Dark Camping

A look at my disdain for campfires…

Certain people who follow this blog are aware of the fact that, in my youth, I took advantage of any opportunity to play with fire. But some of these people may not know just how much my interest in fire has waned over the years…to the point where I no longer own a grill, I don’t use candles in my home, and I think that fireworks belong solely in the hands of professionals.

As for campfires, they are certainly obligatory in the eyes of the camping public—the universal symbol of “Look, we’re camping!” Seems like every depiction of camping in advertisements and entertainment includes happy people sitting around a fire. For the record, when I’m camping, I’m happy too. But, as with travel and…well, lots of other stuff, I can’t follow the popular script when I camp. I avoid developed campgrounds and opt instead for dispersed camping, getting as deep into the middle of nowhere as the Pontiac can take me, where I can savor the silence and solitude. And, while I’m there, I don’t build fires. I think the last time I started a campfire was back in my Boy Scout days.

This post is not a lecture decreeing that you shouldn’t be building campfires (even though parts of it may read that way); rather, it’s just a look at the reasons why I find campfires undesirable. I raise the issue simply because I was asked about it during one of my camping adventures back in May, when I was touring Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Darkness

One of the primary motivators that leads me to these desolate areas is the reward of viewing incredible starscapes that I could never see here in the light-soaked Midwest. Cloud cover, horizon clutter, and (especially) proximity to light sources all weigh heavily on the when and the where of my campsite selection.

A sure way to destroy your night vision during an evening of skywatching is to spend a couple of hours staring into a campfire. After that, you’d be lucky to resolve anything in the sky smaller than the Moon. But when you go easy on your eyes and give them a fair opportunity to adjust to the darkness, you might be surprised at just how well you can see by starlight alone. There have been nights out on the grasslands when—even in the absence of moonlight—the night sky had illuminated the countryside to the point where I could discern the colors of nearby plants and rocks. And on moonlit nights, navigating the terrain is a breeze…no flashlight or lantern required.

Beyond my campfire moratorium, I further preserve my night vision by avoiding the use of traditional flashlights with blinding white light. Instead, I carry an assortment of red flashlights which are much easier on the eyes. Once the sun is down, I use these red lights exclusively, both inside my tent while setting up shop and outside while fiddling with my camera and/or telescope.

Those of you who camp are likely familiar with the many labels used to differentiate the various modes of camping, such as “boondocking,” “dry camping,” “wild camping,” “stealth camping” and so on. Scanning the Internet, I’m not finding any consensus on a term that denotes fire-free camping, nor am I seeing any meaningful use of the phrase “dark camping.” So, this blog post serves as notice that I’m officially taking credit for applying the term “dark camping” to the act of camping without fire. (Notary Seal)

Safety & Liability

It makes sense that a skywatcher like me would set up camp in those regions where clear, dark skies are a common occurrence—deserts, grasslands, the Great Plains in general. It also makes sense that locations with frequent fair weather see much less precipitation than other parts of the country. As you’ve probably noticed from the photos I’ve been sharing for many years, a lot of the places I visit appear quite brown and dry. They also tend to be fairly flat and wide open, which lends them another quality—they’re windy. Prairie winds can be both strong and unpredictable, going from zero to sixty with no warning at all. Dry grass, high winds and campfires…not a good combination.

When you’re dispersed camping in the middle of thousands of wild acres, you can’t just build a fire anytime or anywhere you please. It’s your responsibility to be aware of the current fire restrictions that are in place at the county and state level, as well as restrictions issued by the various US agencies when you’re camping on federal land. Of the locations where I camped (or wanted to camp) back in May, nearly all were under county-wide burn bans at the time. Such bans apply to campfires and can sometimes prohibit the use of grills.

Burn bans are increasingly common in this part of the world as the West continues to heat up and dry out, and they’re not to be taken lightly. Find yourself responsible for sparking a wildfire and there’s likely more than a ticket in your future…you’re looking at the possibility of financial ruin, maybe even incarceration. I’m happy to report that people were taking the bans seriously during my journey in May; I did not see any campfires or open burning in those areas.

Food & Cooking

One day while scouting online for potential wilderness campsites, I caught a glimpse of a developed campground listing in the area. Though I bypassed it automatically, the most recent review for the place caught my eye and made me chuckle. It came from one very unhappy camper who, quite upset over the burn ban in place at the time, asked indignantly, “How are we supposed to cook our food?!?”

Well, a great way to avoid that problem in the future is to pack food that doesn’t need to be cooked.

