The rainfall grew, starting softly to moisten the dried dirt and clay, then growing to create rivulets of water, streaming down the hills. But it was not a simple muddy brown runoff; yellows over there, maroons there, ochers, reds, oranges, greys, shades of brown from light tan to dark brown ran and collected. It was as if a giant Jackson Pollock had one too many drinks, and in his drunken stumble kicked over all the cans of paint in his studio.
In the late summer of 2014 my wife and I thought it was time to explore Central Oregon. Western Oregon gets most of the press. With ocean shores, lush forests, waterfalls, and fertile valleys, if you were to ask the average visitor to describe Oregon in one word they’d likely say “green.” But Oregon is almost like two states: the well-watered, more densely populated green state on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, and the sparser deserts to the east. As the Cascades run down the east edge of the western third, Central Oregon falls into the dry zone.
Except when it rains paint, of course.
Our day of departure started off with an inauspicious start. The wife woke up with an attack of vertigo, and for a time we thought we’d need to abort. Fortunately, it eased up, and we were off to the Painted Hills.
The Painted Hills are in north central Oregon, about 9 miles northwest of the little town of Mitchell. We arrived in the early evening, but hopes of seeing the hills at their best were dashed. Rather than the glowing light of a golden hour embracing the warm colors of the hills, the stormy greys of a cloud deck threatened to add more mud to the prior night’s storm residue.
This wasn’t your usual mud either. Made from the silt of a very fine clay, if you were to walk in it, rather than simply getting a little dirt on your shoes you’d accumulate it in clumps, with the load growing on each sticky step.
Although rain threatened and the light was waning, we did make it to the main viewpoint.
Colors were subdued, but the spectacle remained. Sure, it wasn’t bathed in golden sunlight, but it left promise for the day to come.
We spent the evening in Mitchell. Being such a small town, the only place I’d found to stay was the Oregon Hotel. Originally built in the late 1800’s and rebuilt in 1904 after a fire, it’s best described as more homey than fancy. But it was clean and relatively inexpensive, and did the job nicely. It also gave us the chance to meet a few fellow guests.
Nope, not this guy, we encountered him on the trail.
But there was a couple older gents, folks who’d grown up in the region and came back periodically for reunions and to do a bit of fishing. They’d brought enough food for a regiment and invited pretty much everyone to join them for a steak dinner, cooked on a hot plate. We wanted to check out one of the restaurants in town, but after our return we did join them for a drink – seems one of them was a homebrewer. I can’t say for certain, but it’s possible that tasty brew was a factor when I bid on a homebrewing starter kit at a silent auction a couple months later, setting me on the path of yet another hobby.
The threat of rain had dissipated somewhat the following day, so we returned to the hills and explored their trails.
You may wonder by now, what caused all these strata of colors?
35 million years ago this area was a tropical floodplain. Covered with vegetation, decomposition, time and changing climates laid different layers, augmented with ash from the occasional volcanic eruption. These muddy layers also made for good fossil territory. About 35 miles east of Mitchell is the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where scientists actively study the region’s 50 million years of plant and animal evolution through a massive collection of 40,000 fossils.