ioof #110
If you Google Fossil, OR, (pop. 470) and find the city Web site, you’ll discover an opening sentence claiming, “Fossil is situated in a picturesque valley in the rolling foothills of the Cascades….” It would probably be a shock to most people in Wheeler County to find they were part of the Cascades. I wasn’t even aware you could see the Cascades from Wheeler County. (Okay, so you can see the Cascades from Wheeler County, so what?)

And if you’re thinking “picturesque valley” as in, say, “New England picturesque valley,” you’ll be in for a rude shock. “Rolling foothills” gives no hint of the vast chasm of the John Day, one of North America’s deepest canyons, surrounded by depopulated wilderness.

If Fossil is connected to any mountains, it’s to the Ochocos, not as grand as the Cascades, but steep and broken land that repels casual visitors. The Indians made many of their last stands in the Ochocos and the tough, sun-bit territory still defies taming. The vistas here are broad and sublime. To the north of Fossil is the high wheat country of the Columbia Plateau, but Fossil turns its face to the fossil (duh!) beds and painted hills of the John Day Country, so that’s where I place their cemeteries.

The intense concentration of 470 people in the middle of the sage brush means, of course, that Fossil is, not only the urban center of Wheeler County, but also its county seat. This is where it all happens, You get a speeding ticket in Wheeler County, this is where you go. You wanna golf? This is where you golf in Wheeler County. Kinzua Hills Golf Course. Six holes. (How many do you need, for Pete’s sake?)

But don’t laugh or count this town out. It has, after all, both Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries. Often these two cemeteries cluster together, but here each claims its own hilltop on opposite ends of town. The IOOF Cemetery (Lodge #110) is much the larger of the two and is well organized along a ridge into long rows of curbed plots. I was there late on a perfect day, shooting pictures as the long afternoon autumn rays cast a golden patina over everything and the shadows stretched and darkened. This cemetery is well maintained and still quite active. You’re in good company, if you’re buried here.

Which brings me to the pitch:

Fact #1: The town is looking for ways to survive and even prosper. Witness, they’ve recently opened a fossil museum in hopes of becoming a mecca for paleontology types; we all know what an enormous audience that is!

Fact #2: They already have an “old peoples home” industry; I know that because it’s located right there on main street and the geezers are forever sitting outside watching the traffic. Kids cruising the gut on Friday nights; that sort of thing.

Fact #3: They have two incredible cemeteries in the Odd Fellows and the Masonic. Well, now, you can see where this is going. Voila! “Come to Fossil and become one yourself!” “Come for a night. Stay forever!” “Finish up here and you’ll have serenity for eternity.” Throw in a top notch gerontology clinic, and you’re in business. The possibilities are, dare I say, endless?

Even should you not want to retire and see the end of days here, you owe it to yourself to pass through this place just once. Unfortunately for Fossil and fortunately for you, the tourist trade hasn’t yet caught on in this secret corner of the Old West. You should come if only to reassure yourself that places like this still exist. But be sure to visit the cemeteries, they’re classics. And stick around, if you’d like. The price is probably right.


Head south out of Fossil on Hwy. 218, aka Washington St. The drive to the cemetery heads east off the highway on the outskirts of town. The drive starts out pointing almost back north, but curves east up a hill. Cemetery at end of drive.
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