Last week, while most of Big America was flailing about in a toxic stew of mind-numbing polemics, Murphy Ranch buckaroo Tyler Mecham was following wolf tracks up Dairy Creek. Tyler is 19 years old, 6’3, with Modoc blood in his veins, and as solid a hand as one might hope to find in this rare hidey-hole of genuine Americana. He was up there helping the O’Leary Ranch sort their cattle out of a small bunch of holdouts when he found the tracks — while the rest of us were pushing nearly 700 head through Corral Creek and onward to the home ranch.
This was the annual drive of Murphy cattle out of the mountains, through the tiny town of Paisley, Oregon, (pop. 200) to the home ranch. We rolled in — cinematographers Sam Pyke, Cody Rheault, and myself — to film this annual event for the Len Babb Movie Project.
It takes weeks to bring this drive together, and begins by gathering cattle out of the allotments on the Fremont-Winema forest where Murphy cattle spend the summer, herding them out of that wild country and closer to the home ranch in stages. Weeks of riding brings the herd to the Murphy cow camp at South Flat where the calves are weaned off their mothers, the bulls sorted out, any dry cows or culls peeled off, and shipped by truck down to the home ranch for processing. With fires, drouth, and grasshoppers, it has been a hard year on the grass up there and so after the calves are shipped from South Flat the Murphys keep a hard eye on the available feed before starting the big push toward home.
For filming we were able to coordinate — in a last second thrill-ride of weather, competing schedules, and availability — to shoot the best parts of the drive home: one last day of gathering cattle together and pushing them into a holding pasture, and then the 12 mile drive down the Chewaucan River through Paisley town, and finally through the green gate at the Murphy home ranch.
The final day started early. Up at 4, breakfast at 4:30, catching horses at 5 am and on the road shortly after. We hit trouble immediately and once again enjoyed the verities of the ancient military adage: no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
At 5:15 Tyler called Brady Murphy to tell him there was a bull standing on the lawn in front of the Paisley Library. This time of year, the older cattle know what is going on, and the smart ones start drifting out of the mountains toward home all by themselves. So, at 5:17 we were — four cowboys crammed into a Dodge truck hauling a gooseneck trailer full of horses — ramming that bull with the front bumper up Mill Street back toward the mountains. Absolutely nobody wanted to jump out and chase him or worse, try to rope and stretch him out in the middle of highway 31. If you had been there you would have seen a truck and trailer criss-crossing over the road, headlights flashing off the front windows of sleeping households, ramming a bull on the fight until he finally turned. You might have heard the laughter coming from the truck and caught a flash of a short-dog of Fireball being passed around. It had a decidedly western flare and was mostly just amusing as that bull tried to give a decent fight but ended up — by way of a few backyards — trotting over the bridge, past the closed-down lumber mill, and out of town.
I’d have given anything to have that sequence on film but both cameramen were in my truck, already heading up the Chewaucan River and oblivious to what was going on behind them in the morning dark.
About the time Tyler was finding that wolf track, the cattle we had collected and started pushing downhill were traveling well through a burn scar from the 50,000 acre Brattain Fire. Earlier this fall flames jumped the Chewaucan River and roared up the opposite bank, exploding junipers and blackening ponderosas into naked skeletons, chewing up grass and manzanita, and leaping inexorably up the mountainside on its endless attack through a drought-stricken wilderness.
It is no exaggeration to say that the town of Paisley was saved by the ranchers and townsfolk who live there, including the Murphys, who fought that fire with their own equipment until crews could be brought in to help.
Back up on the mountain, the cattle churned fresh snowfall into a series of long, slick trails of ashen-black gumbo through the skeleton trees.
