We were riding up above it all, miles from the Murphy’s cow camp at South Flat in blowdown timber, when I saw the zucchinis. I can maybe be forgiven some momentary confusion – we’d been riding hard for several hours, chousing cattle out of some dangerously tangled alpine country – and I was feeling the fatigue from all of that when I came upon this unlikely pile of vegetables.
But there they were, not far from the center of actual nowhere, gnawed, still green, and partially banked against the rotted trunk of an old pine tree.
I parked my horse – a Murphy Ranch mountain ringer called Bugs — for a minute, and sat looking at the zucchinis and unscrambling my synapses for some explanation. This was the mental equivalent of the “startle-flinch” reaction to physical surprises which is, incidentally, important for gunfighters to master. Off to my right I could hear Len hollering at cattle, limbs cracking, and the almost primordial bawl of annoyed mothers looking for their calves among the trees.
Sometimes, the longer we stare at a thing, the more obvious it becomes what we are looking at. Which was the case with these zucchinis, though even as I sat a sweaty horse in dark timber I was instantly teleported back in time to a rainforest on the island of Ofu, in American Samoa, where I once found, on a steaming and rarely used trail between villages in the bush, an Old Milwaukee beer can among the vines.
Life on planet earth can, and often does, test us with various shades of incongruity. The beer can was not nearly as jolting – one imagines that aluminum beer cans wind up virtually everywhere on a long enough time line – as the shock of meeting, some days later, a retired — one supposes — Nazi Officer in the bar of the Rainmaker Hotel in Pago Pago. He was of the correct vintage, heritage, and deportment, and so I have no reason to believe his story as told to me in near whispers over whiskey sours was make-believe. That experience, born in the oppressive humidity and insect riot of an open bar in the south Pacific at night was — if you can imagine — as unnerving as sitting next to an actual vampire.
Back in Oregon I suddenly realized I was looking at bear-bait. Somebody had gone through tremendous gyrations to haul this crate-load of zucchinis into a tangled matchstick wilderness to create a bait station. Certainly they must have packed them in, no sane person would carry a full crate of zucchinis that far into the woods, and as far as I know zucchinis do not yet fall from the sky.
It is illegal to bait-hunt in Oregon, which as a sporting man suits me fine, but one encounters these sorts of mad efforts with relative frequency in America’s various outbacks. In the desert I have seen doublewide mobile homes beached and abandoned like Noah’s Ark on Ararat for no reason anyone can possibly comprehend. I have seen camps full of filthy women and feral children living under blue tarps tied to an ice cream truck in the sagebrush. So perhaps stumbling upon zucchinis in the woods, with such an obvious purpose, probably should not have set me back the way it did.
I was riding up there in the dark timber with Len Babb, the subject of our film, while helping the Murphy family begin the arduous, weeks-long process of gathering cattle out of their allotments on the Fremont-Winema National Forest. We had made a good morning circle, finding forty or fifty head scattered in pockets among the trees and were working hard to give them a good – if bawling and reluctant –push off the mountain.
Elsewhere, Brady Murphy, Martin Murphy, and Peanut Babb were working their own drainages and, as these things go, the goal was to meet up at the bottom with our day’s haul and push them all through a wire-gate into the broad meadow and the private ground at South Flat.
As it turned out, post zucchini, Len and I worked hard to keep our cattle lined out in the blowdown – they would corral themselves among fallen trees, split up, turn the wrong direction – and somewhere up there I lost my rope while prising my horse and myself between tight trees. I like to think of that rope up on the mountain, ripped clean from my saddle without me even knowing it, as a gift to some future buckaroo who might ponder why, and even how, that artifact ended up there.
Which wouldn’t exactly be incongruent, or at least won’t be until the greenies and the government are done with the hard and dirty work of kicking America’s western cattleman off public land. Then it will be a kind of relic, a coil of rope as physical evidence of a bygone era, a museum piece to the way things were as late as the 21st century.
In the end Len and I made a mighty push, but by mid-afternoon the cattle were tired and the trail ahead kept getting longer, and as we turned them onto a mountain road we had hell keeping them from diving off for water in the meadows below. And so Len, with nearly 80 years in the saddle, said we’d done enough. We pushed through the herd and down the road and there, at the bottom, the rest of the crew were waiting. They’d had their own battles, of course, and our total reward was an ice cold Keystone beer from the chest in the back of the pickup. We loaded our horses in the trailer, crammed into the cab, and laughed at bad jokes all the way back to camp.
I’ve continued to ponder the bait station, of course. There is a mystery in it and then again there really isn’t. What was clear was that no bears had found it. Porcupines and squirrels had been hard at work. But the bears hadn’t found it. I was pleased by that because the zucchini trick fails an important standard. A man should hunt a bear, or anything else living or not, with the dignity it deserves. He should smoke out his bear and take it with a lance, like the old natives, or rope it from horseback at a dead run — like Brady Murphy did once at South Flat — in a story that is both true and wonderful and full of courage all around. At least, that’s the way I’d have it if I could.