 1971)