I left off with our arrival at the Painted Hills. From there, we decided to continue to the Sheep Rock unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. To many people, the difference between National Park Service, National Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management (not to mention State Parks, County Parks, and City Parks) is not even thought of, but being a government school geek, this is something I tend to note. In this specific story, it's worth bringing up because it is the source of our difficulty in finding a place to sleep that night. I wish someone would make a website or a book that lists ALL of the places to camp in an area, not just National Forest Service campgrounds, not just State Parks, etc etc etc. We had a AAA book, but it didn't list BLM campsites, perhaps with good reason, as my story will illustrate.
At Sheep Rock (where, as a side note, we toured the most non-boring NPS visitor's center museum I've ever visited, which included fossils of plants!!!!) the park ranger on duty helped steer us toward a place to camp. The places listed in our AAA book, all National Forest Service or privately owned, were located at higher elevations and would get very cold at night, well below the freezing temperatures to which our sleeping bags were rated. Looking at the map, we realized that many of these were in the same Ochoco National Forest we'd driven through earlier that day, the same forest that had been covered in snow.
The two located at a lower elevation were not listed in our AAA book and they were BLM-owned. "But they're really rustic," the park ranger warned us. "No bathrooms, just pit toilets."
Ha! We thought. A pit toilet is still a toilet! We can handle that. (And we could.)
My boyfriend "Brandon" had the presence of mind to ask where we could buy firewood. I, on the other hand, assumed that since we were near a tourist attraction, there would be somewhere near the campground to not only buy firewood, but also a hamburger and maybe even a Pepsi Throwback! I was convinced that entrepreneurs would be taking advantage of the needs and wants of tourists flocking to these natural wonders. My mind was incapable of absorbing the reality that there were no flocks of tourists and most of the surrounding land was owned by the federal government; therefore it could not be purchased for any entrepreneurs to open firewood/hamburger/Pepsi Throwback stores.
So we continued north on Highway 19 to Kimberly. When Kimberly turned out to be nothing more than a sign in the road, no gas station, no firewood store, and no hamburgers, reality started to intrude upon my perception of things. When we turned onto Highway 402 toward Monument, we decided to stop for the night at one of the two BLM campgrounds rather than see if Monument was in fact a real town. The first we came to was called, "Lone Pine." Campsites were not far from the shores of the John Day River and it was completely deserted. We were pleased with Lone Pine, but continued a fraction of mile up the road toward Big Bend regardless. At Big Bend we decided to camp, though I do not recall why we made this decision.
As we drove up Highway 19 and along the John Day River, I was struck by the colors of small trees and shrubs along the shore, twigs and buds the same bright reds, oranges, and yellows of the Painted Hills themselves. Towering above us, the river, and these trees and shrubs were sandy hills or mountains--some geologic structures whose name I don't know--with scrubby dark green patches of some kind of plants scattered up their rocky faces. This same scenery greeted us at Big Bend. Here we perceived we were not alone as we would have been at Lone Pine; at the opposite end of the campground from where we pitched our tent was a burning campfire. From behind one of the juniper trees near the campfire, I could see a dark lump, the gut of a person leaning against the tree warming himself or herself by the fire.
We began to set up camp. The desert was extremely windy; every time we managed to stake down one corner of the tent, another would get dug up by the strong wind and start to blow away.
I tried to help by gathering heavy rocks to hold down the stakes.
Eventually, I helped by holding the entire tent down, instead of just one corner. The best way to accomplish this was to throw myself across the inside of the tent, face-down snow-angel style, with my feet in the air because I didn't want to take my shoes off.
Once this was accomplished, my camping companion announced that it was time to put up the rain fly.
"Whyyyyyy?" I whined. "It's not going to rain. We're in the desert!"
He insisted that we should take this precaution anyway, just in case. Protesting, I began to help. The wind picked up speed, and once again I found myself holding down the tent in the same face-down-snow-angel fashion.
We looked wistfully at our fire ring and at our sole neighbor's campfire burning brightly and merrily away. We had brought no firewood and our park ranger friend had ascertained, by calling stores in the surrounding area, that no one sold firewood. There was a little bit of wood left behind, mostly some charred log fragments and two large boards from an unknown structure. They still had rusty nails at each end. We decided we could burn that, if we could only make the boards small enough to fit in our fire ring. But we had forgotten to bring an axe; it was still sitting in my apartment in Portland next to my fireplace.
Then my camping companion had an idea. He jumped into the car and dug through the large plastic storage container he brings on all of our trips. He emerged from the car with a shovel, a handy camping shovel with sharp teeth on one side!
And then, it began to rain.