Rocks and Ruins
Sep 9, 2010
|Picking right up where we left off (well, sort of), we left Pendleton about 2:00 in the afternoon, very late for us, but we were just happy to have a functioning truck. The rain that had been flirting around the edges of the skies as we left Pendleton became a full reality before we were an hour out of town. We were driving through the Blue Mountains – not particularly high, but fairly continuously curvy and hilly, so the rain caused us to slow down a bit. We were also somewhat concerned about the repaired tire, since we hadn’t been at the tire store when it was fixed so we didn’t really know that they had thoroughly checked it to be sure there wasn’t any further damage. Our tire pressure monitor was giving us inconsistent readings, so we stopped a couple of times to check it with a tire gauge. After the pressure continued to check out fine, we decided the sensor wasn’t seating properly on the new valve stem and – mostly – forgot about it.
It was a beautiful drive, alternating between forested mountains and fertile valleys. There were no towns of any substance, but lots of farms with harvested fields, grazing animals (there sure are a lot of horses in this area!) and the occasional tiny hamlet with an interesting name (Fox, for example). The clouds were billowing, black and sometimes looming – at one point when we were driving through a canyon, with high walls on either side of us and a huge black cloud above that felt like it was just a few feet above the canyon walls, I actually got a little claustrophobic! And since it was later in the afternoon than we usually travel, the changing and warming light made the clouds – and the fields along the road – an ever-changing show of color and texture. Lots of good stuff, in other words, to take our minds off the tire problems!
Our objective was the small town of John Day, Oregon. Mostly we picked it because it was a comfortable drive from Pendleton (and a good thing, given our late start) but we also knew the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was nearby and we had heard good things about the area from a couple of people. We arrived at the Grant County Fairgrounds RV Park which was another pleasant surprise. You never know with this kind of place whether it will be a parking lot or an open field – this one was neither. It was a nice, quiet, mostly shaded, creek-side park, with full hook-ups and nice large sites. And, as a bonus, in spite of the shade trees, there was enough open area at our site that our internet and TV satellites both worked like a charm. What more can you ask for? Oh, and with deer that wandered through in the evening!
In case you’re wondering, the town of John Day is named for the John Day River, which runs through most of this part of the state. The river was named for a Virginian hunter and fur trapper, who was apparently abandoned by his colleagues in the 1811 Astor Expedition who thought he was mad. He had been robbed and left, stripped naked, (that would drive anyone mad!) near the mouth of the river that was later named for him. He never set foot, naked or otherwise, in the town of John Day.
So, back to the present. The rain continued into the next day but we decided to check out the Kam Wah Chung historical site near the campground (well, actually, everything in John Day is near the campground). When we got there we discovered that the only way to see inside the building was with a guided tour, which began at the visitor center, a couple of blocks away. We didn’t really want to walk back there, so decided to pass on the tour, but as we headed for the truck, here came the tour! We asked if we could join and were welcomed in (there were only four people).
Chinese workers came to the John Day area (actually to nearby Canyon City) to work in the gold mines that were flourishing around there in the late 1800’s. After experiencing significant discrimination and basically being run out of Canyon City, they settled in one section of John Day, where they were segregated and still subject to discrimination and abuse, but were allowed to stay. Ing “Doc” Hay, a traditionally-trained herbalist physician, and Lung On, an enterprising and respected merchant with many business interests in the area, set up the Kam Wah Chung Co. general store and apothecary in a building that had originally been a trading post. Over the years Kam Wah Chung became an important commercial, social and religious center of the Chinese community (there’s an “all purpose” altar to accommodate the many religions practiced by the Chinese). The business continued to flourish even after many of the Chinese died or left after the gold-mining and other enterprises that would hire them went out of business. Doc Hay was so respected as a practitioner of Eastern medicine that he was consulted by many of the American citizens of the area, even though he spoke little English.
Eventually Lung On died and Doc Hay remained alone in the store until his death in 1952. He willed the building to the town of John Hay, but gradually everyone forgot about it until the town wanted to tear down whatever remained of the once-flourishing Chinatown to build a park. Since the Kam Wah Chung building was in pretty good shape and had been an important part of the community it was decided to restore it and keep it as a museum. Most of the contents remain today as they were when Doc Hay left it just before he died. Some things have apparently disappeared over the years, but there is a remarkable collection of original contents, both of the store and the apothecary. It’s quite small, but we had an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, so we had a great time looking around and hearing the story of these two remarkable men. Truly a “hidden gem”!
