Eastern Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds are home to The Painted Hills, a sprawling Mars-esque landscape that offers a stark contrast to the Pacific Northwest’s dense greenery.
But before I ramble about this incredible landscape, let’s talk music for sec.
If you’re an indie head like me, you might’ve come across Sufjan Stevens’ name quite a bit. To many fans, he was the guy notorious for the absurdly ambitious 50 State Project. If you were later to the party, you heard the Oregon centric Carrie & Lowell, and it reset your standard for modern folk music. If you’re part of the most recent wave of Sufjan, he was that wide-eyed guy who wore a pink Gucci tuxedo at the Oscar’s for his song in that Timotheé Chalamet flick.
Regardless of discovery, Stevens’ poetic notion comes across as simultaneously broad and nuanced. Subtly layering metaphors through landmarks, mythology, and history, he creates a larger sense of self – ultimately mystifying himself as a character, rather than just a speaker in song. The ninth track from the aforementioned Carrie & Lowell is entitled John My Beloved, and paints a portrait of many Johns (is he referring to the biblical character? Personifying his mother? Writing to a lost love?). Well, knowing Sufjan, it’s probably all of the above (and more).
Fortunately for me, one of Stevens’ subjects was just a few hours away from home. I packed up a Yashica Mat 124 with my buds Ektar and Portra, and drove through the beautiful Oregon country, out to see what this John Day was all about.
You round a corner of golden hills and there it is, this massive stratified rock straight out of a Star Wars scene. A deep red that I was lucky to see accentuated by newly melted snow, as well as a windy day that dragged the hills’ red remnants across the road. I had a few shots left on my roll of Ektar, and while each shot produced wildly different colors, the results of this one were pure Ektar magic.
The main viewpoint surprisingly doesn’t give you the best photo op. Luckily there are a handful of short walking trails, giving you a variety of photo options. (Unfortunate side note: at this point in my trip I left my trustee half-frame, the Olympus Pen EE3, on a tree stump… never to be seen again. If the finder of the camera is out there, you can keep the Pen, just please develop that roll!).
I’ve heard many photographers say their best photos are only thanks to them having a camera at the right place and right time. This shot really felt like that moment for me. As the sun was setting I made my way back through the first scene I shot, and slammed on the brakes after seeing a puddle reflecting what little daylight was left. I sprinted across the dry desert to finish my roll of Portra, taking what ended up being my favorite shots of the day.
You can bet your bottom dollar I listened to Carrie & Lowell on the way home, and I will certainly be out to visit the Painted Hills with a couple rolls in the future (hopefully returning with all my cameras this time).
A few of these photos will be part of a soon-to-be-released photo book entitled Pacific Wonderland. The photo book will be paired with a complementary musical album of the same name, dedicated to my time here in the Pacific Northwest.