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

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.

Riding with John (Deere)

Picking corn as we roll along under a big South Dakota sky. You can watch a short video that I captured from my perch by visiting these links:

Vimeo              YouTube

~

Corn Dog: Someone else was enjoying the ride with us that day….

Offloading…

Why the pumpkin? The farmer told me that it makes it easier to spot his combine in the café parking lot.

~

Stays crunchy, even in milk…

Audio: Coyotes in South Dakota

When visiting my favorite South Dakota ranch, I usually spend some time each evening out on the range photographing the night sky. In addition to the cattle residing at the ranch, the coyotes are constant companions. They start singing near sundown; some are heard only faintly, very far in the distance, while others are surprisingly near. In the darkness, I have no idea exactly where they are. Their howls make a fantastic soundtrack to the visual display overhead—one that provides a good degree of romance, and not a little tingling of the spine.

On this particular night of sky shooting, I brought along a digital recorder and a directional microphone. The result is a half-minute recording of the coyotes doing what they do.

Caution, pet owners: Your dog or cat may not like this recording. Proceed accordingly.

The audio is posted as a video (with the above still image) at these links:    Vimeo    YouTube

Speaking of the Song Dog: Whether you love coyotes, hate them, fear them, or know very little about them, I highly recommend the Dan Flores book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. Covering everything from biology to mythology, the book is a comprehensive coyote biography, illuminating such topics as the coyote’s role in the beliefs and culture of Native Americans, its “discovery” by European Americans, portrayals of the coyote in modern popular culture, and the lives of urban coyotes. (Unsure about the correct pronunciation of the word coyote? That’s covered as well.)

The book examines the evolution of these highly intelligent animals and their unusual reproductive adaptability. While wolves were being extirpated by humans, the coyote’s ability to function either as a pack member or as a solitary hunter allowed the species to survive and expand its range. The core of Coyote America is a detailed look at the long timeline of a misguided and utterly futile government campaign to exterminate one of the most resilient animals on the planet; 150 years of persecution, and the coyote has now colonized virtually all of North America and Central America.

You don’t have to be a biologist to appreciate the wealth of information in this book; Coyote America is not presented as a dry scientific monograph. Dan’s writing is accessible, well paced and provides a very enjoyable reading experience.

After the book’s release in 2016, Mr. Flores was interviewed by National Geographic. Take a few minutes to read that informative article on the NG website:

How the Most Hated Animal in America Outwitted Us All

I discovered this book thanks to Ed Roberson’s Mountain & Prairie podcast. In a 75-minute conversation, available here, Ed and Dan discuss coyotes, wild horses, land management and other interesting topics. (Be sure to check out another great book by Dan, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains.)

Hey, you with the bushy tail: I’ve written of my fascination with owls, and I am similarly drawn to coyotes. I hear them quite often when I’m wandering through the Canadian wilderness and the American West, but I have never heard the coyote’s song here in the eastern part of the country. As for spotting a coyote with my own eyes, there have been just four such occurrences, and only twice was I able to photograph the encounter (both times from the driver’s seat with a pocket digital camera). First, there was this “prairie wolf” in western South Dakota…

And, not far from my home, this eastern cousin…

You can view a very short video of this creature walking across the snow-covered field by following these links:    Vimeo    YouTube

UPDATE: I recently uncovered video evidence that my first coyote sighting occurred in Montana in 1990. Read this blog post to learn more and see the video.

This may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Do not approach a coyote, do not attempt to feed a coyote, do not encourage coyotes to become comfortable around humans.

Further reading and resources: This link will direct you to Project Coyote, a non-profit organization “whose mission is to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science and advocacy.” Read about their work toward ending wildlife killing contests that target coyotes and other predatory species.

(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library.)

Rolling By

The semis roll through
Like stainless steel stallions
Goin’ hard, goin’ fast, goin’ wild
Rollin’ hard, rollin’ fast, rollin’ by

“Rolling By”
Robert Earl Keen

Kodak Panatomic-X 35mm film