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One of History’s Mysteries

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

No matter what our religious faith, we all ponder the same mysteries of life: Where did we
come from? Why are we here? How was the Earth formed? What does the future hold for our
planet? Perhaps that is why those places where fossils and ancient artifacts lie buried in
the earth intrigue us so. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, located in the
near-desert region of central Oregon, is one of those places. About 100 million years ago,
an ancient sea lapped a shoreline that ran through present-day Oregon. The age of the
dinosaur came and went while water covered this land. Then the sea receded and volcanic
activity formed and reformed a broad basin, preserving one of the world’s most complete
fossil records of that 40-million-year period between the disappearance of the dinosaurs
and the beginning of the last ice age. It was during the Civil War that soldiers guarding
gold shipments passing through the Pacific Northwest discovered these fossil beds. Since
then, the fossils have drawn paleontologists and geologists from around the world.
Tourists, too, come to see and to wonder at the living things that inhabited our planet
before the age of man. In 1975, Congress established a national monument here, encompassing
14,000 acres. Today the fossil beds, located 240 miles southeast of Portland, provide a
wonderland in which the visitor can play Indiana Jones and seek answers to his own
questions about the mystery of life. John Day has three widely spaced fossil sites visitors
can explore: the Sheep Rock Unit, the Clarno Unit and the Painted Hills Unit. Each has its
own beauty and features, so you will definitely want to see all three. We spent our first
night in Dayville, just off U.S. Highway 26. Built in the mid-1800s during the gold-rush
era, this is a town where you can still see real cowboys in faded jeans and spurs walking
the streets or eating breakfast in local restaurants as they prepare for the day’s work,
tending livestock on horseback. The Fish House Inn and RV Park (888-286-FISH) was a perfect
spot to begin our exploration. Just five miles west of town, on State Route 19, we visited
the Sheep Rock Unit, which houses the visitor center for the monument in a gracious old
ranch house. The James Cant family raised sheep for many years here on 680 acres. Be sure
to see the excellent fossil displays and view the prehistory orientation film. During
spring and fall weekends, and daily during the summer, a park ranger gives 20-minute talks
on many aspects of the fossil story. Picnic tables on the broad shady lawn provide good
spots for lunch. We prowled around the horse-filled emerald pastures and delighted in the
old farm implements resting beside the short trails (some of which were
wheelchair-accessible). In our minds, we could see the vast savanna that covered this
region millions of years ago, home to animals similar to horses, camels and elephants. We
timed our arrival at the Sheep Rock Unit so we could take part in a ranger-led hike
(offered once a month) into the beautiful badlands of the Blue Basin. Park Ranger John
Fiedor led us along the easy trail up through the blue cliffs, pointing out partially
uncovered fossilized oreodonts (a short-legged browser of the ancient forests that could be
as small as a jack rabbit or as large as a cow) and other skeletons trapped in the rock. He
spoke of the saber-toothed tigers that once roamed the area and demonstrated a replica of
an ancient feline jaw. He passed fossils around for all of us to feel. Sheep Rock has the
youngest of the fossil beds and tells the story of life here 39 million years ago. After
spending several days exploring the Sheep Rock Unit and nearby Picture Gorge and Mascall
Formations, we moved farther up State Route 19 to the Lazy Wolf Resort campground at Spray,
(888) 345-4863. This was a good stopping point for the next leg of our journey. In our
dinghy, we drove northwest on State Route 19 to the little town of Fossil and turned
southwest on State Route 218 to the Clarno Unit (about 20 miles west of Fossil). If you
stop in town, you can try digging fossils yourself. Be sure you have plenty of gas before
driving out on these roads; we found service stations few and far between. Also, remember
to watch for critters like rattlesnakes, scorpions, ticks and black-widow spiders. Clarno
has the oldest of the fossil beds. We walked the 1/4-mile Trail of the Fossils past
castlelike cliffs, lahar boulders, ancient trees and leaf fossils. We enjoyed reading the
plaques along the way, which recite events that happened 40 million years ago. Looking
around at the dry rocky earth, it is hard to imagine the lush tropical forests or the great
browsing mammals that once covered this land. We met some young geologists from Italy along
the trail and shared their excitement over the natural wonders spread before us. Saving the
best for last, we drove nine miles west of Mitchell, off U.S. 26, to the Painted Hills
Unit. The late-afternoon sun turned the spectacular mounds of earth to rich hues of red,
purple, chocolate and gold. Geometric designs looked like an early Native American had used
a giant paintbrush to decorate the hillsides. Several short trails let us meander out
around the hills, while our cameras worked overtime. On weekends during good weather, a
park ranger lectures from noon to 2 p.m. at this unit. You won’t find answers to all of
your mystery-of-life questions at John Day. In fact, you will probably leave with more
questions than you had when you arrived, but you will certainly take with you an even
greater appreciation of this marvelous planet we all call home.

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