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.