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The Blue Basin is named for obvious reasons: the clay formations here are not only beautiful, but blue and green.

We had a busy day of exploration planned, so we left early after the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Condon to get started on day three of our series of mini road trips. Our first stop was Blue Basin. I had hiked Blue Basin last year during the eclipse, and knew it was worth another visit.

The sun was beating down, but we grabbed some water, Vlad grabbed his hat, and off we went. The most remarkable thing to the casual viewer is the colour of the canyon. I was told that it’s most stunning during a rain, and I believe that. Just imagine the bright colours if the picturesque cliffs here were wet.

An easy, well-maintained path leads 1.3 miles to a great overlook.

Along the path we saw a green stream. I put my hand in the water and confirmed it is clay – that slimy feel – that is the sediment clouding the water.

Also along the trail are replicas of fossils found in this area.

Even the dry clay is distinctly blue-green.

The blue is more noticeable next to the reds from oxidization.

We were only a short drive from the gorgeous Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. It was built in 2005 and named after an Oregon scientist who recognized the value of this fossil collection in the 19th century. It is an impressive, modern museum and information center for visitors, as well as an active research center (with windows so you can watch paleontologists at work!). It’s in the middle of No Where Oregon. I’m serious. Part of the reason I love this place is the impressive quality of the facility in a place where there are very few people and the local economy struggles. Thank you thank you to the entity/grant/taxes/ whatever-it-was that made it possible for this facility to be built. It’s top notch.

And it’s certainly money well spent. By geologic and climactic chance, this region reveals 40 million years of fossils in one spot. Yes, fossils have been found here as old as 44 million years old, and fossils as new as 7 million years old, and lots of stuff in between. What an incredibly valuable resource to be able to track the change over time. In fact, fossil collections around the world that span only a couple million years will send samples here for comparison and confirmation of age. This period is after the dinosaurs, with tropical plants like avocados and animals like three-toed horses.

A fossil display of a three-toed foot inside the museum.

The Dawn Sequoia, which still grows in the US today.

For Maureen who loves fossils: a 44 million year old cicada.

We arrived at the Paleontology Center as a ranger was beginning his talk. He explained the significance of the place, and how it was found after erosion exposed the fossils and locals began talking about it. It was a famous place for awhile, and scientists flocked here to excavate and collect. He passed fossils around while he talked, so we could handle them.

View from the Paleontology Center

Ranger tells us about the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

I got to hold leaf fossils. In my hand!

After the talk we went inside and explored the museum, watched a movie, and spied on the research facilities. We went out to the Jeep again to hit the road and hit the next stop.

Ok. Disclaimer. I love the Painted Hills. I’m telling you: such wonderful photographic opportunities. So I’m just gonna post a string of photos, and you’re going to deal with it.

The view from the summit of a short hike.

The colours and formations are simply stunning. And otherworldly.

Vlad and I are former weather forecasters, so we got very excited when some afternoon thunderstorms began.

Here you are, Derrick: flower shots.

Flowers in the desert.

At the Painted Hills, boardwalks are installed to help people resist the temptation to walk on the hills.

The colours along the trail include, red, yellow, and even lavender.

The red comes from oxidization.

Are we on Mars?

Up close, the hills are even more interesting.

Is this not fascinating? Vlad wondered why there is no vegetation on the hills. There was no ranger on site to ask.

Contrasts between green and red were intriguing.

By this time it was late in the afternoon and we were ready for home. We left and drove through thunder, lightning, and downpours for much of the return journey. As any proper forecaster would be: we were both delighted.

Trail heads into Blue Basin

After the cheers died down and a few vehicles sped off to beat the post-eclipse crowds, I said goodbye to all my brand-new eclipse friends and wished them a safe trip home to Seattle, and Portland, and Calgary, and Providence, Hartford, and Albany. (See my eclipse  2017 post here.) Curiously, of all the people I met, they seemed to mostly hail from either the Pacific Northwest, or New England – opposite sides of the continent.

I had been out of cell range since the previous afternoon, and had merely a sense of where I was headed, based on a map in a newspaper that a woman in a museum had shown me the day before. I had the south-bound road to myself. “Yes! All you eclipse tourists just head on home and clear the roads for me, will you?” I thought as they passed me, heading north. There are few roads and I was not concerned about getting lost.

The eclipse-altered temperature continued to drop as I drove, and could see the temperature display in the Jeep. It dropped from 78 degrees at 10am to 64 degrees by about 11am before it began quickly warming again. I didn’t believe the readout at first, but realized that also happens at dawn: though the sun has finally come up, the morning temperatures will continue to fall until the power of the sun finally overrides the cooling.