With camping, I prefer the simple and light approach; I don’t want to be bogged down with a ton of gear. That’s partly why I cringe at the sight of campers lugging around store-bought bundles of firewood and unpacking bulky, heavy cast iron skillets and dutch ovens. That feels like overkill for a camping adventure. If full-blown cooking is that important to you, I think you’d be better off just renting a well-equipped wilderness cabin…or putting up a tent in your backyard.

On top of that, the idea of turning your campsite into an outdoor kitchen seems so unnecessary when you consider the sheer abundance of food items that require no cooking whatsoever. There are thousands upon thousands of options, and before your mind leaps right for the junk food, those options include plenty of items from the healthy side of the aisle. Sure, you can live it up on Slim Jims, donuts and beer for the entire weekend, or you can go the other way and fuel yourself on nothing but organic produce and nuts. Throw in everything in between and the possibilities are limitless.

I’m not about to list each of those possibilities here, but I’ll give you the broad strokes based on the foods I carry into camp as well as those I eat at home in the summer when it’s too hot to use the oven:

~ Fresh fruit, fruit cups, canned fruit, dried fruit
~ Fresh vegetables, canned vegetables and baked beans, dried vegetables, pickled vegetables, pickles, olives
~ Fresh salads, bagged salad kits, cold deli salads (potato salad, pasta salads, cole slaw, etc.)
~ Nuts…so many nut choices, as well as a wide variety of nut butters
~ Trail mix, snack mixes (packaged or homemade)
~ Bars…bars by the thousands…granola bars, keto/protein bars, energy bars, nut bars, fruit bars, oat bars, rice bars, breakfast bars, crunchy bars, chewy bars (The bar aisle in some stores should have its own zip code.)
~ Bagged and boxed snacks…potato chips, vegetable chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, popcorn, crackers
~ Baked goods (packaged or homemade)…bread, cornbread, rolls, croissants, donuts, pastries, pies, cakes, cookies
~ Jerky…beef jerky, bison jerky, deer jerky, bacon jerky, salmon jerky, trout jerky, even vegan jerky made from mushrooms
~ Shelf-stable meat and seafood…Underwood Deviled Ham, Vienna Sausages, dry-cured whole salami, boxed pre-cooked (real) bacon, tuna and salmon (cans or pouches), canned sardines, mackerel, herring, oysters, shrimp, crab, etc.
~ Canned pasta (Is there anything better than eating SpaghettiOs straight out of the can?)

And like most campers, I don’t head into the wilderness for weeks on end; the majority of camping adventures in this country are only one, two or three nights in duration. So I don’t haul much food when I’m on the road, other than a few small snack items for the car. When it’s time to gather my meals for the campsite, I stop at a grocery store in the last town en route to the backcountry and load up on fresh food in the deli and produce sections, where I might purchase a salad kit or a ready-made Caesar salad for that night’s camp dinner, a big sandwich for the following day, a pint of seafood salad or some other cold deli dish, and a pint of fresh blueberries (maybe even a six-pack of those tiny donuts for breakfast).

The menu changes from one place to the next, with each store stocking different selections and each deli counter and bakery offering its own unique tastes. Plus, each small town that I pass through has one or more mom-and-pop restaurants to explore; I have no shortage of opportunities a grab a take-out order and haul that off to camp…maybe a plate of BBQ or some beef lo mein. There are even gas stations that have sold me some surprisingly tasty hot and cold sandwiches. It’s no exaggeration to say that I could camp every day for the rest of my life and—without ever lighting a fire or using any type of cooking gear—I’d never have to eat the same thing twice.

As for the irate camper mentioned above, if he was carrying food which needed to be cooked, then he must have had a cooler or mobile refrigeration to keep that food from spoiling before it arrived at the campfire. And when you have access to cold storage on your camping trip, your no-cook food choices increase substantially. Now you can pack even more fresh food; you’re not limited to the amount that has to be eaten on your first day in camp. Load up with more salads/salad kits, more fresh produce, more deli salads, and then throw in cold cuts, smoked salmon, fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt, dips, spreads, milk and milk alternatives, OJ and other fruit juices, and so on.

If you’d like to have a go at flameless campsite cooking, there are plenty of solar ovens and related devices on the market, but even those don’t interest me; that’s just one more thing to buy, one more thing to pack, one more thing to take up valuable vehicle space. On those rare occasions when I do want to warm up half of my sandwich, I get along fine with the old standbys: placing it on a sun-baked rock, parking it on the hood, trunk or dashboard of the Pontiac (all of which are black), and on cloudy days, I can just set it right on the engine block.

