Ayn Rand’s epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, opens with the words “Who is John Galt?” As my wife and I planned a trip to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, we asked ourselves a slightly different question: “Who is John Day?” While Rand’s novel explores individualism and economics, our exploration of John Day pointed to unlikely discoveries in an unlikely part of the world, discoveries which eventually became known as the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
While John Day’s name is applied to fossil beds located in Oregon, Day himself had no connection to the discovery of the fossils. According to the National Park Service website, John Day was a trapper and hunter who was part of a group that hoped to establish a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. After a series of mishaps, Day and another man were robbed by American Indians at the mouth of the Mah-hah River. The river was later renamed the Day River. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is named after the Day River. The towns of John Day and Dayville are also named after Mr. Day. My wife and I were amused by a sign we saw as we entered Dayville: “Our fossils are friendly!”
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is actually made up of three separate areas-the Clarno Unit, the Painted Hills Unit, and the Sheep Rock Unit. The three are located in north central Oregon, with Painted Hills and Sheep Rock near U. S. Highway 26 and Clarno north of Painted Hills on State Highway 218.
When you consider that the fossils indicate a history of dinosaurs and crocodiles (and many other animals) in the area, it is hard to imagine the hot, dry climate today being a humid, tropical area in the far distant past. If you think of the movie Jurassic Park as the type of setting for the animals that produced the fossils contained in the park today, it takes a real stretch of the imagination to picture central Oregon being that kind of setting. Yet, at some point it was.
There is a distinctive type of formation in the John Day area. To quote a book (See reference details below) on the geology of the Pacific Northwest, the John Day formation is a “sort of giant badlands.” The formation has the appearance of a layered sedimentary deposit, but is composed of hard ash, apparently from volcanic eruptions of the Cascade Range of mountains located to the west of the John Day area. As my wife and I discovered many times during our trip, volcanoes-particularly the volcanoes that created the Cascade Range-have played a major role in the shaping of the American landscape.
One by-product of the volcanic deposits is an abundance of fossils from animals trapped by the ash falls and other debris from the volcanoes. My wife and I did not have the time to spend exploring the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, but we would like to return to Oregon sometime in the future and do some real exploring. We constantly are amazed as we discover more and more about the wonderful nation in which we live: there are layers of history and acts of nature that we never suspected existed.
David Alt and Donald W. Hyndman, Northwest Exposure (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing), 227-31