Painted Hills, Photography & Writing for Urth Magazine

A couple summers ago I went camping in eastern Oregon and photographed the Painted Hills while I was there. I ended up writing about my experience and the history of the park. Both the photography and writing are published through Urth Magazine.
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Painted hills hike in eastern oregon.
Once you get out of the car, you feel like you’re setting foot on another planet.

The landscape is comparable to something seen and experienced in a Star Wars film (or an H.G. Wells novel). An expansive desert scene unfolds through the curves of the rock and the streaks of yellow and red soils.

Painted hills desert landscape.
The Painted Hills in Oregon started to evolve 40 million years ago from volcanic and mudflow activity.

This, mixed with the terrain’s abrupt climate changes, played a key role in the formation of the hills. The fluctuating temperature changes materialized the band of colors stretching across the landscape; red sediments were formed in warm tropical environments, while cooler, drier climates gave some strata its yellow color. Each of these coloured bands tells a story about prior geological eras.

I am intrigued by the intentions of people visiting places that look otherworldly. The park itself is not Bierstadt-esque by any means. The terrain lacks the aesthetic qualities that typically make a park postcard-worthy: waterfalls, treelines, purple mountain ranges; the kind of place that makes you want to write a patriotic anthem.

Close up of red rock in the Painted Hills Oregon.
I think the allure of places like the Painted Hills comes from a ubiquitous need to understand who we are and how we’ve evolved over time.

The barren desert allows you to re-imagine the land inhabited by dense forests and three-toed horses. This kind of connection dissolves the boundaries between the geological past and present. Seen from this perspective, you start to realize the temporality of yourself and the surrounding terrain.
People walking on a trail in the Painted Hills.
As climate change persists in real time, it’s important to deepen our relationships with places like the Painted Hills.

The transparency and the rawness of desert rock gives us an intimate look into the geological continuum we’re currently moving through. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud says it best, “Geology has this PR problem. People think it’s about dusty mineral collection or just oils and glass, but it actually has both the pragmatic and a deep philosophical side. It’s about big existential questions as much as finding resources.”

Looking into the past will only help us make ecologically informed decisions about the future, and help us understand how our anthropological footprint will eventually reverberate throughout the landscape.