Skeletons in the closets

Part 4. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

From Bend to Dayville’s Fish House Inn and RV, where I camped for the next 4 nights, is a 2-1/2 hour drive, which I made in 7 hours—on purpose. Stopping in the Painted Hills near Mitchell is mandatory! Only 1.75 hours from Bend, don’t miss this amazing unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, or JODA, in National Park Service shorthand. 

painted hills

Some of the painted hills, on a cloudy day

When you go, allow 2 to 3 hours for meandering on all 5 short loops in the Painted Hills, and taking lots of pictures. At three of the loops through the rainbow colored hills, I crossed paths with Park Ranger Michelle, who I learned was the same person with whom I had been emailing to arrange the week’s volunteer work. She recognized me by my trailer; apparently there are not many teardrop campers wandering around JODA in mid October. We made a plan to meet at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, aka, JODA Visitor Center, the next morning when my volunteer work would begin.

Michelle oriented me to the visitor center and the fossil bed basics—and turned me loose to wander the museum to get the gestalt. Who knew that from 50 to 5 million years ago a panoply of now-extinct mammals—evolutionary predecessors of felines, canids, cameloids, and horses—roamed the volcanic cauldron of what is now central Oregon? Or that the fossils they left behind, buried in the layers of a multitude of volcanic eruptions of ash, lava, and whatever else volcanoes spew, provide such a complete evolutionary record that they are used as reference points by paleontologists world-wide studying the Tertiary, or the age of mammals? OK, the question is rhetorical. I’m sure lots of people knew. But until a week ago, I was not one of them. Still, I can’t get my head around the concept of “50 to 5 million years ago” or baffling words like “Tertiary.” But this is a place where paleontological science laboratory meets museum meets family friendly indoor-outdoor learning playground. I witnessed the “swearing in” of two eager Aussie 10-11 year old siblings as they worked the children’s activities to earn Junior Ranger status. Their wonderment helped put a new sense of awe in my steps through this extraordinary terrain.

JODA painting workspaceAs for my volunteer work at JODA, “work” is the wrong word. The next 4 days felt more like recreation than work. Michelle’s job includes running educational programs at the visitor center, for which she often uses fossil replicas made to look like the real ones, to give school groups hands-on experiences with them. To create the realistic look, she spends her spare time during slower winter months painting the replicas. She set me up with a table and latex paints and brushes, showed me some real fossils (in background of photo) to use for models, and let me channel my inner Georgia O’Keefe on the replicas.

JODA my painted fossils

Replicas, L to R: an oreodont, a mousedeer, and a peccary

 I was happier than a clam at high tide! Second photo shows some of my final products.  

The other job I helped with was reviewing a ’90s era hands-on fossil curriculum that JODA sends out to schools for use in earth science and biology classes learning about evolution and how paleontologists piece clues together. The kit contains 16 fossil casts of various ages of horse heads and teeth through their evolution during the 45m years of the age of mammals. Michelle and I discussed how the curriculum could be updated to reflect the Next Generation Science Standards in wide use nationwide today. We planted the seed of an idea  for a summer teachers’ workshop to redesign the lessons in light of today’s classroom needs. Pure fun, bringing my 40+ years of teaching experience to this volunteer assignment.

JODA blue basin morn sun

Along the Blue Basin trail

There is so much more to write about this place—but it’s better to go see for yourself! Another MUST DO when you go is to walk the 1-mile Blue Basin trail near the visitor center. Absolutely eye-popping! (Yes, the hills really are aqua-colored.) And you can’t miss Picture Gorge as you drive through the valley—it’s equally jaw dropping.


Folks don’t usually want others to see the skeletons in their closets, but at JODA, they are the main event!

Volunteer hours worked at JODA: 24

2 thumbs up 14.05.29

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