The John Day River is a river in Central and Eastern Oregon, that empties into the Columbia River between the small towns of Rufus and Arlington. The mouth of the John Day River joins the Columbia only 40 miles east of where one of Oregon's other main rivers, the somewhat larger Deschutes, joins the Columbia. But whereas the Deschutes is fed from the high Cascade Mountains, with their prodigious snowpack, the John Day River drains an arid area. Its basin has varied terrains, ranging from sweeping hills and grasslands to the lower parts of the Blue Mountains.

The John Day River is 284 miles from its source to the Columbia, and it has no dams, making it the second longest undammed river in the 48 contiguous states, behind the Yellowstone River. The main fork of the John Day runs from east to west for around 60 miles, along US Highway 26. At this point, its barely more than a stream, especially in dry seasons. Around the town of Dayville, it turns northwards, passing through the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, before turning west, and then north again to make its final run to the Columbia River. During the last 60 miles of its (linear) northward course, it has developed a deep enough canyon that there is only one bridge over it, in the Cottonwood Canyon Recreation Area, and it is also in an area that is almost totally free of settlement or agriculture. The wild nature of the river, and the solitude of its course, make it a popular destination for rafters---but of course, not too popular.

Most of the course of the John Day River is sparsely populated. The river basin has an area of 8,000 square miles, making it smaller than the proverbial New Jersey, but the total population inside of its watershed is probably between 10 and 20 thousand people. The largest city the river flows through is the eponymous John Day, with a population of less than 2000 people. In recent years, as timber and ranching have lost economic focus in Oregon, the population has been decreasing.

I feel that my skills as a writer have failed me in describing how objectively and subjectively unusual a place like the John Day River is. That a river can flow for almost 300 miles, without a dam, and unbridged as well, and that it can do so through mountains, fields and gorgeously eroded plateaus, is something that I took for granted growing up in Oregon. Now that I am far away, I realize how unusual it is, and how hard it is to describe to someone who has not gotten to visit such a place. Although I have actually only followed the main course of the river twice in my life, and although I can't think of any realistic way I could live in such an isolated place, I remember and dream about being back.

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