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Trespassing Through John Day Fossil Beds

Stay Wild

I pretend to not see “No Trespassing” signs. It’s my duty as a dad, since my wife Amy is a firm rule follower. I need to give my son Camper a balanced point of view, so he can decide for himself when, and when not, to trespass. I tell him it’s not trespassing if we don’t leave footprints. As we hop from rock to rock on the outskirts of the Painted Hills National Monument, we take care not to squish any plants. Finding a log shaded by a big old juniper tree we sit and listen to the view. A raven flies overhead and we can hear the wind between the feathers of its wings. The tall grasses growing in the pond knock into each other with the breeze making the subtle sound of leafy wind chimes. We hear water splash and look to see small fish jumping out of the pond to eat insects flying over the water surface. The longer we listen to the view the less we trespass. We are leaving nothing, yet we are taking in everything. 

The most photogenic view of the Painted Hills has a set of footprints walking out beyond the boundary to the top of a smooth red clay mound. The footprints sink 6-8 inches into the red clay and they will be there for many years. They are like a plastic bag stuck in a tree, flapping in the wind like a flag that says “Fuck You Fuck You Fuck You...” until it fades away. These footprints trespass and everyone knows it. 

Later in the day Camper eats the cherry from my milkshake and says, “Tastes like freedom.” I have eaten many milkshake cherries. I know what freedom tastes like. That’s why I forgive those footprints in the Painted Hills. They are either a monument to freedom, or a monument to selfish sloppy tourism. Either way those footprints belong to us all. It’s not worth complaining about or blaming some kid with a selfie stick. The footprints are there for us to learn from.

On the open road I see the difference between land fucked with by humans and land unfucked with. That’s why I pull off the main highway and go down a dirt road into the Ponderosa Pine covered hills of the Ochoco National Forest. We drive past cows eating grass and pooping all over the place. We drive past RV camps set up by hunters. Further down the dusty road a brown and white government issued sign points in the direction of “Public Agate Beds.” We follow the sign deeper into the woods until we come to a fork in the road. There is no sign telling us where to turn, so we just park and wandering into the forest. The ground is soft from centuries of pine needles falling and fading into the ground. We find mushrooms growing out of cow poop. I reach for what looks like an agate, but it’s a ball of honey-sweet pine sap. It smells so good I actually lick it to make sure it’s not honey. Nope, it’s tree sap. We don’t expect to find agates here, but we do. They bubble up from the ground. They are diamonds in the duff. We leave most of what we find, but can’t resist bringing a couple crazy ones home. It feels kind of wrong to take them, but Camper is more excited about a rock than he is about playing a video game. My seven-year-old needs to remember his connection to nature and if a rock can do that it’s worth taking back to the city.

I put this rock back exactly where I found it.

Deeper into eastern Oregon we walk a trail up the Blue Basin. The trail follows a small muddy creek of sage-colored water. The color matches the smell of the trail as it snakes through shoulder high sage brush and sappy juniper trees. I pick some of the leafs and rub them between the palms of my hands. Cupping my hands together I take a deep breath of the plant’s goo and it shows me a deeper side of this place. The smell is so strong I have to close my eyes and imagine what life is like for these plants growing in this weirdly colored canyon. Further down the trail we come across fossils of a prehistoric turtle shell and a strange dogthing skull with crazy fugly teeth. The sage colored mud walls really take shape as we go deeper into the canyon. By the dead end of the trail we are surrounded by monster-sized prehistoric mud teeth in the mouth of a place that dares us to see things through its geologic eyes. This muddy canyon has swallowed life that we try to understand from the fossils left behind. What will our fossils look like?

The highway we travel goes through the Warm Spring Indian Reservation. Driving through feels like trespassing, but I love it. I just feel like I’m on land that has been taken care of by people who know how not to fuck this place up. It feels more natural. As if the people here know they will not rule the planet forever. I can’t help but get out of the car to explore a couple abandoned houses. I ignore the signs. I am trespassing. I am hunting for modern fossils, but I only find broken glass in rotting carpet. I go back outside. Don't mind me, I'm just trespassing through.