Trout Lake, WA.
Its almost June, we have been living off grid in the mountains near Hood River since the pandemic began back in March. From cityscapes and busy highways, to a rural mountain community with one grocery store - if you can even call it that. Our plans to buy our dream home came crashing down just as the first covid cases hit headlines, and we were forced to move in with my in-laws at their mountain property while we re-route our entire lives. At first, this was a devastating blow for me, not because I cant handle country living but because it felt like there was no hope that we would ever find a home that was more suitable for us. The first weeks of quarantine were just like yours, days filled with baking breads, playing cards, spending time with family, watching Tiger King and drinking before noon. But as the weeks roll into months and numbers steadily climb, it stopped feeling like a mandatory slumber party and more like an apocalyptic new normal. So my husband and I began looking at near-by hiking trails and national parks to visit that we otherwise, wouldn't have made time for. Being outside was the only thing that eased our force-fed fears of what was happening to the world, and this area of the Columbia River Gorge was certainly not lacking in breathtaking views and trails for days.
One morning, as I am sipping my Spanish coffee and scrolling one of many photography-related Facebook groups, I land on a post from a photographer seeking a couple to shoot at John Day Fossil beds. I hop on google and find its a 4 hour road trip each way through towering canyons and sedimentary landscape that makes them appear as if dipped in blues and reds from another world, at another time. It is an item on my bucket list for the fact that the Painted Hills get their unique look from erosion, over the course of millions of years. You can find fossils hidden under loose dirt like natures very own easter egg hunt, just frozen in time. I chat it over with Cash and to my surprise - he was into it. And so it was done, I made plans with the photographer and booked us a crappy motel in the middle of nowhere for just a few days later.
Road to Nowhere
Today is the day, we have a long drive ahead and I am packing the car up accordingly. My husbands parents graciously agree to watch our dogs, so mom and dad get to have a little vacation. Our bags are packed, nice clothes hung up and ready to go, Cash is grinding up coffee for the road and the brisk mountain air is gripping my cheeks. As everything appears to be ready, I start pulling out fixins for snacks and pb&j dinner just in case, I am a snacker through and through so this is just standard practice for any roadtrip. Cash peers over his shoulder and stops me in my tracks.
" Dont go over-board. We don't need all that." He advises, handing me my coffee.
"Why not?" I ask, this is a conversation we've had before. Cash likes to pack light and leave early to get food, where-as I was raised to bring everything you need, to stay a good while at your destination.
"We will just get something when we check in or after the shoot." *famous last words* - I don't argue because we need to get going and he is probably right, anyway. But I managed to sneak a bag of stale scones and some granola bars, just in case. We give the dogs one last cuddle, hop into my Jeep Patriot and head to highway I-84 .
" Hey Siri, play 'send me on my way' by Rusted Root."
Tall whispering pines cling to the iconic PNW morning fog, as the sun steadily climbs over the horizon line of the mountain ranges ahead. We have taken so many drives on this road at this point, that I've memorized every crooked turn, rusted mailbox and old barns along the way. As we descend from Trout Lake into Hood River, you can catch a view of trains slowly crawling along the basin of the gorge, steam from the breweries billowing out from the hip little town, and Mount Hood majestically demanding your attention behind it. If we were about 1million bucks richer, I would love to live there.
Our route takes us paralleled to the little town, up and down huge rolling fields of browned grass and brilliant blue summer wildflowers. I take a moment to take in how lucky we are to be here, even when circumstances weren't the best. At least we were never short on the beauty of this wild landscape, little did I know that just months later, we would be engulfed in ash and wildfire smoke. For now, I was just admiring the beauty, staring out the passenger window and wondering if I could plan a shoot there.... or there.... or.... Oooh definitely there.
Before long, we got on the road that would take us directly through the John Day canyons. Grass fields are replaced with rock formations and dusty dead cattle ranches. I am pretty certain I even caught a glimpse of a real life tumble weed skipping its way across the dusty dirt roads branching off the main highway. Sign of life become few and FAR between, as we tackle long stretches of absolutely nothing scouring for a bathroom stop. Too much coffee.