I’ve warned you that a van is in my camping future, which will allow me to reach those rugged and remote areas where the Pontiac just can’t cut it. And as the van research moves forward, friends and family are helping me with interior layout suggestions. Certainly, I’ll be reserving space for a small refrigerator, but I can’t imagine that I’ll ever want to carry any sort of cooking apparatus in this van…not even a simple gas-fired camp stove. I truly have no need for such things.

What about the fish we just caught?
Yes, you’ll need a way to cook those. Personally, I don’t fish.
What about coffee?
Never touch the stuff.
What about s’mores?
Bleh. Little Debbie Zebra Rolls are far superior…

Warmth & Social Gathering

Unless a coyote and a scorpion wander into camp to hang out with me, my campsites have no social component.

As a heat source, a campfire will indeed warm you up while you’re sitting nearby drinking coffee, roasting marshmallows or telling stories, but it’s a poor choice for keeping you warm throughout the night. Sleeping close enough to a campfire to feel its heat is not a great idea. And it’s a downright reckless idea to leave any fire burning unattended while you sleep.

The key to staying warm while camping is quite simple: dress for it…be prepared for the worst weather that could possibly show up. By investing in the proper clothing and camping gear, you’re assured of being warm, dry and comfortable no matter what surprises the weather may throw your way.

Smoke

Like a magnet, smoke from any fire finds me every time. Bonfires, patio fires, campfires…it makes no difference. If I stand upwind, the wind will slowly turn until I’m in the crosshairs once more. Then I’ll move again, and the process repeats…and repeats. My throat, my sinuses and my eyes aren’t built to handle smoke of any kind.

I know that the aroma of wood smoke holds a special charm for many, but I can do without it. A breath of clean, sage-scented prairie air is much more to my liking.

Low Profile

If you’ve experienced wide-open places in the dark of night, you know that a campfire or any other light source becomes a beacon that can be seen from miles away. There are many instances in old Western TV shows and movies, as well as in Western fiction and even non-fiction books, when outlaws, a posse or other travelers on the range will stop for the night and camp without a fire so as not to betray their location.

Of course, the West was a much more hostile place back in those days. When I camp, I’m not doing anything nearly as exciting as running from a bounty hunter. All the same, I seek out these deserted areas to enjoy peace, quiet and solitude, and once I find a campsite, it’s my nature to avoid calling attention to my presence. Though not too likely, it is possible that my lonely campfire might provide an excuse for folks to say, “Hey, someone is camping over there. Let’s go check it out.” No, I prefer to blend in with the terrain and be swallowed by the darkness.

Bonus points: Find my campsite in the photo below…

Romance

Campfires are a storied part of 19th century cowboy and pioneer life. Along the cattle trails and along the emigrant trails, the songs that rang out around those campfires are still being recorded and enjoyed today.

To the cowboys and families traversing the wild West for weeks and months on end, fire was a necessity, and the tenet of Leave No Trace was far from the thoughts of those who were focused on day-to-day survival in a harsh landscape. But this is not 1857. We have options today that were not available to those travelers.

I find nothing lacking in my camping experiences by the absence of fire. The West provides its own romance; it’s always there in the sensory splendor of my surroundings.

 

Give Me a Thin Slice

A new personal record: About four years ago, I photographed a slim crescent Moon that had only 2.39% of the lunar disk illuminated. I always look for these super-thin crescents on either side of the new Moon’s arrival, but where I live in the Midwest, the air quality, light pollution and horizon clutter make them difficult to spot.

Last month, on the desolate plains of New Mexico, with a big clear sky and an unobstructed horizon, I was able to image this 1.53% waxing crescent just 34 minutes after sunset on the day following the new Moon. Venus appeared first, and I knew the Moon would be close by…I just had to wait for the sky to darken enough for her to pop.

(Want to track lunar phases and positioning in real time? Get the free app from MoonCalc.org)

Northern Life

Greetings from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, on the southern bank of the La Grande River in northern Quebec. Was it worth the 1500-mile drive…?

Excerpt from our group conversation:

“Hurry! The orange moon is rising above the river.”
“Ooooh! The northern lights are starting!”
“Ack! Which should we shoot first?”
“Can I squeeze them both into one frame…maybe…?”

I’ve been lucky enough to see and shoot the northern lights in 2013, 2016 and 2019. Guess I know when to schedule my next northern adventure.

Below, Mireille watches the lights. I was especially happy to have enjoyed this event with a group of people who, despite living in northern Quebec, have not become jaded by these displays and were just as fascinated with the show as I was.

