Rounded hills stained deep terra-cotta red rise all around us, their dry, barren surfaces intricately crackled like the glaze on antique pottery. There’s not a single piece of vegetation in sight, and if it weren’t for the wooden boardwalk at our feet (and the lack of space suits), I could almost imagine we were walking on Mars.
But we’re not out in the cosmos, we’re in Eastern Oregon — on the Painted Cove Trail in the Painted Hills, a unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. In my book, though, this flat, easy, quarter-mile walk is better than any trip to space could ever be — simply because it’s something I can do with my mom.
My mother, now 70, has always been active and adventurous. She Jazzercized her way through her 30s, then Rollerbladed, bungee jumped, and scuba dived her way through her 40s and 50s. She even hiked Yosemite’s Half Dome on a whim. But her body began rebelling in her 60s, with arthritis, vision loss and subsequent surgeries slowing her down. But still, she could always get out and go for a walk. Until one day, two years ago, she couldn’t.
It was just a broken ankle, the result of one tiny misstep walking down a hill, but the effect was devastating. Even though her bones eventually healed, her damaged nerves didn’t. The pain didn’t just linger, it grew, radiating up her leg, making simple walks not only painful but dangerous. She fell again and again, breaking her wrist, her elbows. Within two short years, her world shrank along with her carefree spirit.
I wanted to get her outside again, show her things she hadn’t seen before. Show her that there’s still a world out there for her to explore, even if she has to go at a slower pace. And it turns out Central and Eastern Oregon, outdoorsy havens I’d always associated with lithe and nimble rock climbers, were happy to oblige.
Our Home Base
We rent a little house on the tranquil Deschutes River, near La Pine, where she can sit on the deck and watch the quiet river flow. Since it is so close to LaPine State Park, we take an easy, flat walk on the Big Pine Loop trail, getting up close to the world’s biggest ponderosa pine.
We take jaunts into Bend for Ocean Rolls at the Sparrow Bakery and window shop at boutiques in its compact downtown. We sit on benches in Drake Park and watch the ducks and geese, then watch crazy people in wetsuits surf the river channels at Whitewater Park.
But this excursion into the Painted Hills is what the trip is all about, a stunningly beautiful Oregon landmark that people of all mobility levels can access and enjoy. There’s a picnic area with ADA-accessible restrooms, and the five trails, clearly marked with their own parking lots, are mostly flat, quarter-mile loops. In fact, the Mars-like Painted Cove Trail and the fossil-rich Leaf Hill Trail are even wheelchair accessible.
We walk them both, plus the out-and-back Red Scar Knoll Trail, spotting lizards along the way and marveling at the eons-old soils, each colorful band of red, black, white and yellow a visual, mind-boggling reminder that this arid landscape was once a tropical jungle.
After almost a mile of walking, my mom’s legs needed a break, so we drive back to the Painted Hills Overlook viewpoint. As my husband and kids head across the road to the steep, 1.6-mile Carroll Rim Trail, my mom and I sit on a bench and take in the spectacular view. The softly undulating mountains, dramatically striped in bands of rust and gold, are almost unreal in their beauty. For the first time in two years, my mom seems genuinely happy. “It’s just incredible, isn’t it?” she says, and when I look in her eyes, I see that the grief at her loss of mobility has been replaced by wonder.
Hungry for More
The rest of my family comes back from their hike, flushed cheeks and starving, so we pile into the car and head just a few miles east to the tiny town of Mitchell. This gorgeously scenic part of Highway 26 looks so much like a set from an old Western, we almost expect to see John Wayne on horseback riding down from the craggy buttes above. And Mitchell itself, just a few blocks long, with its weathered wooden storefronts and old Stage Stop, only completes the effect.
The town isn’t frozen in time, though, as evidenced by the craft beers and vegan-friendly meatless “wings” at Tiger Town Brewing Company. We sit at the picnic tables outside and fuel up on both vegan and regular smoked chicken wings slathered in an array of the dozen or so spicy sauces. My youngest daughter proudly proclaims they’re not spicy at all — right before chugging a giant glass of water.
Bellies full and tongues tingling, we head home, but an hour into the drive, we hit Prineville and spot the Tastee Treet’s giant, neon-lit frosty. We can’t resist its charm, or the promise of shakes and floats, so we pull over and grab seats at the U-shaped counter.
With its pictures of vintage cars on the wall and red vinyl booths, the place reminds me and my mom of the diner she used to go to in high school, the same one she took me to as a little kid. That’s where she first introduced me to the joys of chocolate malts. Back then, she was the one making my small world a little bit bigger. Today I finally returned the favor.
If You Go:
ADA-friendly lodging options near the Painted Hills include rooms with either accessible tubs or roll-in showers, plus visual alarms and notifications for the doorbell and incoming calls. The city of Bend is your best bet for nearby hotels with ADA-friendly rooms, including the DoubleTree by Hilton, Hampton Inn & Suites, Hilton Garden Inn and The Oxford Hotel.
If you want to rent a car with adaptive devices like hand controls and pedal extenders, you’re in luck. Most rental agencies, including Enterprise, Hertz and Budget, can accommodate you at no extra charge. Give them at least three days’ notice, though big airport locations may be able to get you the car you need within 24 hours. However, these agencies generally don’t have vans with wheelchair lifts or ramps. Instead you’ll need to rent from a specialized outfit. In Oregon check out United Access and Wheelers Accessible Van Rentals.
When it’s time to eat, search for ADA-friendly restaurants (as well as other businesses) on AbiliTrek.com. Launched by a Western Washington University graduate, the site provides a directory of ADA-compliant businesses across the country.
Leave No Trace: The stunning beauty of the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument relies on keeping its soils untouched. Each band of colorful soil is thousands of years old, representing deposits of minerals and vegetation from back when this arid landscape was once a lush floodplain. And crusts of algae, lichen, moss and microfungi growing on the top of the soil help protect the hills from erosion and provide nutrients for vegetation. That’s why it’s incredibly important not to disturb the soils. Stay on the designated trails, keep a tight grip on your garbage, and leave the fossils where they are.