I stopped along the way to take a photo of a bluff with striations of different colours, showing up brightly in the strengthening sunlight.

Colourful stripes of earth exposed in the side of a bluff above the John Day River.

Feeling the welding glass still in my pocket, I pulled it out and took another look at the sun. True, it had not been that long since I had stood on the side of the road and watched the eclipse, but it was still surprising to see the sun only 2/3 visible. People were driving, or still on the side of the road, chatting. It was hard to believe how calm we all were, considering the scientific marvel going on right above our heads. I gaped at it a little more, then got back into the Jeep.

In no time I found the parking lot for the Blue Basin trails. It was full of cars and after I parked, I joined a few others who continued to steal glances at our partially obscured sun. Then, in the swelling heat of late morning, I grabbed a water bottle and began hiking the Overlook trail.

Sights along the Blue Basin Overlook Trail.

A mostly dry creek bed wound through the bottom of the canyon, wet here and there where weak springs surfaced.

Fossils found in the area were displayed to help us imagine what they were like when found.

The draw here is the blue-green clay and weathered formations that tower up from the trail. As we were near the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, it was not surprising but still delightful to find fossils installed along the trail to help us imagine the canyon in a different time. The fossils were only replicas of what had been found there.

A layer of the blue-green clay soil.

Earth and sky

The shapes of eroded soils were also fascinating.

My Brandeis T-shirt drew an unexpectedly high number of conversations with people who were also Alumni of the school, or had connections to the school.

The blue and green colours showed everywhere, and were most noticeable when I could contrast them with more familiar colours like the golden grasses and rust of mineral-rich soils. I tried to find brighter blues in the few damp areas of the small springs there, but there were no clear examples. My guess is that this canyon is even more remarkable in the rain, which would likely bring out those unexpected hues.

I imagined that sufficient time had passed to allow people to get on their way toward home, and decided I could begin my trip back. I knew the traffic would be worse Monday afternoon than it had been on Sunday, and I wanted to allow myself enough time to get home at a reasonable hour for a full night’s sleep.

Making my slow trip home with all the other eclipse-viewers.

I stopped beside the John Day River (you can see it’s larger here, farther down stream) for a leisurely lunch with my feet in the water. It was 100 degrees.

In an hour or so, I was crawling along the road at 8 miles per hour with hundreds of others who had delayed their return, just like me. My attempts at being uniquely clever were dismayed every time on this eclipse trip. I guess the odds of coming up with an original idea are reduced when there are thousands of others seeking eclipse totality with you! 😉

I did finally make it home by 9pm, which was acceptable. Interstate 5 was still pretty crowded when I got to it, so I took the smaller Highway 30 to get home to Rainier and avoided all the Seattle eclipse-viewers who were heading north still, 10 hours after the eclipse. I heard horror stories of missed flights and 2-hour journeys taking 8 hours instead. So I missed the worst of it, and remained in high spirits all day long.

Twilight at 10:30am on Monday.

I drove into the path of totality on Monday, to experience the much-advertised total solar eclipse. The eclipse was remarkable in that it passed from the west coast of the US to the east coast, though the fervor of the buildup to Eclipse Day 2017 was unparalleled to any space/stars/meteor shower I  have yet seen. The result of said fervor is that everybody and their dog was headed either south, or north, on Interstate-5, to get to the area around Salem, the capitol city of the state of Oregon. Salem was smack in middle of the path of totality, and one of the first places on the continent to see the eclipse.

Thus, I chose a different route.

I gauged that central Oregon – typically some of the most desolate landscape of the country – would be less of a destination. I was right to some degree, having to share that part of the world only with other people who had chosen it for the same reason. Because let’s face it: people were everywhere within the path of totality on Monday.

A Canadian eclipse-viewer stops for gas and cleans the windshield. His pup was along for the ride.

I passed through vast areas of wind farms. These things always make me think of a science fiction story.

As I have told you a hundred times, I’m a very busy person. The result in this case was that I had not made time to plan other than to get approval to take the day off from work. I had no eclipse glasses, no hotel or campground reservations, no destination in mind, and only a rough idea of where the path of totality would be.

Friday before the eclipse, as my workday was winding down, I started searching on the Internet for where to get those coveted glasses. And they were nowhere!! Everyone sold out & Ebay filled with $200 glasses that their owners had purchased for $12 a month earlier. I gave up and decided just being in the area would be wonderful enough. Fortunately, a friend was thinking of me, and while he couldn’t find eclipse glasses either, bought welding glass for himself and his friends.

