Airstream Adventures: The Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds

Jumping for joy in the Painted Hills
by Kevin Max


This kind of trip is well-suited for mothers-in-law who are fascinated by bursts of color, and their grandkids, who are consumed by surges of energy. No longer distracted by work and raising kids, grandparents can look the Medusa of time square in the face and not turn to stone. Painted Hills and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are a theater for the Cenozoic Age and a remote national treasure.

Painted Hills is a geologic coloring book which turns out to be a perfect teaching platform for students and a gaping wonder for mothers-in-law whose aesthetics are modeled on hanging flower baskets. “Look at that hanging basket!”

About 10 miles northwest of the small Eastern Oregon town of Mitchell, Painted Hills is one venue of the three-piece National Monument that includes the Clarno and Sheep Rock units—replete with ancient fossils, colored bands of former lake-bed sediments and spring wildflowers. Easy, short and paved trails finger out from all of these sites along paths that appear to be more psychedelic time travel than geologic windows into climate change. Cameras and a hanging-basket sense of wonder are requisite.

We found two RV parks in Dayville, a little more than 40 miles past Painted Hills. Oh, but the drive! The heather greens, the weathered browns and the soaring blues of water and sky converge in the aptly named Picture Gorge just west of Dayville.

The South Fork RV Camp cuddles up to the south fork of the John Day River. We’re lucky to have site #5, which backs onto a pleasant riffle that soothes the sheep across the river and behind thick hedges. The hushing also helps us count sheep over the nasal barnyard noises coming from the elderly sleeping quarters. Dinner was gourmet chicken sausage from Otto’s, a new take on an American classic. The pairing of a Barley Brown’s Point Blank Red brought just the right balance and color to the meal.

Morning in Dayville began with a cold drizzle and a low tolerance for discomfort. “Dad, don’t be a wimp!” one daughter poked. Kids have no corporal thermostat and so don’t truly understand the basis for my protest. I hoped to find an ally in my often “it’s too co-wald” mother in-law, in warm bedclothes and sipping coffee. Nay. The ayes have it and out we go, trailing up along rural Cummings Ditch and tails of smoke coming from small farmhouses along South Fork Road Grant Co No. 42.

There aren’t many options for breakfast in Dayville, population 145. Truth is, you only need the Dayville Café, a country wooden box with a menu drawn from local ranches—local beef from Painted Hills and the kind of house-made corned beef hash that put Cheshire grins on fat commissioners at county fairs. “We prep for four hours, work for twelve hours, clean for two hours and repeat,” our server said. That passion is any diner’s reward.

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center about 10 miles northwest of Dayville is a high desert oasis of science and education. The 11,000-square-foot state-of-the-art classroom offers visual learners good answers to questions about species, evolution, climate change and cataclysmic events. The portfolio of fossils here is a stunning array from camels that roamed a desert landscape to hippopotami that lumbered out of ancient lakes.

Newly informed of ancient times, we’re on the road again, winding back west on Highway 26 and into present day, where my mother in-law is in the back seat contentedly reading roadside signs aloud just loud enough to overhear. “Mmm. Curves ahead. Ochoco National Forest.”


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