Looking up at the stars through the mikiwahp poles. The shot below was Isabelle’s idea. (Thank you!) The poles in the upper part of the frame are illuminated by moonlight, the others by house lights. A shooting star can be seen in the upper right.

All 25 photos from this night can be viewed in this gallery, where you can also purchase prints.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

I have previously written about my favorite spot in the Davis Mountains of Texas, which I last saw in 2004. Naturally, this view topped my list of things to see when I rolled through the area in October of 2015. So, after a chucking my luggage into the hotel room and grabbing a quick dinner, I drove up into the hills, wondering if the valley was still as beautiful and unspoiled as I remembered.

Absolutely perfect autumn weather for an evening drive in the mountains, just as it was in ’04. The sights along the road all seemed familiar, and very little, if anything, appeared to have changed. I took that as a good omen. Anticipation was reaching the saturation point, and certain landmarks looming ahead told me that I was very close to my destination. Rounding the final curve, I pulled over, cut the motor and smiled broadly. There it was, exactly as I had left it. Welcome back, Carl. Eleven years had changed nothing…

…though it’s a safe bet that the trees had grown a little taller and a little fuller in my absence.

I walked over to the edge of the slope and stood there, basking in the scenery and the silence, which was broken only by a few chirping birds and insects, and three rather clumsy deer stumbling down the steep hillside behind me.

At this point, I placed my cell phone on a small tripod and recorded two minutes of video, which you can view here.

So, was everything the same after eleven years? That verdict would require the onset of total darkness, still a couple of hours away. Seemed like a great excuse to continue driving through the mountains, watching as the final moments of daylight painted the sky and the landscape…

…and then back to the spot in time to watch the young crescent moon as it fell slowly behind the hills to the west…

Now it was time to prepare for the main event. The nearby McDonald Observatory was built here for a very good reason, as the Davis Mountains are home to some of the darkest skies in North America. The folks at the observatory have even assisted local residents and businesses in procuring outdoor lighting fixtures that minimize light pollution. And plenty of other people in the area are behind the effort to keep the skies dark.

When I came here back in ’04, I was blown away by the starlight on display, an intensity unequaled elsewhere in my travels. Sadly, I only had a low-resolution pocket digital camera with me on that trip, so astrophotography was off the menu. This time, I brought the gear to make it happen.

Looking at satellite images of this area, I spotted a few buildings within this large valley that appeared to be the homes of ranchers. I don’t know if they existed during my last visit or if they were recently constructed. Regardless, I was hoping that they wouldn’t spoil the view.

Darkness was now firmly in command, and the show in the sky was nothing short of stellar, once again. And happily, the stars were the only source of light visible in any direction; the valley remained dark. If any of the homes down there had outdoor lights burning, they were buried in the rolling hills and invisible from my vantage point.

Adding to the romance of the evening, the coyotes took up their call, just as they did two weeks earlier as I was shooting the Harvest Moon eclipse in South Dakota. For me, that sound is the most wonderful part of photographing the night sky in the West.

I hope this area will maintain its sublime beauty for a long time to come. And I hope it won’t be eleven more years before I return.

Harvest Moon 2017

South Dakota never disappoints when it comes to viewing the Harvest Moon. This was the scene Thursday evening in the rangeland east of Rapid City…

While waiting for the moon to come up, I caught this beautiful sunset over the Black Hills…

2 for 1: I started my day with a bonus Harvest Moon sighting just 12 hours earlier, setting over the hills to the west of Rapid City…

I ask the moon for orchids
She said, “How ’bout a drop of blood from a rolling stone?”
She never fails to tickle my funny bone

“Burn Card”
The Barr Brothers

The Return

Ragtop full of holes, floorboard full of holes, clothes full of holes. It was a cold ride over California’s high country in April of 1992. Here I am shivering atop the Sierras during my final hours in the Golden State, as I made the long drive eastward to relocate in the Midwest.

Even though I was pulling a heavy load behind a car that wasn’t designed for towing, I wanted to bask in the wonder of western vistas once again, as I did outbound two years earlier. So I improvised a leisurely and circuitous course to my destination, staying on two-lane highways for the greater part of the journey. From Marin County, I took the scenic route over the mountains to Minden, Nevada, where I began the beautiful drive to Lone Pine, California, down US 395. Then came Death Valley, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Winslow, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Boise City (having never been to Oklahoma, I wanted to cross it off the list), Amarillo, Lubbock, Abilene, Austin, Houston, New Orleans (where I purchased a pair of carryout frozen daiquiris), Biloxi (where I got bombed on said daiquiris and watched a seagull steal my gas-station cheeseburger that was thawing on the beach towel), then northward to home.

