Sunday, September 22, 2013

Big Wide Wonderful World

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.

Hard to imagine saber-toothed tigers, too!

We spent the better part of the day walking along the various trails that led to ever more spectacular views. We saw the fossil beds, and hills that held 44 million-year-old rocks. We returned to the visitor's center for lunch, resting and cooling off in the shade of the few deciduous trees in the area. Then we drove back in among the hills to watch how the setting sun changed the look of the landscape. 

We camped a second night at Ochoco Lake. We talked at the campfire about this land formed of fire and ice and the impermanence of everything, even things as vast as volcanoes and glaciers. Time - such a tenuous concept - is still the great changer.


Brian Miller said...

wow absolutely beautiful...ha, this is just the beginning....what beauty to be surrounded with eh? i might have worn out the camera...smiles.

Laura said...

how extraordinarily beautiful!

Out on the prairie said...

I love these pics and info

Laura said...

thank you Pauline, you are too kind!

Tabor said...

While I have not been to this specific place I do enjoy traveling through the desert areas and actually seeing things in geological time.

Kerry said...

What a great trip. This is a place in Oregon that relatively few people visit. I think the Dodge camper must have felt luxurious in this rough country.

patteran said...

Majestic! Certainly beats the average 'came round the corner' natural wonder here!

Hilary said...

Wow.. it's stunningly beautiful and so true that it's hard to imagine that kind of time and the changes that have occurred.