I was riding in the drag with Brady Murphy, Mark Lally, and Brady’s seven year old son Everett. Everett is fun to ride with because he can sit a horse better than most adults — is utterly fearless at a dead run over broken country — and also because his attention span is delightfully short. He will leave the herd, which he gives marginal shits about, and pursue whatever catches his eye — a tail of blue flagging hung on a tree branch, a badger hole, a strange bird in the willows along the river. That kind of energy and curiosity remains a delight, and maybe even grows in my admiration as I continue to find myself backed into a corner by America’s millions of moral busybodies and righteous political missionaries. They haven’t figured it out yet: there is no political savior for what ails our national soul.
We were pushing the cows along Corral Creek when Brady found the bear track. We let the cattle glide on ahead for a bit — they were lined out fine and we still had a dozen miles of trail ahead of us — and surveyed the tracks. It was a good-sized bear and had somehow escaped the fire’s devastation. It was a fresh track, probably put down earlier that morning while the sun was poking up and we were gathering loose cattle into a trail herd. There is always something elevating about finding a fresh predator track in wild country.
Although I am nominally known as the “Director” of this film, one thing I’ve learned after six months of filming is that nobody directs anything in documentary filmmaking. At least not this kind of documentary. On its very best days cowboying in the outback is dynamic and unpredictable. It can be likened to that famous phrase about flying, which goes something like: “long periods of boredom punctuated by shots of pure adrenaline.”
Cattle who spend most of their lives on the desert or in the timber aren’t your grandfather’s sluggish pasture cows. They are honery, high-minded, and can often be on the wild side. To get around them requires good dogs, great horses, and simply can’t be done without cowboys who know what they are doing. Four-wheelers just won’t cut it for moving cattle in the outback.
We got the cattle up out of the timber and river bottom and lined out on the highway, strung out for a mile between the lead and the drag, and then that bottle of Fireball came out again, and we spent a few more hours pushing them on towards town with ferocious gusts of wind knocking the horses sideways. Oh, and occasionally some simple bitch would try to outguess the herd and wander this way or that, but we’d haze them back into the flow and push and continue inexorably down the mountain.
The old lead cows usually know where they are going, and when the first of them began poking their way down Mill Street in Paisley they kinked their tails and lifted their heads and the trot was on. Sure, we had cattle in some yards and one or three who wouldn’t program, but the herd is its own kind of river and flows down the path of least resistance. One front-yard fence got wrecked. A crazy woman ran into that bull we’d seen in the morning and went rioting around demanding satisfaction and claiming it had thrown her in the air and broken her ribs. She threatened to sue everyone in sight demanding to know why nobody had warned her there was a “dangerous bull on public lands.”
A woman like that is more Karen than any Karen, and its almost hilarious to see her move into a town like Paisley and run amok with her own brand of urban and utterly clueless crazy. In the end she served as the perfect illustration of the urban-rural divide, an ever widening gap whose resentments and prejudices run deep.
In the end, one cow got stuck in a grassy lot in the middle of town, across from the Pioneer Saloon, and young Everett bombed in there to get her out. She was the last holdout and when he choused her out on we went, past Paisley School, down the road and finally through the Murphy gate into the home ranch.
People driving by in their RV’s leaned out the windows taking pictures.
We were lucky in a lot of ways. Out in the hard wind we beat a driving rain back to the home ranch, put the horses up and went inside where we were met with an incredible meal. We sat proudly at the Murphy dinner table violating the governor’s illegal diktats about gatherings. We filled our bellies and swapped stories, laughing to beat hell about the crazy woman, and downing shots of life-giving whisky between bites.
And those are the moments we live and long for, aren’t they? Tired in all of the best ways, in from the trail while the rain beats against the windows and the fire saws lazily in the stove, the cattle home for the winter and surrounded by great friends? Isn’t that the payoff? To get lost in the perfect-now instead of living in the rearview mirror — not pining for how things were, once, in the mythical west, but falling in love all over again with how the traditions are upheld, the legacies are still passed on, the friendships are still made in common bond — and with the American Cowboy, that greatest of all mythologies, with his horses and his saddles and his silver bits, his mecates and outsized rowels — still the beating heart at the center of it all.