|35 million years in the making.|
B was trying to explain the nature of the Painted Hills as we jolted along a gravel road. We had come down out of the fir forests and lakes to an arid stretch of land bordered by the ever-present volcanic peaks when we came round a corner and I saw this:
|My first glimpse of the painted hills.|
"Stop!" I yelled and he laughed, bringing the van to a halt. I jumped out and snapped a photo. "That's fabulous," I said, climbing back into the van.
"This is just the beginning," he promised.
And it was. Every turn we took showed more of the huge mounds formed over the last 35 million years by volcanic eruptions and a subsequently changing climate. At one time this land was a vast river floodplain populated with prehistoric animals - horses, elephants, saber-toothed tigers, and camels (!), and lush with tropical plants and trees. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument occupies a part of the area where, in 1864, amateur geologist Thomas Condon unearthed the first fossils. Since then paleontologists have been mining the region for them. The oldest plant and mammal fossils date back 44 million years. Others have been dated to about 7 million years ago. The river basin was once home to the Sahaptin, hunter/gatherer peoples who occupied the land long before the arrival of the first Europeans.
The sun was omnipresent and hot. I carried an umbrella for protection and shade. We stirred dust with every footstep.
The first trail took us to a visitor's shelter where we could sit and look out over the vast expanse of valley that led to the toes of the giant clay hills, each with its own striped bands of color - the black of lignite formed by decaying vegetation, red and orange from mineral deposits, gray from stone deposits.
Below is one of the signs posted along the interpretive trails we walked. It's impossible to imagine this land as a tropical forest as the bottom picture illustrates.