We passed several lifted trucks filled with youth enjoying summer vacation by day drinking while floating the river through the canyons - and to be honest, that looked fun as hell. Then, back to nothing with the occasional freight passing through with wide loads and sharp turns.
As the hours pass and we exhaust every playlist we had, stories of childhood filled the car as Cash recalls a time his grandmother took him out here to hunt for fossils, a fond memory of an otherwise hardened ranch-woman. Google maps informs me that we are approaching the hole in the wall motel I found for us - the literal ONLY place to stay in the middle of nowhere. I hadn't seen a gas station for miles, and while concerning, I brushed it off for now.
I instruct Cash to pull onto a tiny road you would miss with the blink of an eye, that snaked its way through a tiny town with a school, convenient store, gas station that was so old it looked in-operable, and then our motel.
I walk toward the office as my over-dressed heels as the old wooden planks announce my arrival with each step. click, clack, click clack.
The door creeks open, a dainty bell rings overhead as I step inside scanning the lobby for an attendant. Its empty.
An older gentleman from the likes of your favorite western movie, emerges. We exchange a few words, He checks me in, rattles off some instructions and I thank him as I turn toward the door, room key in hand.
We have time to kill as we settle into our room, taking in the cowboy decorations that haven't been updated in ages. The rust colored carpet, beds made up with denim blankets on squeaking wooden frames, with mustard window shades - Well "alright, alright, alriiight."
Of course, we are a little hungry so we walk over to the general store down the street to see what they had there. There's a few aisles with junk food and microwave dinners, cooler for drinks and a little cafe out back. But we were informed that the cafe closes soon, and Cash re-iterates that we can get food on the way to the shoot, or if needed we will grab something when we return. So we left empty handed and got ready.
Where it gets interesting..
Our shoot is set for golden hour, Cash and I are in our Sunday best and plug in the route to Google maps. This time, we'd be on old gravel roads with limited to no cell reception, driving along steep cliffs as we climb and snake our way through the valleys. Occasionally you would pass buy an old ranch home nestled somewhere between ridges, but mostly the drive is scenic with undisturbed nature. Its roughly an hour and half from the motel to the location, and almost immediately upon turning down the 'ol dusty trail' we regret got grabbing a water bottle or small snack. We still hadn't eaten anything , and I cant recall drinking much outside of coffee that morning.
"Oh, well" I think to myself. "Maps says there's a town nearby the shoot. We will just go there after."
Now - I should preface that I am probably the worst navigator of all time, even with an app that tells me where to go. I have gotten us lost more times than not, and have personally adjusted my timing accordingly. Typically I am an hour early, just in case I took a wrong exit or couldn't find parking. . I also hate being late. So I begin to mildly panic as I watch the minutes tick closer to the scheduled shoot, and we are cruising slower than I would like due to the conditions of the road. Finally, we make it to a main highway, just one sharp right-hand turn and......"bloop" Google makes its re-routing sound and I realize we just missed the turn. Cash has to wait for a good spot to turn around, and once he does, we floor it back to the unmarked road I missed. This road was SKETCHY. Narrow, steep, full of loose rocks, moments of visibility followed by dust clouds and thick shrubs. Reception is completely shot, and I begin to second guess myself. Surely this road isn't the same one all visitors take? As we make our way down, we see there's a connection to a paved road up ahead - and a sign for the "John Day Fossil Beds / Painted Hills." I breathe a sigh of relief as we turn right and follow the arrows, the mountains open up revealing the 'paint' that gives this place its fame. A few miles pass and we pull into the parking lot, not long before our photographer and their entourage. This group is BURSTING with energy - they waste no time throwing open car doors, grabbing gear and greeting us with that southern kind of enthusiasm. We learned they are an LGBTQ couple with friends traveling from Virgina during peak covid. Not the choice I would have made personally but, you know that's cool or whatever. Her partner and friends were East coast alternative, doting thick tattoos, bright hair and the confidence I wish that I had. We quickly got started running through all the usual poses and prompts that I often use during my own sessions. The desert sun is still beating down as we work up sweat following along in our fancy boots, hats and full body wardrobe - it was HOT.
Of course it was, it was the hottest year on record (again.)
Ghost Town - Mitchell, OR
We wrapped up our shoot , all went well - albeit exhausted, sweaty and dehydrated - a lewk.
After making our way back to the parking lot, we exchanged hugs and the standard 'thank you & goodbyes' as we loaded up the car and left on our way back towards the little town of Mitchell that we'd passed on the way in. The sun was starting to set over the deep reds, blues and oranges of the painted hills, almost taking on whole new personality as the colors began to really show. Suddenly, the dryness hit us in full force. That kind of dry-throat/mouth combo that sneaks up on you, as your body demands water or death- if you're a smoker you know what I'm talking about. We start scouring the Jeep for a water bottle, old or new, it really didn't matter but came up with only an empty Desani bottle. Mild panic ensues as we realize the nearest town is a ways out, there is no fountain or water station in sight, gas is running low and we are feeling the effects of dehydration coming on NOW. Then follows the dread and regret that we put our damn selves in this situation, when 'we' decided not to buy our drinks/food even though we had all the opportunity. Anyway, there we were in the middle of a desert, by ourselves, no cell service and no water......cool cool cool. Cash takes charge and begins somewhat aimlessly driving around the park looking for the visitors center we saw at some point earlier and before too long we found it. A tiny outpost with a map of the many trails, information and rules of the park and *closed restrooms complete with one picnic bench on an oddly green patch of lawn. At first we noticed a drinking fountain and rushed over to it with the empty bottle in hand. But alas, the water wasn't running, the doors to the restrooms locked, and not a soul was anywhere to be found. Cash was making his way back to the car where I was waiting, shoulders slumped in disappointment when we happen to see that above all - the sprinklers were still operating.
Of course , cant have that precious lawn looking like the surrounding desert, can we?
It seems like seconds passed before I see a light in Cash's eyes and watch him high-tail it to the sprinklers jetting about behind him. There is no greater source of entertainment as watching your husband expertly timing himself to catch the water without getting drenched, and then trying to angle the bottle in a way that it actually accumulates water. He came back only a little damp, but beaming with satisfaction holding a half full bottle of hose water, handing it to me as he shuts the car door behind him and straps in the seatbelt. We promptly begin driving to Mitchell hoping we could catch dinner at a quaint restaurant from Cashs childhood memories. As we turn the last corner and head towards the buildings, we notice a lack of any sign of human life. Not a car, bike, or light could be seen as we slowly pull into the ghost town. There's a water station for travelers which had been long emptied, empty fossil shops and closed-due-to-covid signs everywhere, mixed in with rusted JohnDeer equipment and the occasional stripped down car. I was hoping to at least find a gas station as I've been watching my tank get lower and lower, but we were shit out of luck. Time to head home.
By the time we make it back to our motel, the sun had set on the desert and darkness engulfed the valley. The little general store, and any other business for that matter, had shut their doors for the night. We accept defeat, tired, hungry and utterly thrashed from all the travel, jiggling the ol' skeleton key to unlock our room when I remember the emergency snacks I packed earlier. Once we get in, I immediately rush to my overnight bag and pull out a ziplock of stale scones and old-purse granola bars. Dinner of champions for two, please.
We sat on the edge of our bed and scarfed the dry, crumbles of the scones and washed them down with almost-clear water from the faucet in our room, until the hunger subsided and we began to feel satiated. Cash and I decide to walk around the emptied streets and smoke a little bedtime weed before we rest up and drive back to Trout Lake in the morning. Besides some loud neighbors and our brutally stiff mattress, the rest of our evening was spent enjoying each others company and taking in this whole adventure, we even snapped a few of our own photos. The whole experience is a cherished core-memory for us now, and a reminder that some of our greatest stories have still yet to unfold.
The painted hills reminded me to be open to traveling to new places, near and especially far.
To remember not to count myself out of things that require a bit more effort and planning.
It reminded me there is much more to live for than success - there is life to behold.