Friday, April 19, 2013

Spring Break 2013: The Middle of Nowhere

Nothing makes a small town seem big like driving through a bunch of other, much smaller towns. That was the case with John Day, Oregon, which seemed like a booming metropolis once we reached it after a five hour drive.

For Spring Break we decided to check out John Day Fossil Beds National Monument near John Day Oregon. My mother lived in John Day from the time she was a newborn to five years old. Additionally, my grandfather was the first Branch President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in John Day after my grandmother mailed their tithing to the Portland, Oregon Mission President. So in a way, I felt very much like I was returning to my roots.

Unfortunately, Grandma and Grandpa's John Day stint was short and my mom can't remember a thing about it. So we focused on the unique and beautiful landscape in Central Oregon.

About 45 minutes from our destination (The John Day Best Western Hotel) we stopped for a (boys only) potty break and photo op. While the landscape was definitely high desert, there was a distinct beauty in the colors and landforms. 

Once we checked into our hotel and met up with our friends who'd traveled with us, we made reservations at the Snaffle Bit Dinner House for a delicious, large meal. Since we were in cattle country, I took advantage of something called a Cowboy Wrap, which was roast beef, garlic mashed potatoes, bacon and chipotle sauce all wrapped up in a giant tortilla. It was amazing. I ate half and saved the other half for lunch the next day.

Day two found us at the Sheep Rock Unit of the fossil beds. Home to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and ranger station for the monument. The boys had fun earning their Jr. Ranger badges, watching a little paleontology in action through the lab window, and taking a little hike. We couldn't have hoped for better weather. Blue skies with high clouds--not too hot, not too cool. Perfect!

After Sheep Rock, we headed west to the Painted Hills Unit--about 45 minutes away. As we drove, the clouds descended and it threatened to rain. That's when I saw something strange on the horizon: a very odd-looking tree. A SHOE tree!

There was no question about whether or not we would stop. This tree literally came up out of nowhere on the Ochoco Highway. The closest town (if you could call it that) was Mitchell (population 129). The boys had fun climbing and throwing shoes onto the tree. (There were plenty of "windfall" shoes on the ground beneath the tree to try and hurl).

By the time we arrived at the Painted Hills Unit, the sun was out and things were stunning again. We took a few short hikes and admired the stark, but beautiful scenery. This area is 33 million year old volcanic ash fall. The color in the hills is minerals leaching out. We saw a couple other cars, but for the most part, we were the only folks around this pleasant March afternoon.

We had dinner at the Dairy Queen, which, incidentally, cost just about as much as our fantastic beef dinner at the Snaffle Bit. I sat at my window seat, watching the only stop light in Grant County order traffic along the highway (Grant County is the size of Connecticut!) I couldn't help but wonder how much or little things had changed in the 60 years since my mother lived there. Kids walked up and down the street in the evening, perfectly safe, out on their own. Every pick-up had a Border Collie in the bed. The 100 year old Chinese pharmacy still stands from back in the Gold Rush days. 

I could easily picture my grandparents and their young family as part of this community.

On day three we headed for home. But not without a few stops first. We stopped at the James Cant Ranch and toured the building. Then Jonah and Isaac took the trail down to the John Day River to skip a few rocks. It was early in the morning and the sun was just coming over Sheep Rock.

On the way home, we stopped in Fossil, Oregon. We'd heard about the fossils ripe for the picking behind Wheeler High School. After looking around Fossil a bit (and finding a few non-paleo fossils, like a working cigarette vending machine and a working phone booth still with the 10 cent price advertised on the glass) we made our way up to the high school.

The boys had a blast digging and splitting open rocks to find plant fossils. (Proof that Robert came with us--see him in the upper right corner of the picture?) It was actually quite easy to find the fossils. All you had to do was pick them up off the ground. But that didn't keep the kids from digging to see if they could find something more exciting.

We took the scenic route home and passed the Clarno Unit. Scenic, in this case, meant windy roads because other than the stunning Palisades rock structure at Clarno, I didn't see anything super scenic. We passed through Maupin on our way back to The Dalles and on the road home.

It was a long drive coming and going, but totally worth it to explore this totally unique, beautiful corner of our state.