East of the Sierras, somewhere along Highway 395…

I was under the impression that I had no photos of the Pontiac with the U-Haul trailer attached. But as I was looking through my old negatives recently, I discovered two such frames (and there’s my motivation for posting this story). Here is the first shot—pausing for a look at the road ahead as I prepared to cross the Panamint Valley

The other photo of the trailer, taken in Winslow, Arizona…

In the image above, the LeMans is parked at the corner of 1st and Kinsley. I was setting up for this shot…

Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona

After Winslow, I didn’t use the camera again on this trip, though there was still plenty to see and plenty to enjoy. One of the most powerful and memorable moments occurred late the following night in the vast emptiness of western Texas. It was a calm, moonless night and the air temperature was perfect for driving. There were no other vehicles within sight, no houses, no towns. The darkness was impressive, but not complete. Brilliant starlight was beaming down through that crystal clear Texas sky—starlight that was bright enough to reveal the landscape around me, bright enough to drive by. I turned off my headlights for several seconds to prove the point. It was a sublime experience, paired with a wonderful sensation of solitude.

Kodak Tri-X film
Kodak T-MAX 100 film

Prairie Moonrise

I almost never point my phone’s camera at the moon anymore because all previous attempts to capture a decent image have failed. When this scene appeared above a southeastern Alberta farm, I had to try one more time. Just love those backlit clouds.

moonrise

Come for the Food, Stay for the Show

My first night in the high country did not disappoint. Drove out to the edge of town around 0100 and found the creatures I came here to see; the first I’ve seen of them since Iceland in 2013. On that trip, I was so intent on getting photos that I didn’t take any time to just sit and enjoy the show. This morning, after I put the camera gear back in the trunk, I watched the sky just as the coyotes started up. It sounded like there were ten or more of them, scattered in all directions. They kept howling for a good two minutes, then stopped abruptly. What an amazing soundtrack to the light show above.

Here’s the Big Dipper getting in on the action…

And as I’ve said before, I don’t like photos of this car with the top “up,” but I did want it in the shot and I didn’t feel like trying to put the top down in the cold and the dark…

Plenty of sites online will warn you against trying to capture an aurora using the camera on your phone. But those cameras have gotten much better recently. With the right manual settings (ISO 700 at 8 seconds) and a little tripod for phones, I was able to get the shot below. Grainy, but not half bad…

The Spot

Valley

No, it’s not an oil painting…just a low-resolution video frame captured in 2004 in the Davis Mountains of western Texas, one of my favorite parts of North America. Stumbling upon a valley this beautiful, bathed in evening sunlight, is certainly just cause for stopping and gawking. But it was on the return trip in the dark of night that my mind was completely blown.

Parking in this same spot and shutting off the engine and the headlights, I was immediately swallowed by darkness and silence of an intensity that I had never before experienced. Once the shock abated to the point where I could actually move, I got out and walked over to the rim of the valley.

Now, the darkness was no longer darkness. There was starlight…incredible starlight. Though there was no moon in the sky, the blazing stars were bright enough to reveal the outline of the hills in the distance, and then the patchwork of trees, brush and grass. As my eyes continued to adjust, I could even discern various shades of green.

The air was quite still, but soft sounds began to emerge…a bird rustling in a nearby bush, a pebble rolling a short distance down the hill, and the zing of a few insects, likely some species of cricket.

While I was awed by what I was seeing and hearing and feeling, I was equally thrilled by what was missing from this moment—the twenty-first century. The panorama contained no power lines, no cell towers, no buildings. I scanned my entire 360-degree vista and was elated that I could not locate a single artificial light source.

From where I stood, there was absolutely no visible sign of human influence other than the road and the car behind me, which I dared not look at for the next several minutes; no audible sign other than the fading metallic tick of the Pontiac’s engine cooling in the night air.

I don’t remember how long I stood there in my hypnotic state, but I was lucid enough to know that I didn’t want to leave. Once I did depart, I knew that I would never forget how it felt to look across that valley on that night, and to know that, for a few moments, I had it all to myself.

Large tracts of unspoiled wilderness have always fascinated me, and I’ll continue to seek out such places—on the plains, on the tundra, in the mountains and in the desert. I’ve been to a handful of locations that were also quite sublime in their raw beauty and silence, but this one stands out as my favorite. Even so, I hope it won’t be long before it moves down to second place.

I plan to return to The Spot the next time I visit western Texas. Is it too much to hope that, after eleven years, the valley is still pristine?