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.

 

Earth & Sky

Above, light from the rising sun illuminates large boulders on a hilltop in the Davis Mountains of western Texas.

The oldest entry in my blog was posted five years ago today, and tells of a spot in the mountains which is very special to me. The Pontiac and I have enjoyed five tours of these beautiful and peaceful mountains during the past 30 years; I’ve no doubt we’ll be visiting the area again.

Speaking of, here are links to a few archived blog posts about our most recent trip to the Davis Mountains in 2015…

The long-awaited return to the spot mentioned in the post linked above, including some photos of the incredible night sky:

Deep in the Heart of Texas

And a couple of posts featuring photos of the area’s wildlife:

Raptor’s Delight

Acme Little Giant Do-It-Yourself Rocket-Sled Kit

Carl’s Library: Hammond’s Nature Atlas

I’m no bookbinder, but I’m pretty handy with a roll of black cloth tape. While going through some of my books in storage, I came across an old favorite which has seen better days. I used that roll of tape to reattach the front and back boards, and now the book is shelfworthy again.

The book is Hammond’s Nature Atlas of America (1952), and this copy has been with me longer than any book in my collection; I still remember turning these pages as a kid. As then, I love looking at the colorful paintings by Walter Ferguson and John Cody.

There’s no doubt that this book fostered my lifelong fascination with nature and science.

~

Illustrations and text: Copyright 1952 by C.S. Hammond and Company, Inc.

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

Rock Garden

High up on the side of a mountain, I found this yucca growing from the remnants of its former, larger self. Almost looks like an attempt at landscaping, as if someone put the yucca in a pot and placed it on this natural shelf. But I’m confident that the plant found this great spot to live and grow without any assistance from us.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Agfapan APX 25 film

The 25th Day of December

My personal favorite? 1990. I had just moved to California eight weeks earlier. Didn’t have a job, an apartment or any friends upon arrival; I found those first two items in short order. The friends came later, but I was never one to sit at home due to a lack of someone to hang with, and I quickly launched a program of solo excursions exploring the beauty of the Marin County coast.

A year earlier, the Loma Prieta earthquake took a big bite out of the hillside just south of Stinson Beach, dragging a large chunk of Highway 1 into the sea. The scar is still visible today on aerial views.

The area was fenced off for a long time (over two years, I believe) during the lengthy reconstruction process. The northern gate was located near the far left edge of this map. This provided a perfect spot to park the Pontiac and roam the coastal trails, free from the noise of traffic…nothing but the sounds of birds, surf and the wind. I’d often see a few other hikers in the area, but on that Christmas day, I had the whole playground to myself.

One of my favorite spots was along that ridge you see to the northwest of Gull Rock. There is a giant slab of stone that sticks straight out of the hillside like a snake’s head.

This is a nice spot for sunbathing or meditation. I enjoyed stretching out on the cool, hard rock and staring at birds soaring on the breeze and listening to the waves crashing below. It also afforded a great view of the construction area, and during work hours, I would watch the bulldozers launch truck-size boulders on a long bouncing trek down the hillside (they seemed to be moving in slow motion), ending in a titanic, silent splash in the cold water.

The weather for this holiday visit was sunny with a nice sea breeze and a temp in the mid-50s. From the snake’s head, I spent a good amount of time working my way down to the rocks at the water’s edge…

…and then moving back up another section of the cliffs; rinse, repeat. Not technical climbing by any means, just scrambling, but the faces were fairly steep and demanded careful navigation.

The crown jewel of the area is a tiny, beautiful crescent of a beach and a cove (bottom center of map) located where Lone Tree Creek empties into the Pacific.

The “trail” to reach this wonderful stretch of sand is a precipitous little adventure clogged with large rocks, scrub and poison oak and it begins right at that “1” symbol on the map.

Due in no small part to the lack of a proper trail to this beach, I never saw any other people there during my many visits. It really is a fantastic spot to have all to yourself and it was always part of my itinerary when I’d leave my apartment on Carl Street and drive to the coast.

Once the sun got low, I walked backed up the silent highway to the Pontiac, loaded a CD (something appropriate for the mood and the scenery) into the boom box in the back seat, sat on the hood of the car with my back against the windshield and watched the sun blaze into the briny blue.

At this point, the mood for food came on with authority, so it was back over the Golden Gate and into Chinatown, which was fully open for business and fairly packed. I found a table and ordered a big dish of beef chow mein.

As for this particular slice of California, it’s been more than twenty years since I saw it last. Perhaps it looks quite different today, perhaps not. Stop by if you’re in the area and tell me what you see.

Note: These photos were shot on Ektachrome film with the only working camera I owned at the time, my grandfather’s vintage Argus C3 rangefinder, along with a handheld Weston Master II exposure meter.

Carl on the Rocks

Waving to you from the rim of this magnificent stone formation in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. I have now shown you all of the images from my September/October road trip. I hope you enjoyed riding along and seeing these pictures from the obscure corners of the US and Canada that I was able to explore on that long drive.

Of course, another long road trip will unwind this fall, though the dates and destinations have yet to be selected…

Free Range

Meanwhile, north of Colorado…
I’ve yet to share any of the photos that I shot in Wyoming back in September. Last autumn’s epic 8448-mile road trip brought me through central Wyoming for the first time; a shame it took me so long to visit the area, as this part of the state is a showcase of natural beauty. I hope to explore this region often in the years ahead.

I was able to spend one sunny day hiking across scenic BLM ground located in the western foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. As is the case with most land held by the BLM, only motorized vehicles must remain on marked trails; hikers and those riding horses may roam freely.

Certainly, more than 99% of the miles that I have hiked to date were logged on established trails. But I have been fortunate enough to walk through a handful of places in the world where off-trail travel is permitted, and those experiences bring a deeper level of satisfaction, as did this trek. It was quite special to be so close to these big, beautiful rock formations, and to be able to immerse myself in the silence and solitude to a degree that I could never attain in a crowded national park. In places like these, far away from the visible reminders of civilization, you can really sense the timelessness of the landscape.

I think I was being followed…