Archive for the ‘old west’ Tag

John Day Fossil Beds & Climate Change   4 comments

An old dairy farm along Bridge Creek in eastern Oregon near the town of Mitchell, it appears to have once been a going concern.

An old dairy farm near the town of Mitchell, Oregon appears to have once been a going concern.

As mentioned in my last post on the Painted Hills, this area of Oregon is about so much more than some colorful formations.  A little preview at the end of that post last Friday was a short description of the old dairy farm near Mitchell (see above).  And it’s from there that we’ll continue our road trip through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon.

Travel east from Mitchell on Hwy. 26 toward the monument headquarters at Sheep Rock.  You will first come to Picture Gorge, a spectacular cut through stacks of basaltic lavas.  The Picture Gorge Basalt is a southern outlier of the great Columbia River Basalt flows to the north.  The gorge is named for ancient Native American rock art found on the walls.

Since I can't find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Since I can’t find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

To see and photograph some pictographs, drive to the east end of the gorge and park alongside the John Day River.  Look up to the walls across the road.  From here, if the river is low enough, you can get a much closer look at great rock art alongside the river.  Just drop below the road and walk a hundred yards or so upriver, looking for short, smooth walls to your right.  A rare pictograph of a salamander can be found.

Midway through Picture Gorge you’ll turn north on Hwy, 19 and drive a short distance to the Sheep Rock Unit.  There is a great museum that explains the areas rich fossil heritage.  This is an important region of the world for paleontologists.  Along with Wyoming’s Green River area, it is where well preserved fossils of ancient mammals, plants and other creatures can be found.  These remains, preserved within colorful sedimentary rocks shed off  ancient volcanoes that were eroded away long ago, document the explosion of mammalian diversity in the Eocene (56-34 million years ago).

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

Mammals started off very small, literally in the shadow of dinosaurs.  Once the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, mammals slowly evolved and diversified until an inevitable point.  Just as happened with dinosaurs near the peak of their diversity, mammals began to evolve into huge forms.  This is well documented in the John Day.  In fact, the region has abundant mammal fossils all the way up through the Miocene (23-5 million years ago).

One of the largest mammals of all time was the huge rhino-like brontothere.  Enormous ground sloths roamed here as well.  Other mammals of the John Day:  early horses the size of dogs, camels, a large variety of canids, cats (including early saber-toothed varieties), rodents, even early primates.  And it’s not just mammals:  huge fossil turtle shells are found.

A very important part of the John Day fossil beds is the amazing variety of plant fossils.  This allows the environments in which these animals once lived to be worked out in detail.  A period of global warming is documented here, followed by a long slow cooling and drying trend that has continued to the present day.  Nowadays of course humans are busy driving the climate in the opposite direction, toward a climate last experienced by those now-extinct mammals of ancient North America.

The old homestead  Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background.  Click on image if interested in it.

The old homestead Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background. Click on image if interested in it.

An Aside:  Climate Change – The Debate?

I recall having a group of high school science students at the museum at Sheep Rock.  I was showing them the fossils and how they told us the ancient climate was lush and subtropical.  On the wall was a chart that showed the estimated CO2 levels in the atmosphere during that period, and how they coincided with the types of plant and animal fossils.  A man and his wife were listening off to the side.

Later I heard him telling his wife, “see, what did I tell you?  Global warming happened in the past and was natural.  We don’t have anything to do with it, even if it was actually happening.”  Or words to that effect.  I wanted to correct his misinterpretation of the meaning of the evidence but realized it was not a good idea for several reasons.  For one thing, a person who uses faulty logic certainly missed something early in their upbringing/education.  When they got older they internalized this way of thinking, so that any faulty interpretations they make are perceived to be merely “common sense”.  Very difficult to explain anything to such a person.

Though it’s true that a warm, tropical climate is very conducive to a diversity of life, it is the change to those conditions that poses the risk.  And that’s especially true for very rapid changes like the one we’re entering now.  A transition to an ice-free world is upon us, and we can only pray that it will only be accompanied by a drowning of our coastal cities and dramatic changes to agriculture and water supplies.  The worse-case scenarios are much more dire.

