Monday, July 02, 2007

The Painted Hills

Painted Hills 4


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Today's mini-roadtrip photos are from Eastern Oregon's Painted Hills, about 50 miles east of Prineville. You've seen photos of the place before, no doubt, and no doubt those photos were better than mine. But that's never stopped me before.

The Painted Hills are part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which is part of the national park system. Technically there are some fossils here, but the hills are the main event, with those weird multicolored bands.

The Wikipedia article on the hills describes them thusly:

Painted Hills is one of the three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, located in Wheeler County, Oregon It totals 3,132 acres (12.7 km²) and is located 9 miles (14 km) northwest of Mitchell, Oregon and 75 miles east of Bend. Painted Hills is named after the colorful layers of its hills corresponding to various geological eras, formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain. The black soil is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, and shale. The red coloring is laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid.


Lignite is very low-grade, low-value coal, and laterite is basically what's left after rainfall leaches all the soluble minerals out of soil. As you can see, not much grows on the hills. They're surrounded by forests and farms, so it's not for lack of water. It's just the soil, three kinds of bad so far as plant life goes. Here and there you see a spot where there's a layer of different soil above the Painted Hills material:

Painted Hills 1

The photo above also shows footprints from where some idiot decided to climb the hill. It should be clear why you're not supposed to do that.

Painted Hills 2

If you look closely, you'll notice the surface of the hills is dry, cracked mud. That sort of dents the mystique of the place a little, but it's kind of fascinating in its own way:

Painted Hills 6

A nearby farm, with the hills in the background. Makes for an interesting contrast.

Painted Hills 3

Painted Hills 5

Painted Hills 7

Naturally I had to bring my alter ego along for the ride:

Painted Hills 10

Painted Hills 11

Painted Hills 12

Painted Hills 8

Painted Hills 9

I don't know why it is that barren, badland-like places like this capture the human imagination. Not to get all touchy-feely about it, but you get the feeling you're in a very simple place, with the bones of the earth laid bare, and only the essentials remaining. I don't know if it resonates with some sort of deep-seated desert nomadic impulse, or what. It feels compelling, but I can't put my finger on exactly why.

If you want to see more of the place, or, hypothetically speaking, you found my photos unsatisfying, here are a few other sites with photos:

And if you just can't get enough of the hills themselves, the Nature Conservancy owns a chunk of similar terrain at their Juniper Hills preserve. FWIW.

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