I tend to sleep late and I tend to sleep hard, rarely am I awake before 10am. On this day I am awake by 530 and the sun is already screaming at me through my second story apartment window. This morning I have an alarm set for 6am and on the rare occasion that I need to be awake by a specific time I tend to not sleep well in fear of waking up late. This morning I am driving to eastern Oregon to do some camping with a friend of mine.
Speaking of that friend, he is already outside by the time I’m begrudgingly waking up as he just drove down from northern Washington, about 5 hours from me. We agree upon 6, but he’s an eager beaver so he was at my apartment by 5. Thank you Keiran for letting me sleep. He and I met in a particular way, I had randomly added him to my Facebook before I moved to the west coast thinking I would be living in the southern Washington area but later deciding upon southern Oregon (which has now become northern Oregon for me, two times, I’m a gypsy) and somewhere along the way him and his wife hired me to do maternity pictures for them shortly after I arrived in Oregon so by all accounts he’s my first friend in the Pacific Northwest.
Just before 6 I text asking where he is so I know how much time I have and his response is “here”, so I grab my things and jump into my car. Within 30 minutes of being awake we are on our way toward The Painted Hills, and neither of us have ever been there. I did very little research and he did even less than me, but fortunately he confessed to being an Eagle Scout which will play a role in later stories regarding this trip. I have to say that driving 5 hours immediately after waking up is a very disorienting task but fortunately the drive is mostly straight with very little exits or turns, just one way for a few hundred miles.
I inevitably forget stuff, and no matter how much I prepare I will always forget something. If I tell myself I won’t need it before the trip then I know for sure I am going to need it, that’s just how the universe works.
Once on the road I tell Keiran, my buddy on this excursion, he’s welcome to nap any time along the way since he got up so early to drive 5 hours. Not once did he shut his eyes. I don’t often have traveling companions but when I do they typically fall asleep somewhere along the way. He was a champ, though, he kept me engaged and we had great conversation. It was a good chance to get to know him since I actually knew so little about him. It’s how I found out he was an Eagle Scout, to my surprise. We make a few pit stop along the way but nothing more than a couple of minutes and back on the road so the trip from start to finish takes about 5 1/2 hours between the pit stops and, oh, that’s right, we went to a waterfall that was along the route that took us 2 miles down a river on the wrong side and we never did find the waterfall. So that was a good waste of time, but otherwise, the trip was pretty smooth sailing.
Once we arrive I realize I have less than a quarter of a tank of gas and I know how my car is on gas when driving around country roads – it eats it up. We’re in the middle of nowhere and the ranger station doesn’t actively have anyone in it so what help they are. There’s an old tattered map on the outside wall that looks older than me and it lists near-by towns and their amenities. According to this map the closest gas station is a few dozen miles away and I only have one shot at making it there because I’m not making it back without it. Shortly into the drive as we head in that direction I pass a sign that mentioned gas in this town that’s much closer. The map didn’t mention that but again that map was more weathered and beat up than Mickey Rourke, so I took the gamble.
If this town doesn’t have gas I may end up running out turning around and trying to find the original town we were set for. It’s a business road, or at least labeled as such, and during my travels business roads tend to just be for trucks to get around without affecting regular traffic, but here I am taking this road.
Success! There’s some old beat up 1940’s looking gas pumps and across the street are what looks like a string of old cabins that are barely holding up but they havw businesses in them. Nothing fancy like Banana Republic or Uber or anything, but general stores and such. The service attendant walks up, asks how much, and I am sure they don’t take cards here. Luckily I happen to have some cash. Originally I say 20 but then I ask how much the gas is, which he replies somewhere north of 3.75 a gallon. Shit.
I need the gas, though. ‘Give me $40 worth’ is something I expected to say and get a full tank. Not here. I got maybe 3/4 of a tank and I still have a lot of driving around the park to do. I’ll make due. I have to.
We finally made it back to camp, set up our tents, fetched fire wood, built a fire pit, got our stuff settled inside the tents and took off to go explore. Well, I had to change first but I forgot to bring shorts. It’s hot and I can’t stand to be in jeans when it’s hot, so I do what any red blooded American would. I went hiking in my boxers. True story.
I had brought a pair of boxers that are fairly large with pockets and a drawstring so I could sleep in them in the sleeping bag, but now they’re going to be used as shorts. I put them on over my other boxers and with a long white tank top that says ‘SUPER RICH KID’ and a backwards hat that has only a giant hash tag symbol, I am looking like the poster boy for typical southern white trash. It’s okay. I’m out for comfort. My brown hiking shoes are just the cherry on top of this beautiful outfit I’m sporting in the back country. It’s neither tactical nor fashionable. That sums up my life.
