Time Travel in John Day Territory, Oregon

Photo © Adrian Klein Photography

On the western edge of John Day Territory in Northeastern Oregon sits Mitchell, its few structures and laid-back population divided by a bluff that slices through the center of the little town. On top of the bluff, I checked into Sunset Cottage, one of three cozy bungalows at Painted Hills Vacation Rentals. From the back windows, I surveyed the landscape—a few old rooftops and treetops below me and brown plains stretching into the distance. A sense of anticipation that I was about to discover something extraordinary set me thinking about the next day’s adventures, when I would drive to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, only 30 minutes away.

I’d read about and seen photos of Oregon’s Painted Hills, but nothing had prepared me for what I viewed when I turned off Highway 26 onto Bridge Creek Road and into the park. A range of hills with clearly delineated horizontal striations in hues of red, green, black and yellow undulated into the distance. Spring had brought an explosion of blooms on the valley floor and plains. Cone-shaped mounds dotted the valley in a palette of solid colors. The changing light of the partly sunny day swept across the colored hills, shapes created by shadow and sun, ever changing. It’s easy to imagine a giant artist treading through the landscape, brush in hand, carefully decorating everything in their path.

I parked at the Painted Cove Nature Trail and walked the easy, boardwalk loop trail through areas where clay mounds and the depressions between them appeared surrealistic in solid reds and greens. The surrounding landscape seemed like nothing found in nature—until I learned how the hills were formed.

The next day, I traveled farther into John Day Territory, to the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. My destination that morning was the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where I would learn more about the fossil records of the area’s early mammals before the cataclysmic volcanoes changed the Central Oregon landscape. Castle-like spires tower above the road that snakes through the canyon floor. Traveling there, it’s easy to imagine the riches of fossil remains waiting to be unearthed in the cliff faces and crevices.

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is a modern visitor center and working lab in the heart of the fossil beds. Fossil specimens from all three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are on display. Early mammals of the region are the focus of the work at the center. A window lets visitors view scientists at work in the lab, and a film gives an excellent overview of the region’s flora and fauna before the time of the volcanoes.

I drove on to the town of John Day, just less than an hour east on Highway 26. A pesto and goat cheese flatbread and a salad with a sample of a few house-made brews at 1188 Brewing Company on Main Street hit the spot for lunch. Afterward, I followed the directional signs to the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, a few blocks away. I was in luck; it was the first week of May, and the site had just opened for the season on May 1.

Tours of this unusual and important heritage site begin at the state park’s Interpretive Center. Browsing the exhibits introduced me to the early Chinese immigrant community in John Day. Similar communities were a part of towns all over the West, but the carefully preserved artifacts and history of this community represented in the displays tell the immigrant story through the lives and experiences of two men: Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On.

At the Interpretive Center, a state park guide assembled visitors for the short walk to the actual heritage site: the home, general store and apothecary, built in 1870, belonging to the two men. I entered the crude, fortress-like building. Few windows let in any light. The rooms were time capsules, not arranged artificially, but left as if the two men would walk in at any moment to resume their daily lives. I found their stories very human, poignant and inspiring. Yes, they suffered indignities and violence, as most Chinese immigrants did, but their story is one of resolve, community leadership and survival.

I headed back to Sunset Cottage in Mitchell as evening approached, wishing I had taken up fly fishing that day. The John Day River is famous for world-class smallmouth bass fishing and excellent angling for steelhead. That would have to wait for my return trip, and there will be one. As it was, I swung by the small market at the bottom of the bluff in Mitchell and picked up a few simple provisions and a bottle of wine to enjoy for dinner on my last night in John Day Territory.