Scientists are much too conservative to talk about these darker scenarios with the press.  But trust me, they aren’t pretty.  Picture enormous clouds of poison hydrogen sulfide gas spewing out of stagnant oceans, killing everything that breathes unless it is hidden underground.  There is evidence that this happened during past mass extinctions.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Leaving aside all these sunny thoughts, it’s amazing to think this semi-arid region of grassland looked like present-day Panama in the early Eocene (about 50 million years ago).  It had active volcanoes and the coastline was closer.  With no Cascade Mountains, there was no rain-shadow effect.  The warm Pacific Ocean sent abundant moisture over a lush river-laced landscape dotted with volcanoes.  Many of the animals (e.g. camel, rhino & elephant) that during present times are found only in Asia or Africa roamed (in early form) the jungly American wetlands of the west.

Animals like horses and camels evolved here in North America, then migrated across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and eventually Africa.  They went extinct here.  Many other now-extinct animals, like brontotheres, oredonts (large & pig-like), creodonts (looked like a cross between a hyena and cat but more heavily built) and nimravids (a sleek & agile saber-toothed pre-cat) all lived, died and eventually went extinct here.

A mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

A museum mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time out here teaching science.  After a time, I got to where I could experience that ‘other’ Oregon.  Believe it or not, for paleontologists or anyone who sees enough fossils, absorbs enough knowledge, and then quiets themselves while out in the places where the fossils are found, it is possible to time-travel with your mind.  You can bring up vivid images of that other world in the silence that surrounds you during semi-meditative states.  You actually start to feel the humidity and hear the buzzing of tropical insects.  Very cool.

So check out that museum!  Right across the road lies the historic Cant Ranch and picturesque Sheep Rock.  This is a great place for photos, with the old barns, the John Day River and Sheep Rock begging to be part of your compositions.  The rangers run tours of the historic ranch, giving you a picture of the old homesteading days when the west was first being settled by whites and their livestock.

The last part of this series covers the northern part of our loop, including the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset, John Day River Valley, central Oregon.

Wordless Wednesday: Old Movie Backdrop   3 comments

Marlboro Man Country

Single-image Sunday: Nevada Roadside Attractions   1 comment

Three miles from a small Nevada town.  I only took a picture!

Three miles from a small Nevada town. I only took a picture!

Far from the glitz and glamour of Vegas, in the desert a few miles from the dusty old mining town of Beatty, there is something you can only see in Nevada, the only state with legalized prostitution.  I just had to have a picture, but no, I did not pay a visit!

It was actually the old bomber that first drew my eye, and that is obviously not accidental.  You won’t find obvious signs like this anywhere near where tourists congregate in Nevada.  It’s kept very much under the surface in those places.  But out here in small-town Nevada, in the open desert, where you can also still find a few locally-owned small casinos with oddball characters holding up the bar, a little-talked about part of the old west survives.


Single-image Sunday: Scotty’s Castle   1 comment

This incongruous place is located in a remote area of the California (Mojave) desert, in the northern part of Death Valley National Park.  Though officially it was called the Death Valley Ranch, it’s better known as Scotty’s Castle.  This post is about a friendship between two men as improbable as a castle in the desert.  I think when you really consider unlikely pairings real truths are often revealed.  These pairings can tell larger stories and illuminate the motivations behind the often-strange behavior of  human beings.

Despite the name, Scotty’s Castle never belonged to Scotty.  Walter Scott (aka Death Valley Scotty) was a colorful character who lived from 1872 to 1954.  He worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show for some time, then tried gold mining near Cripple Creek Colorado.  That would be the extent of his working life, as he spent most of the rest of it convincing rich easterners to invest money in fictitious gold mines out west.

Scotty’s last and best benefactor was a Chigagoan named Albert Johnson.  When Johnson was a young man he was fascinated with the west.  While young he made a lot of money investing in a mine in Missouri, and he planned to invest in mines out west.  He wanted a life there.   But a broken back from a bad train accident (which killed his father) changed his life.  He was temporarily paralyzed and made a miraculous recovery.  But his health was never the same and he was forced to settle on a career in the insurance industry.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Johnson would fall in the sights of Walter Scott.  After Johnson had invested some thousands of money into Scott’s secret (and fictitious) Death Valley gold mine with no return, he became suspicious.  It was soon apparent that Scott was lying.  Strangely, despite all the evidence he was being conned, Johnson remained convinced of the mine.

