10 August 2007

John's Days in John Day

Those of you who read this regularly (There must be some of you? Right?) but don't know Oregon all that well may have gotten the impression that the entire state is a rain-drenched, evergreen landscape of craggy coasts and soaring volcanoes. That would be a fairly good description of the rainy side of the state, but once you head east of the Cascades, it's a different world entirely. The rain turns to sun, the green turns to brown, and the volcanoes are replaced by the weathered peaks of much more ancient mountains. It is in fact because of the older age of the rocks in Eastern Oregon that I am spending the second half of my summer here. The John Day region in the center of the state harbors one of the best records of Cenozoic (the so-called "Age of Mammals" for those of you who aren't paleontologists) in the world, and I am out here working with the National Park Service to figure out exactly what aspect of the region's paleoecology I want to study for my PhD project. More on the specifics of my job in a later post, but for now I want to do my best to describe the countryside in which I've landed.
If one were to choose one word to describe the John Day Country, it would probably be 'frontier.' That's in fact the official phrase that the government applies to the region due to its population density of less than 2 people per square mile. The area does certainly retain a "Wild West" feel: the economy is dominated by cattle and sheep ranching, the main social events are county fairs and rodeos, and towns are very small, few, and far between (the town in which I'm staying is the 9th smallest in Oregon, a state not known for its massive cities). Unsurprisingly, the region is predominately conservative, but it's typified by the breed of conservatism that has long been prevalent in the rural West: essentially libertarian and generally happy to let you and your beliefs alone so long as you don't impinge on them and theirs (while the consequences of such impingements can be dire, I much prefer this to the holier-than-thou, "Big Brother" religious conservatives in other parts of the country). While it's hardly an untouched wilderness (ranching and, at higher elevations, logging have taken their toll), nature is still a much more visible presence than civilization. Wildlife is certainly present, though as is so often the case in deserts it is not usually readily obvious (I have yet to see anything larger or more spectacular than a deer, but while doing some recon work today I came across some fresh tracks of what I'm fairly certain was a cougar, though coyotes or bobcats are possibilities as well). More impressive is the landscape, which is absolutely littered with sheer cliffs, jagged badlands, looming spires of rock, river valleys, and seemingly endless mountains (watching the sin set over the Ochocos is nothing short of stunning). It's a complete 180 from the Southern California half of my summer, of course, but there are much worse places to be stuck for six weeks. Hopefully this has convinced you all to come visit me between now and mid-September; the region's economy and I would both be happy to see you...