From there we went back up the road we had traveled down the day before – I had persuaded Ian to drive me back up to take some more pictures in and around the little town of Fox, about 20 miles up the road, where there were lots of abandoned houses and barns and we hadn’t been able to stop on our way in. The on-and-off rain made for interesting clouds and nice light when the sun would find a break in the clouds, so that was an added bonus in a “target-rich environment”!
Our second day we drove out to the John Day Fossil Beds. There are three units of the National Monument, only two of which we visited: the Sheep Rock Unit and the Painted Hills. The Sheep Rock Unit is about 35 miles from the town of John Day and, following the “scenic route” cross country, the Painted Hills Unit is another 75 miles. Adding on the 70-some miles to drive back to John Day, it was a long day of driving, but well worth it. The third unit would have added another 60 or so miles and several hours, so we elected to forego it.
I’ll say right up front that, although Ian is fascinated and fairly knowledgeable, geology and fossils are not high on my list of interests. Geology was my absolute (by a wide margin) worst subject in college and I generally like people in my history! But even I was impressed by the visitor center (technically the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center) – it’s fairly new, a lovely “green” building, and has the usual short informative film and a really great exhibit of fossils found in the area, along with information about the early inhabitants and their environs. But (and this is where it’s different) it also has a viewing window into an actual working lab with a camera broadcasting to a screen outside in the lobby an enlarged picture of what the technician is working on. I couldn’t really see much happening other than that she was scraping some rock off – very carefully and slowly – but it was interesting to watch. They have a number of paleontologists who work here year-round. Some are permanent and a few are seasonal, so if you're a paleontologist looking for a summer job . . . you probably already know this!
For 150 years or so paleontologists have been unearthing fossils in this area and they know there are many many more that are undiscovered (fossils, not paleontologists). The unique geological history (you don’t really expect me to go into detail about this, do you? Remember my college performance . . . .) of the region has left one of the longest and most continuous records of evolutionary change in the world. Because there are regular layers of “tuff”, or compacted volcanic ash, that can be dated with a fair degree of accuracy (give or take a million years or so – mere seconds in geologic time), paleontologists working in the area have been able to compile a comprehensive timeline, supported by the more than 50,000 fossil specimens, representing over 2200 species of plants and animals, found in the area. Impressive, huh?
We drove from the visitor center to the area known as Blue Basin, to see the badlands consisting of bluish-green rocks not found elsewhere in the park. We took the 1+ mile trail into the actual “basin”, stopping along the way to look at the replica fossils (they don’t leave the real things just lying around on a trail) and admiring the rock formations. Unfortunately it was pretty much high noon when we were there, so many of my pictures are too washed out to show the colors, but I was able to get a couple – I love the blue rocks!
From there we proceeded on the “driving tour” provided by the visitor center, along with commentary on sites along the way – 75 or so miles along a back road that quickly runs out of the actual National Monument area and through widely scattered farm lands in the shadow of huge rock formations. Along this area a lot of what we saw were huge basalt (black rock) formations that look like irregular and squared-off columns. They REALLY weren’t photographable in the bright sunlight (where were the clouds we’d been having for several days, anyway?) but I did include one that gives you sort of an idea. They were impressive.
After several hours of driving, and stopping along the way occasionally to look at particularly interesting formations, we got to the Painted Hills. This, frankly, had been my objective all day – to get there late in the day so that the evening light would intensify the colors. And, man, did it! There were a couple of short hiking trails that we explored, marveling at every turn at the colors and sensuous, gently folded hills we were seeing. Our visit ended at a trail through claystone hills of several colors – gorgeous!
So, you see? Even a geological idiot like I am can find something to appreciate in a place like this. Ian loved the fossil exhibits and the scientific history, and I just loved all the pretty rocks. And, on top of it, we had a nice drive in the countryside. We ended up back at our campground near dark, but happy to have found a really interesting – and fairly underappreciated, we think – part of the world. Ain’t it grand!