It took quite a number of years and several visits before Johnson finally gave up on the secret mine’s existence.  Through all of this Scott tried to deceive him with several elaborate schemes.  This included (of course) the salting of various fake mines, but Scott was not one to stop there.  He once planted a group of friends in a canyon masquerading as outlaws. They surprised Johnson, Scott and their companions and a fake gunfight (but with real bullets!) ensued.  The ruse was meant to scare away Johnson and his associates in hopes they might forget about seeing the mine with their own eyes.  But the plan quickly went awry when one man was shot and seriously injured.

Scott had learned the art of Wild West theater from the best (Buffalo Bill) and he used that flair for the dramatic in his long career as a con man.  He had a certain boldness. His colorful personality made him a media star in fact.  He made it into newspapers nationwide on several occasions.  And he parlayed that fame into a number of gigs (including a play about himself, starring himself).

Albert Johnson, though a genuinely rich insurance executive, was enchanted with Scotty in the same way he was enchanted with the mythical wild west.  Perhaps Johnson saw his alter ego, the embodiment of a life he wished he had lived.  Of course it was all based on false premises.  The era when the Wild West was real overlaps with the succeeding (longer) era when the concept of the wild west was parodied and used to fire the imaginations of sedate city-goers from “civilized” America – for profit.

Incredibly, Johnson eventually forgave Scott for defrauding him and the two became good friends. You would not expect a man to befriend a man who had conned him out of money, but that’s exactly what happened.  Johnson and Scott genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.  Scott was known as an entertaining storyteller.  All of this might explain why Johnson believed in Scotty’s secret mine for so long, and why he later forgave him.

His early dreams of an adventurous life out west ruined by his devastating injury, Johnson made repeated trips back, particularly to Death Valley.  Trains made some places in the west at least as accessible (in some cases more so) than they are now.  In 1915 Johnson bought and developed an old ranch in Grapevine Canyon.  Though Johnson was content to rough it on his visits, his wife Bessie convinced him to build a vacation home.  And Johnson did not go halfway!  Both he and Bessie loved the peace and quiet of the desert.  As for Scotty, he lived his later years five miles from the the Castle in a cabin built for him by Johnson.

Though Scotty’s Castle was never quite finished, it remains a stunning place.  It was originally run on direct current electricity from a Pelton water wheel powered from the same spring that supplied water.  Johnson did much of the original engineering himself.  The National Park Service purchased the place years after Johnson’s died.  It is nicely preserved and rangers dressed in period costume lead daily tours.

In the picture you can see a cross on the hill overlooking Scotty’s Castle.  This is the grave site of Walter Scott.  He is buried right alongside a beloved dog.  I think this little fact alone might explain why I have a charitable opinion of a man who lied and cheated for most of his life.


Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park, California.

Peter French’s Round Barn   17 comments


This is a somewhat famous barn in southeastern Oregon, in an area we like to call the state’s “outback”.  It dates from the late 1800s, when Peter French, a cattleman from California, drove a herd from California into the open spaces of the Oregon Territory.  His ranch eventually covered some 800 square miles!  He became one of Oregon’s so-called cattle kings.

He built a round barn so that his buckaroos (what cowboys are called in this country) could train horses while sheltered from the harsh high desert winters.  The barn has been partly restored, but most of it is original.  The beams are quite stout and the barn extremely well built, which is probably why it has stood up to the fierce winds and snow that hits this region every winter.

It was long ago that I first visited this barn, and it was in much poorer shape then (though the structure was very sound).  In recent years, money for its restoration has been made available, and a small visitor center/book store was built nearby.  I photographed it at night and then again the next morning, with the light pouring in.

On that quiet morning, with only the sound of the wind, I thought about the life here in the 19th century.  The life of Peter French, his leadership, his drive to make it in this lonely outpost.  The lives of the buckaroos, working hard every day, making just enough to get by, and occasionally being able to spend some of it in saloons.  Were there ghosts roaming the hills still?

I hope you enjoy the pictures, and also that your week is going well.  Happy shooting!

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French's round barn.

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French’s round barn.  You can see all the boards that have been replaced with recent restoration efforts.

The clouds move in but don't block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

The clouds move in but don’t block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: