The weather forecast looked good enough. High temperatures near 60 degrees and the red flag fire warning that often accompanies that kind of warmth in December.
My departure was necessarily spur-of-the-moment, because I was waiting on the weather. When it came, I threw my camp stove, 5 gallons of water, freeze dried backpacking meals, a head lamp, book, coats and an extra down sleeping bag and comforter into the truck.
Also included was my rifle, which, in the broadest sense, was the reason behind the trip. I had a late season pronghorn license for several game management units in the extreme southeastern part of the state. The rifle gave me the purpose to get out the door, but I didn't really have time for a proper hunt. I'd drive around the back roads of the Comanche National Grasslands with it placed safely behind the truck seat or shoulder it when I got out to look for tracks, but my real purpose was to just get out of town, drive long distances, think and camp under the stars.
I live in a town situated in a bowl surrounded by hills and higher mountains to the west. The sun goes down early this time of year, and the long nights have bothered me more than usual. I thought a night under the big sky might be restorative. There was also something old-timey, even a little romantic, about camping out alone on the prairie just a few days before the winter solstice.
So, I made my way south to the grasslands, making sure I didn't travel too quickly and stopping for Mexican food along the way. In Springfield, I pulled in to the U.S. Forest Service Ranger Station to get an idea on where to camp and if there were any pronghorns to be seen. The advice for camping was solid and, as to the pronghorns, I got the answer I expected. They are where you see them.
I drove around looking for cut up country thinking if I saw animals I might have a chance to sneak them. I stopped at windmills and looked for sign. The sun was bright and it was shirt-sleeve warm out. Eventually, I decided to go back to the only windmill where I'd seen tracks. There was no way for me to know how old they were, but I figured I would make camp nearby and walk around toward evening.
I did that and didn't see any animals. At one point, I just sat down and watched. The sun dipped below the horizon as I walked back to the truck. That's when I got the wintertime wake-up call. It felt like someone just turned the heat off. Every bit of warmth that the daylight held ceased. It was more than just turning off the heat; it was like someone turned on the freezer. I was shivering when I got back to the truck.
I hadn't brought firewood along and there was none to gather. Besides, it was a red flag fire day with the wind picking up, so I wouldn't chance a fire anyway. By 5 o'clock it was cold, clear, breezy and pretty much dark. I didn't have a tent to set up because I was going to sleep under the stars. In the meantime, I grabbed a few blankets, bundled up and sat out of the wind in the passenger seat of the truck. I wasn't quite warm.
It would be a long night. I thought this relentless darkness must be the reason primitive people took such care to recognize and celebrate the return of the light at the solstice. I passed some time listening to the AM radio. The darker it got the farther the radio reached out. I listened to New Orleans, Indianapolis and a Minnesota outdoor program where two old guys talked in depth about the absurdity of buying an aspiring 12-year old hunter a .410 shotgun which he/she probably won't be able to hit anything with when you could buy him/her a 20 gauge shotgun.
There was conjunto tejano music from Texas that made me long for Diana Kennedy's Puerco en Abodo recipe that in the first edition of her classic, "The Art of Mexican Cooking," called for 10 tablespoons of lard. That's the kind of food that turns your body into a furnace and warms you up. A later edition of the book cut the lard back to 4 tablespoons.
I had to settle on boiling some water to reconstitute my freeze-dried sweet and sour pork dinner that night. I was glad for it just the same because it was something warm. Later, I tried reading to pass some time, but it was hard turning book pages with gloves on.
When I ventured outside the truck I marveled at the Milky Way in a shivery kind of way. I must have been out of the Denver flight paths because I only saw a plane or two pass over and they were high up. There were some lights on the horizon, which I figured might be Campo or Springfield, but they were far away. Once in a while I spotted headlights weaving their way along a distant road. It was a lonely business camping out there.
Just before bedtime I decided that it was too windy and cold to sleep on the ground. I'd sleep in the back of the pickup truck. In a furious burst of activity I unloaded everything, but the bedding. I used a blanket sleeping bag and an old Army down sleeping bag I keep in the truck, plus the down comforter and sleeping bag I'd brought along to build a 3-foot high sleeping nest. I put my fleece long johns on before I crawled in. I'd made it until 8:30 p.m. All I could think was I'd probably be too hot and I'd wake up ready to go at 4 a.m.
I was wrong. I slept straight through until 7:30 the next morning. The sun was up, and the day was on its way to being warm. I thought maybe I needed that long, cold night alone to appreciate my friends at home and to realize the promise the New Year always brings.
Check EdEngleFlyFishing.com to see Ed Engle's blog, "The Lone Angler Journal."