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.

 

Twenty

That is the number of National Grasslands in the United States. They are places I visit frequently when I’m on the road…places that offer great opportunities for driving and hiking and stargazing, and are hard to beat when it comes to enjoying solitude and blissful silence. This year, I decided that I need to experience a quiet night alone in each of the twenty grasslands through the joy of dispersed camping.

On my 2020 journey, I was able to check three of them off the list. I started with a return to the first grassland I ever visited many years ago—Sheyenne National Grassland in eastern North Dakota.

Above: View from my tent at dawn; a still mist hovering above the grass

 

The spot I chose for camping was nicely isolated in sprawling ranchland; there were no houses or farms or moving vehicles visible in any direction, no sound of human activity. After a colorful sunset, with the waxing moon riding through the twilight, the coyotes started their chorus.

Above: My campsite in the late-day sun

 

The stars on this night were wonderfully brilliant. And my choice of a tent with screen windows paid off yet again. I awoke briefly at one point late in the night, and just as I opened my eyes, a bright shooting star zoomed directly overhead, flying from east to west.

 

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.

 

Swimming Pools, Movie Stars

So, things were pretty peachy once I arrived in California after my epic trek westward…

Truth is, this is just some beautiful home on the bi-weekly route of the landscaping company that hired me to prune, rake, pull weeds, haul mulch and drown slugs on stately properties throughout Marin County. As I knew that the work day would end here and the owners would not be home, I washed the car the evening before and packed the camera.

Photo taken in 1991 on (the short-lived) Kodak Ektar 125 film.

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.

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

Heptagons

While sorting photos recently, I rediscovered a folder full of infrared images taken during my very first visit to the Buffalo Peaks Ranch. I find these more interesting now than I did back then. Stay tuned for more photos from this collection.

South Park, Colorado
Infrared DSLR