Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota
Whenever I’m in the vicinity of Culberson County, it’s a sure bet that I’ll be making several trips up and down all 55 miles of my favorite highway, Texas State Highway 54. During my most recent visit, I decided to see how it looked in the twilight of dawn. So, I rolled out of Van Horn while it was still dark and drove north, enjoying, as usual, the complete absence of other vehicles.
Texas 54 terminates at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, the highest terrain in the state. It was wonderful to see the mountains aglow as the sun cracked the horizon.
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.