Fossil, Oregon: Rain and 56 degrees F
We had big plans for today, following winding roads slipping through John Day Country, seeking out one of the more distant units of the John Day Fossil Beds. Instead, this morning it is raining, and we are listening to….cowboy rap….bluegrass…blues…with a bit of jazz thrown in for good measure. This is why people should travel, it broadens your horizons. Not just those big city travel destination kind of horizons, but the small, not so backward farm town kind of horizons.
Where else could you eat your breakfast listening to someone sing about the joys of “Home Grown Tomatoes”, and then a gravelly crazy guy playing an incredible acoustic guitar while he talks about his therapist telling him “there’s something damaged and something missing” and his brain is stuck in the on position and he is stuck in his brain behind his face?? Then comes along a cowboy singing about his mother reading him the Bible.
We could be home watching the news and doing a normal life, but instead we are in the Wheeler County Fairgrounds in the tiny town of Fossil, with only one available radio station, no TV, no internet, no phone even. Instead, we get this great DJ with a great sense of humor, and a few home grown ads thrown in for KFSL radio, and Fossil Mercantile, locally owned and operated. Where in the world does he find music like this?
It is raining and gray today. The road to Fossil yesterday, along another Oregon Scenic Byway, Journey Through Time, however, was bright and clear once we left the Cascades behind us. There are a couple of ways to get to the John Day Fossil Beds, and when planning this trip, I discovered that no matter where we stayed, no matter how we navigated our visit, there would be lots of backtracking.
It seemed that Fossil, and the Wheeler County Fairgrounds would be a good starting point, so we routed up Highway 97 17 miles beyond Madras, to turn east toward Fossil on a less traveled road than the easier Highway 26 route to John Day. The road was fine, narrow, winding, with lots of ups and downs and more than a few drop offs that always make this passenger a bit testy.
Mo is a great driver, and in my head I know things are fine, but that doesn’t stop the adrenaline from running and the body from tensing up as I look at the no shoulder cliffs right below me in the passenger seat. I would rather drive than ride on these kinds of roads, but it was a Mo driving Day.
Last night we had wild thunderstorms to accompany our return drive to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. We passed by earlier in the day, deciding that we would return the 20 miles or so to hike after we settled into the fairgrounds. I was hoping for that great sunset light that makes for non-ordinary photos.
The Wheeler County Fairgrounds are up on a hill above the tiny town, and we have a view of the surrounding hills, two beautiful white church steeples out the windows and an American flag flying high above the field below us. There is an empty trailer next door, and another one down the way, our only other neighbors in this 12 spot campground. There are plain envelopes at the old wooden kiosk to use for depositing your 25 fee in the box. It says 3 bucks to dump and 3 bucks to use the bathrooms, but we won’t need either. Our site has electric, water, and sewer.
Yesterday, when we arrived, it was 98 degrees and we were happy to have the air conditioning to cool things down for Jeremy before we drove back to the Clarno beds. The storm was incredibly black, and we looked at each other thinking…hmmm…a hike? Not so sure I want to hike in a thunderstorm, but we decided to give it a try anyway.
On the way, we thought it might be nice to try a back road instead of retracing our path along 218, but the road was hidden and unmarked, and I missed it. It was a good thing I did. Another mile down the highway I saw a guy walking across the road to his barn and stopped to ask him where Stone Cabin Road might be. He laughed, and said, “I have seen that Gazateer map twice now, and it’s wrong. That was the road back there and it is a dead end.” He turned out to be a great guy, owning a juniper log mill, and is the one who did the gorgeous posts on the shelters at the Clarno Beds parking area.
He also showed us another side route along Cottonwood Creek where we could go up and down the mountains and see elk and bobcat and something different as we wound our way back to 218. We checked out our planned route to the Painted Hills Unit portion of the monument with him and were happy to find that in fact, it really went through. Always nice to check with the locals, especially friendly ones.
We didn’t see any elk or bobcats, but did see a large group of big mule deer. By the time we intersected again with the highway, the rain was coming down in earnest. Then it started pouring, and as I rounded a curve it looked literally like someone was dumping a giant bucket of water on the road in front of me. I don’t think I have driven through that kind of rain in a long time. OK then, we are going to hike in the Clarno Beds unit…
Just heard this as I am writing accompanied by music and words I have never heard before. “With 100 watts of antenna melting power, KFSL, spanning the expanse from Butte Creek to something or other Summit” . Then after this little ditty, comes another saying “KFSL, a non profit radio station supported by donations from….” OK Then, they never said public radio, but this seems to me to be the very best use of public not for profit radio, a small town where radio would be non existent without it. So far there hasn’t been a speck of news or even a weather report. Hmmmm.
Back to our visit to the Clarno Beds. With no rain in sight, and thunder in the far distant north, we took off on the short Trail of the Fossils, where the signs indicated that with each step we were crossing about 37,000 years. We traveled back in geologic time to 50 million years ago, when the area was a thick lush tropical forest, much like what is found in Panama now. Fossils of more than 300 species of plants have been found here, including nuts and berries. The Clarno Nut Beds and The Hancock Mammal Quarry are the highlights of the Clarno Unit, but neither of these areas are yet open to the public. What?
Ah well, the short hike to the Palisades was beautiful and interesting. There are actually three short trails in the area south of the Palisades, but we decided against climbing the slippery rocky trail up to the base of the arch in the cliffs. The huge lightning strike just across the valley had a lot to do with that decision as well. I know if you even hear thunder it is time to seek shelter, and shelter was a long way back to the car. At least our hair wasn’t standing on end, but the more I read about lightning, the less I like being out in it.
We got back to the car just in time to miss the downpour. How lucky is that?! And I didn’t get struck by lightning either. Winding back along highway 218 to Fossil we had a bit better understanding of the lay of the land. With the ups and downs and winding roads it is very easy to get disoriented here. Obviously, the maps don’t always tell the story, either.
It was a great day, and I can tell from this morning’s entertainment, this day will be great as well, whether it rains or not. We adjusted our plans from hiking in the Painted Hills Unit to driving south toward the Sheep Rock Unit where we can spend some time in the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
Next: Sheep Rock Unit and some great hikes