Skies full of silver and gold
Try to hide the Sun
But it can’t be done
At least not for long
“No Place To Fall” by Townes Van Zandt
Skies full of silver and gold
Try to hide the Sun
But it can’t be done
At least not for long
“No Place To Fall” by Townes Van Zandt
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.
Here in the eastern US, I have never heard a coyote sing. But on my western road adventures, I’m lucky enough to hear them most evenings if I’m lodging in a rural setting. Happily, they always put on a show whenever I’m camping in the grasslands. They begin singing shortly after sundown, and the music usually surrounds me—one or more coyotes off to the left of camp, and others calling from my right. Lying alone in my tent, halfway between them, I often wonder if they’re talking about me.
So it was on that night last month when I slept in South Dakota’s Grand River National Grassland, a beautifully silent place to hike and camp. Once the coyotes began their chorus, I activated my phone’s audio recorder.
To give you something to look at while you’re listening, I’ve married the recording to this time-lapse video of the rising Harvest Moon, which I captured a few nights later in Wyoming. Note: You may want to send your dog or cat out of the room before you play this video…
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…
The Old Santa Fé Trail
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…
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.
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:
Corn Dog: Someone else was enjoying the ride with us that day….
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…
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.
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:
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…
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.)
After a visit to the top of the butte featured in last week’s post, I continued to roam the dusty roads of Grand River National Grassland. About nine miles to the northwest, I found these scenic buttes in a quieter, more natural section of the grassland where there are no fences, no visible signs of farming or ranching. The butte on the left looked to be the tallest of the bunch, so I decided to visit that summit. Starting out from the Pontiac, I walked past the remains of a cottonwood tree that struggled for many years to survive in this arid land…
Gaining elevation quickly, climbing through the shade of the steep eastern slope…
Just about out of the butte’s shadow as I near the top…
View from the rocky summit. Some nice flat stone there, though I didn’t stand on it as it seemed rather unstable; note that you can look through that hollow area beneath the slab and see the grass down the slope…
You can follow this link to Vimeo and enjoy the scenery from two locations—the first part of the video was taken at road level and the second part shows the view from the top of the butte. (Video duration is 62 seconds.)
I imagine the darkness here is incredible. I definitely want to return to this desolate area and stay through the night, listening to the coyotes and enjoying the blazing stars.
Next week…a butte in North Dakota.
Perhaps having lived in flat farm country for so many decades is the reason I’m driven to climb every hill that I see. During October’s tour of nine National Grasslands, I’m happy to report that I ascended more buttes than on any previous fall excursion.
Despite numerous journeys through South Dakota over the years, there is one grassland that somehow escaped my notice until 2018—Grand River National Grassland in the northwestern corner of the state. Rolling northward through this grassland on a sunny autumn day, I came upon a nice hill very close to the road. I’m always happy to add another summit to my list, even if it’s an unnamed peak and an easy climb. So I turned left, parked on the shoulder and began my march to the top of this butte…
Butte? That’s what I call the many hills of this size and shape that are scattered across the Great Plains. True, they don’t resemble the classic vision of a butte—those towering red-rock formations with vertical sides and a flat top. Perhaps these buttes of the prairie are made of softer material and have eroded more quickly. Call them hills, call them peaks…I’m not looking for a debate on the topic. I’ll just say that many of these hills are labeled as buttes on maps, such as the Dog Ear Buttes, which I climbed in 2017, and White Butte, seen in the photo below, which lies just to the southwest of this summit. I’ll pay a visit to the top of White Butte on my next trip to the area…
As a special bonus to this ascent, I enjoyed a little western flavor while I hiked, watching a small cattle drive as it approached from the east. In this photo, the lead cowboy is well out front, just approaching my parked car. Behind him are twenty or so head of cattle, with the other two cowboys bringing up the rear. It was fun to watch them glide slowly and rather silently down the dusty road. No one stopped to sniff the Pontiac…
Near the butte’s summit, I was intrigued by this collection of large boulders; oddly round, rather brittle in nature and spotted with bright orange lichen. Have to wonder how these rocks got here…
You can follow this link to Vimeo and watch a slow 360° rotation atop the summit. (Video duration is 55 seconds.) This was only the first climb of the day; I’ll have more butte stories for you in the weeks ahead.