The Unworldly Splendor of Oregon’s Painted Hills.

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Photo/video and text by: David Johanson Vasquez © All Rights

The sun had just set as I arrived at my friend’s condominium on Lake Washington near Seattle. Rick was loading camera equipment into his SUV, Ford Escape — a gasoline-electric hybrid, which holds the honor of being one of the first American-built hybrids.

We had a long drive ahead, which required us to drive all night before reaching our destination in the high desert of Central Oregon. It was a cool, but clear, May evening, as the SUV climbed steadily up to Snoqualmie pass. After cresting the Cascade Mountains we descended into a dryer, warmer Eastern Washington. After a few hours of driving the glow from a near full moon was illuminating the desert sagebrush outside the town of Goldendale on the Columbia River.

Wind turbines above the Columbia River are lit by the moon.

Our adventure to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, was planned to coincide with a full moon for illuminating the surreal Painted Hills. Rick and I use digital cameras, featuring full-sized image sensors and fast optical lenses, which are ideal for capturing low light environments. Taking the opportunity to harness some moonlight as it rose above the Columbia Gorge, we made a stop to photograph wind turbines. These wind gathering  monoliths, heavily populate this section of Washington and Oregon. The site is ideal for wind farms, due to the wind tunnel conditions created by compressed airstreams forcefully moving through the constricted Gorge.   

Standing next to a colossal tower is a strange experience. These massive wind catchers are the largest machines you’ll probably encounter on land. And the eerie sounds caused from wind moving massive propeller blades takes some time getting use to.

Driving on the Washington side of the Columbia River and continuing into Oregon, you see legions of wind turbine sentinels as they constantly harvest the restless winds. It takes an hour of driving south on the highway before we see fewer and then suddenly… no steel towers flanking our drive.

Now what I become aware of is not seeing any cars traveling in either direction of a deserted looking highway. Eastern Oregon’s vast size can’t be appreciated unless you spend some time touring its sprawling, unpopulated counties.

After traveling all night and encountering some falling snow as the hybrid SUV started ascending the road to the high desert—we finally entered into the realm of the primeval Painted Hills. It’s totally dark now that the moon had set hours earlier, cloaking the desert from our view in all directions. Fatigued from hours of driving, we pull into a remote area to catch a couple of hours of sleep before our video and photography expedition can begin.

The John Day Fossil Bed National Monument is organized into three Units; the Painted Hills is the third Unit, which contains 3,132 acres of wildlife, plants and some unusual geology.

Over millions of years, layers of ash from nearby volcanic eruptions mixed with clay. Through the process of erosion, intense surreal hues and patterns of color explode in every direction.

The following morning was a like waking up in some eye-candy dreamland. The colors just popped out at you like viewing a TV monitor, with the hue saturation cranked up high.  Stunned by the startling beauty, I grabbed my video camera on a tripod and began shooting panorama footage. Attempting to capture the details of the environment, an external microphone was used to record the outburst of chattering songbirds, which had woken up to announce the beginning of a new day.

My first impression was of being overwhelmed by sensory overload — it was challenging to take in all the colors, sounds and surreal shapes of the textured topography. What I was seeing, appeared to be out of this world — like viewing some futuristic post cards of a terraformed Martian landscape.

What I remembered from earlier road trips to the Southwest, was how striking the Painted Desert in Arizona was — that location now seemed pale in comparison to the Painted Hills.  What makes the geology of this site so vivid is the saturated colors, caused by a series of volcanic eruptions, taking place over millions of years. The accumulation of layers of ash, dust and clay mixed together from relentless years of erosion to form the hills of strata of colors, like some massive layered cake.

What remains buried beneath the volcanic soil is a time-capsule preserving the fossilized carcasses of mammals and plants, which lived in the region during the  Cenozoic Era —the Age of Mammals. This era began roughly 65 million years ago, so this National Monument is a target rich environment for paleontologist studying fossils from that era.

After I shot about an hour worth of video from the spot from the spot I started from, it was time to scout other dramatic locations.  Not too far into our drive we spotted a family of graceful antelopes, casually grazing in a large field. Apparently, from talking with one of the NPS Rangers, this National Monument is teeming with indigenous wildlife including: bears, cougars and eagles.

Latter in the afternoon we stopped at the side of a gravel road to take in a stunning view of  one of the larger hills at the site.  The clouds above were opening and closing like a massive shutter on a spotlight — producing lighting effects which were irresistible. We set up tripods along with our video and still cameras to begin shooting right away.

Shortly after we setup shop, a ranger pulled up close to the SUV and was intently watching us. Rick and I shrugged as we looked at each other with a shrug, thinking perhaps we had unknowingly parked in a restricted area. Eventually the ranger introduced himself, he had the impression we were part of a National Park Service video crew, which was schedule to be doing work at the Monument.  We were invited to join his walking tour with a group of  photographers into a restricted area of the Painted Hills.  As it turned out, this special photography tour only takes place one weekend out of the entire year —when the John Day chaenactus (a bright yellow wild flower) begins to bloom, then as quickly as it appears—it begins to fade away.

The photographer’s tour was visually fantastic and can only be experienced under the supervision of an NPS Ranger.  The plant life is so fragile here, you’re only allowed to  walk inside a dried out creek bed while touring this area.  The Ranger was gracious enough to allow me to interview him about the site.  Wind is common and unpredictable in this high desert area, so I came prepared with a wind guard on my microphone; but I did experience a few audio dropouts,  hopefully you’ll be able to hear the main message clearly enough.

Later that evening we photographed the landscapes using a full moon for our lighting. I’ve never seen greater clarity of the stars and moon from this high desert environment, which created a great backdrop for an unearthly landscape. We photographed throughout the night until the light of predawn appeared.

At a little over 2,000 feet in elevation, the high desert can produce cold, bone-chilling weather and as mentioned—windy conditions.  I recommend warm clothing and gloves to help keep your hands comfortable from wind-chill.  For photography, the higher altitude is a great benefit, especially for optical clarity if your focus is on night photography of stars and landscapes.

I definitely plan to go back to the Painted Hills as soon as possible… it’s a dreamlike setting I have rarely experienced, which captivates the senses, with its splendor of stunning colors contained within an unworldly environment. ~

LINKS:

Here’s a link to National Park Service’s John Day Fossil Bed National Monument:   http://www.nps.gov/joda/index.htm

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