Sunday morning I was delighted to find that traffic was a breeze. I was expecting Eclipsageddon on the highways. As I drew closer to the path of totality, the traffic picked up enough that I was certain it was eclipse-related. I could not stop myself from thinking that every time I had been in this region before, I felt like I was the only person in the world. It is that desolate. But that weekend was different.

Heading south. Clearly we all have the same thing in mind. I giggled to myself about the famous Oregon driver politeness. Look at how courteous we all are here, giving plenty of space between each vehicle. This behavior makes East Coast visitors go friggin mad with frustration.

Further south the views became more beautiful to me.

Oregon’s path of totality. (image courtesy NASA) The star is where I live. The arrow points to my campsite.

OK, quick refresher for anyone who wants it: the “path of totality” is the path in which the eclipse is total. That means the moon fits perfectly in front of the sun for at least a few seconds. I guess the path is 70-80 miles across. At the center of that swath, the length of totality was 2 1/2 minutes long, and shorter as you moved toward the outside edge of it. I snagged a map (shown above) from the NASA website, and chose a place to head for.

I stopped in the adorable town of Condon, just outside the path, and I relaxed. It’s amusing in retrospect, but after a month of run-for-your-lives! warnings on every media source, including my employer’s mandate that all employees must work at home on Monday, to avoid driving, I was filled with anxiety. In reality, I made it with no hiccups whatsoever. I chalk it up to 1) heading for a typically desolate area, 2) heading in Sunday instead of Monday, and 3) the fact that eclipse viewers had been trickling in for the past week, so the full population was not impacting the highways on the way in.

Mainstreet of Condon, Oregon

Museum inside the Veteran’s building in Condon

Condon was well-prepared for the eclipse tourists. The tiny town looked like it had been scrubbed from top to bottom. Buildings painted, streets swept, flower baskets out, windows washed, colorful banners up and welcome signs everywhere. I pulled to a stop across from a Veterans Memorial building, and thought I would stretch my legs in there, and see what was inside. To my delight, the space was being used as an art museum, displaying works from local painters and photographers. It was quiet and cool and had a bathroom! I lingered in front of one collection from a single artist, and the woman managing the place came up behind me and asked if I had ever been there: the canyon depicted in the paintings. I had not. She introduced herself as the artist and said that Blue Basin, within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was her favourite place in the region. As long as I was there anyway, she insisted I try to walk the trails there. Just as I was about to ask about potential for camping, she noted that all the public trails would be closed for the eclipse.

I went directly south, through Fossil, Oregon and then east. I discovered that I had left the Internet and cell service behind in Condon, so I was on my own out there in the wild. Remarkably, my GPS sort of worked, and I found a National Forest nearby. I thought, “I’m a taxpayer; it’s my forest too!” And drove up into the hills and found a flat spot and pitched my tent. Throughout the evening, more people trickled in, clearly others as brilliant (and procrastinating) as myself!

Some entrepreneurs thought to rent out space in their fields after getting the hay in. This farm was charging people to set up tents and trailers. If you click the image, you’ll be able to see them in the distance.

Closer shot. There were already hundreds of campers by mid-afternoon. I’ll bet the population was enormous by midnight. I hope the ranchers made a mint!!

National Forests are for everyone!

Watching the sun go down from inside my tent. The murky skies eventually turned into a spectacular sunset.

All day long the skies were worrisome. We’ve had a record-breaking wildfire season (every new summer breaks a new record…sigh.) and smoke was blowing in from fires in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The orange-brown particles obscured the views in every direction. Even more distressing were the cirrus clouds that heralded a change in weather (remember I was a forecaster in my former life). As evening drew nigh, low-level grey clouds thickened and spread across the sky. It began to look like rain.

Miraculously, the sky was spotless blue in the morning. Even the smoke from the fires had cooled and settled into the valleys, leaving the sky above as perfect as any of us could have wished for.

On the way in I had spied a promising high point along the road, with views in all directions. Wide open, beautiful, accessible. In the morning, I packed everything up, and headed back the way I had come, in order to put myself at that spot at about 9:30am. I worried about police coming along and telling me not to park on the side of the road, but I was determined to do it anyway. Imagine my surprise when I found dozens of vehicles already parked where I was headed. I merely found a spot in the midst of the crowd. Again, my bewildered brain recalled that I had been on this road before, and it was not unusual to drive an hour and not see another vehicle.

Eclipse-gazers line both sides of the highway on this curve in the road. If I showed you the view to my right, you would see an equal number of cars in that direction. The hills you see are where I camped.

