We roused the kids early, fed everyone breakfast, and were rolling through the eastern Oregon desert by 8 am. We stopped first at the Mascall Formation Overlook. The Mascall layer is remarkable because it’s a 15 million year old section of rock made up of successive layers of volcanic ash (you know I love volcanoes) separated by floodplain activity. This formation spreads across a large area of Oregon and holds a wealth of fossils. The protected area of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument includes 20,000 square miles.
From there we could also see Picture Gorge, so named for the pictographs said to be on the walls of the canyon. I yearned to see the pictographs, but there didn’t appear to be any good place to pull off the highway, and there was no clear indication in brochures and signs of where the ancient art might be. And we had a truckload of teenagers dying to get home to their friends…
Those kids were so funny on this trip. Moan and groan at every opportunity, then enjoy every stop. We pulled up to the museum, and blam! They all disappeared into the exhibits, got excited about stuff, read the placards, pulled out drawers holding small fossils, and peered through the glass into the fossil laboratory co-located with the museum. “Mom! Check this out!” “Dad! Look at this!”
Like I said in the last post, Arno and I had never been to this part of Oregon before, and for me it was a surprise to discover what a wealth of fossil excavation and high-quality paleontology is going on right here in my back yard.
This part of Oregon holds one of the richest fossil beds on Earth, revealing a window into the Age of Mammals, in which ancient prehistoric critters battled out the circle of life in rich riverbeds and floodplains. The fossils here come from multiple eras dating back as far as 55 million years. There are remnants of early three-toed horses and rhinos, camels, elephants, and giant sloths. Early dogs, wolves, and cats are here, and crazy creatures like warthogs as big as bison. Tara and I were pleased to discover bones of ancient mouse-deer and bear-dogs, since they would fit perfectly into the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender or Korra.
Diego suggested a stop at Painted Hills, without being able to explain why. He had seen them the summer before, while at an OMSI camp. We were still trying to keep kids happy, and made a lunch stop there. The ranger at the museum had told us that all the trees growing in the park were particularly selected because they were relatives of the 30 million year old plant fossils retrieved from that very area. So cool!
After lunch we chose a couple trails and headed out to see the sights. Bravo Diego! The painted hills are wonderful! They are 33 million year old coloured clay hills that are somewhat beyond description with words. You’ll have to use the photos to see what I mean.
The hills are fragile and millions of years old, so one of our trails was on a boardwalk, to keep our reckless feet away from the precious resource. There were a couple places where we could see tracks across the mounds. Yes, the appeal of touching them is nearly irresistible, but resistance is not impossible. And I wished people could do a better job of restraining themselves (or their children or dogs).
We hit the highway again, and put the miles behind us. We had to screech to a halt when we spotted this beside the road.
North of Madras we had a lovely view of a whole string of volcanoes running north-south along the Cascade Range. Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, both above 10 thousand feet, then Mt. Hood above 11 thousand.
We came to an intersection that is a poignant reminder of one of the obstacles in our lives. A metaphor for Arno and me. Amidst the astounding beauty of this phenomenal place in the world, the sign says turn left for where Crystal lives, or turn right for where Arno lives. Before we met, Arno and I moved a lot. A LOT. We packed up our kids and dragged them all over the place. Before we met, we had each promised our eldest not to move anymore, so they could have a home in one spot till they were able to finish school. So we find ourselves today, 62 miles apart in a beautiful relationship, which is not impossible, but frustrating on some days. Miguel and Tara graduate in 2015, and Diego will still be in high school in Hood River. I’m already scanning the internet for homes for sale in Hood River!
Post Script: I had to soothe my curiosity and thus finally figured out the mystery of The Great and Powerful John Day. Who was this famous man? Ground-breaking paleontologist? Mining magnate? Politician from the pioneering days of the Oregon Trail? No, to all the above. Mr. Day left Virginia with a group heading for Astoria, Oregon to start a fur trading post on the coast. On the way he got lost and was helped by a band of Indians to find the Columbia River Gorge in late 1811. Not long after, a different band of Indians robbed him, taking even the clothes he was wearing. The scene of the robbery was the mouth of the Mah-hah River as it emptied into the Columbia. Mr. Day finally made it to Astoria and told his story. From then on, people pointed out the river and said, “That’s where John Day was stripped naked by the Indians.” Well, it eventually was known as the John Day River, instead of the Mah-hah. Meanwhile, far upstream, and many many years later, a national monument was named after the river that flowed through. As far as anyone can tell, John Day never came within 100 miles of the town of John Day, the fossil beds, or any of the other dozens of things named after him in the region.