The Painted Hills are something you really have to experience. Pictures don’t do them justice, the specific detail of the rocks are what makes these features so genuinely unique and beautiful. They are named after the colorful layers of its hills corresponding to various geological eras, formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain.
To break down what these colors and design represent, the black soil is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, andshale. The red coloring is laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid.
An abundance of fossil remains of early horses, camels, and rhinoceroses in the Painted Hills unit makes the area particularly important to paleontologists. I would love to come back and explore more for fossils. Maybe once I get my book finished. Too many places to visit and see before I stand still looking for fossils. One day!
After a few hikes we get back to camp and cook some food in the campfire. We both made chicken the night before, but I forgot mine. Another thing I forgot. I spent time making some really good chicken, and 2 different kinds. Fortunately for me Keiran brought enough for two. He diced up chicken breast, peppers and pineapple. Wrapped up in foil, tossed in a fire it’s cooked pretty quickly. It turned out delicious for campfire food, I will definitely have to steal that idea. While eating we notice there are really large birds circling over head. A lot of really large birds. It is very unnerving having them land above you and watch what you do. We come to learn they’re nesting above us and we just happen to camp in their area. My best guess is they’re turkey vultures, but they never bothered us.
Shortly after eating Keiran wants to take a nap since he didn’t sleep much before driving down so I told him I’d wake him in a few hours. In the mean time I went for a hike on my lonesome out into the wild. Okay, I wasn’t completely alone. I had my best friend. My side kick. The furry one that always has my back. We follow a path along the John Day River and I chose that direction because it’s time for the sun to set and animals tend to come out when night is approaching and I wanted to get some pictures of whatever might be out here. My brief research suggested coyotes, potential antelope, and big horn sheep. At one point I thought I saw a buffalo across the river and got really excited until I took a picture and zoomed in on the image and noticed it was 2 cows positioned funny, resembling a buffalo and it’s odd shape.
The sunset is stunning, the pinks and yellows stretching across the sky wrapping around the ridges that poke into the sky like a rude child’s finger. The skyline consists of hills and valleys waving above a beautiful river. I make it a good distance before I figure I should turn around and get back to camp since it’s getting so dark. I need a nap at this point, I want to get up at midnight and do some astrophotography. It’s one of the darkest areas in the state due to so little light pollution.
Around midnight my alarm goes off so it’s time to turn my flash light on and find my stuff and not break my neck walking through the woods in the pitch black. At first there is a ton of cloud coverage but shortly into it the sky empties and I see more stars than I’ve ever seen before. I even saw the International Space Station, I was and be to grab a quick pictures of that. Well I say quick but it was a 90 second exposure, so not that quick. And I forgot my tripod and all I had was a raggedy old light stand so my angles were virtually not existent. I had to find places prop it up against. Not the most convenient but I’m able to roll with the punches and make stuff work. Fun fact: The ISS travels in orbit around Earth at a speed of roughly 17,150 miles per hour (that’s about 5 miles per second!). This means that the Space Station orbits Earth (and sees a sunrise) once every 92 minutes!
The next morning was a late one. I was kept up a large part of the night because of coyotes yipping. If you’ve never gone to sleep in an unfamiliar area and had coyotes making their noises then you can’t quite comprehend how unsettling it is. And probably more so for my dog. He kept growling and moving around, and I damn sure wasn’t going to let him out of the tent to wander around. I slept with a machete beside my hand, unsheathed, as I was ready to hack at something if it came near. Keiran and I both hear leaves shifting and sticks cracking through out the night, but we suspect it was something else. Possibly rabbits. Or the Babadook. Still unsure.
We didn’t get up til 9, but we had originally thought about sunrise. Yeah right. I woke up and grabbed some cold brew coffee I had packed and walked down by the river, met with some neighboring campers and got to know them a little bit. Me and the dog walked along the river in opposite direction from the night before just to appreciate the morning a little longer. It’s important to appreciate, it makes you happier and gives you a better perspective. It’s healthy.
Around noon we decide to pack up as Memorial Day weekend is upon us and we didn’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of people. We don’t leave without hiking a few more trails and going down some never ending gravel roads that will drift you off the cliff and down into a dry water-bed 20 feet down if you’re not careful. Guard rails don’t exist out here, not too often anyway.
The trip was great. I want to go back and spend more time, it’s hands down one of my favorite places in the state. As far as scenery I would compare it with Crater Lake in just how fascinating and gorgeous what you’re looking at really is and how it’s natural formation has occurred.
Thank you for reading and I hope to hear what you think!