I walked around taking photos to kill time. I met a photographer who had drool-worthy equipment and had thought to purchase a sun filter so she could photograph the sun safely. I met families with bouncy squealing children, and aging hippies, and science nerds and adventurous twenty-somethings. We all loved each other for being excited about the same event. We were all instantly friendly, trusting, generous. No vehicles were locked, and many doors were wide open with expensive camera equipment and wallets and sunglasses on the seats, available for the taking if any of us wasn’t so filled with joy and love. One family asked if I had eclipse glasses, and I said I did not, and they instantly brought me a spare pair from the truck.

“What were you going to do without glasses?” they asked with genuine concern.

“I have welding glass. Shade 13. It’ll be just fine.” I said to their skeptical faces.

To back up my confident statement, I pulled out my glass and held it in front of my eyes and turned to the sun. And gasped! There was a black disc obscuring 1/4 of the sun. “IT’S ALREADY STARTED!!!!” I yelped. And others, who had calmly discovered this before me, smiled and agreed that it had already started.

Totality was scheduled to begin at 10:22 am, and until then we kept our bubbling enthusiasm under control. I was wearing a Brandeis T-shirt, and was approached by multiple people with affiliations with the school, or who were alumni. That was fun. A couple from Rhode Island complained about the slow and polite Oregon drivers. I spent most of my time with one family from Seattle. Mom chatting with me and Dad constantly hollering at his little girls to put their eclipse glasses back on. They had a white sheet on the ground to capture some mystical phenomena they had heard about. The photographer lady from earlier discovered that she could make a pinhole viewer with her hand, and came over to ask if she and her husband could use the sheet. Once the kids spotted that, everyone wanted to make tiny eclipses with their hands. All the adults tried it too. A woman passing by saw what we were doing and said that she had just passed a tree, and there were a thousand tiny pinhole eclipses cast across the ground by the leaf shadows.

The gorgeous farm next to where I parked.

Playing with different views of thistles and fields. You can see the wildfire smoke beginning to rise with the heat of the day, in the background.

Seattle dad and one of the kids on her back – yes, with her glasses in place.

Making pinhole eclipse-viewers on a sheet.

Here, this one is easier to see. Cool, huh?

And then it became evident that something was happening. The temperature dropped and the light became….odd. It felt like sunset, but my body and brain knew it was morning. I didn’t notice any changes in animals, but had not noticed any animals earlier either. There were no cows or horses close enough to watch, and no crickets. So all we had to notice was the light. And each other. We constantly looked at the sun, then looked at the land. It is truly astonishing how bright it is outside with only a sliver of sun left. All it takes is one tiny bit of that orb to light up our entire world. I snapped a few photos.

Almost totality. What a curious light.

Photographer and her husband.

And then, blam! A distinct change in light and temperature. One man said he was hoping to watch the shadow fly across the land, and I think that would have been cool to see. But it happened too fast. In an instant, we were in totality.

The place we stood probably afforded us only 1 1/2 minutes of the darkest skies. I have to admit: I was envisioning complete blackness; the Milky Way and everything. But no it was not that. It got dark though. We saw stars – or more likely, planets – but only the brightest of them. The light was indescribable, and my photos do not capture it, as my camera is brilliant at sucking in all available light and making things show up better in the photo than in real life.

I think this photo best shows the quality of the light. It was darker than this, but I think you can tell by looking at this that it was an odd light.

My only heartbreak of the day: I did not know you could look at the sun during totality. No one had said this in any of the videos or articles I read beforehand. During totality, the light was too dim to show up through the glass or the eclipse glasses, so with nothing to look at, I dropped my gaze to the ground, and pretty much stared at the ground for the entire period, trying to protect my eyes from instant vaporization – or whatever the fanatical warnings were all about. NEVER NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN DURING AN ECLIPSE! OR YOU WILL DIE! Thankfully, as I moved my gaze away, I accidentally caught a split-second glimpse of it. And it was AWESOME. It was everything you could ever imagine. So unreal, and even in that brief amount of time, burned into my memory clearly.

As the period of darkness ended, and the world lit up again, all the people cheered and clapped. That was fun. The kids squealed about the waves of light shimmering across the sheet, as we had also seen at the very beginning of totality. I was still exhaling and letting some of the awe and astonishment fade, when a couple of cars zoomed off along the highway. They were getting out ahead of the crowds.

I had the opposite plan. My plan was to dally. Rather than head north like everyone else, I decided to head south and see if I could find that canyon that the museum lady talked about.

{This got really long. Sorry about that. I’ll post a part II so I can tell you about Blue Basin and the trip home.}

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