“Moving backwards in language time, we reach the Old English leornian, ‘to get knowledge, to be cultivated’. From leornian the path leads further back, into the fricative thickets of Proto-Germanic, and to the word liznojan, which has a base sense of ‘to follow or find a track’ (from the Proto-Indo-European prefix leis-, meaning ‘track’). ‘To learn’ therefore means at – at route – ‘to follow a track’.”
Robert Macfarlane, “The Old Ways”
A few miles south of La Pine, Oregon, highway 97 offers travelers the opportunity to turn hard east onto highway 31. At this sudden intersection in the ponderosas – it is easily missed – there is a small sign welcoming motorists to the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway. It’s a pleasant enough sign, adorned with a silhouetted coyote yipping at the rising sun, and seems appropriate in its understatement if only to remind people that the entire world is not made of concrete, steel, and inter-personal friction.
This intersection has also come to symbolize, for me, the precise point where I am able to slip the pull of earth’s gravity – by which I mean the daily grind through the mustard gas of partisan messaging, third-world election shenanigans, virus hysteria, the evaporation of constitutional guarantees, the infiltration of big tech, and the endless salvoes of sheer stupidity fired by their allies in the entrenched batteries of Big American media.
I am not an astronaut, but it isn’t difficult to imagine that first moment of weightlessness after achieving orbit, a bright blue earth shrinking in the window, the sudden lightness of merely being, and what must also include an acute awareness of the millions of earthbound absurdities that complicate our lives beyond measure. It isn’t hard to imagine because I feel it every time I turn east onto highway 31, as though sucked through a pine-forest portal and launched out onto the vast sagebrush and basalt reaches of the Great Basin desert. This is my home country, an interior landscape as well as an exterior phenomenon, and also happens to be where we are making a documentary film. The people, places, imagery, and daily concerns are so radically different from popular culture they are, for all intents and purposes, on another planet.
I’ve been making this trip frequently over the last seven months, usually with Sam Pyke, an accomplished cinematographer and good friend, riding shotgun, the truck crammed with saddles and bedrolls, an ice chest full of beer and sandwich fixings, and enough camera gear to film any event in different formats at the drop of a hat. I’ve come to learn that flexibility and adaptation, skills I honed as a working cowboy, a Marine, and a police officer, are absolutely critical to the success of our film, and for allowing the story to tell itself while being in the right place at the right time. I’m glad those skills were front-loaded and practiced in a life that has often felt rambling and without any clear direction even as I lived it.
Mostly what I’ve noticed, and keyed on as a balm to the horrors back on earth, is the resilience of a small community of people working incredibly hard to preserve their traditions, their culture, and their livelihoods, toiling under enormous pressure by governments that neither see nor hear them, a dominant culture that routinely dismisses their education, intelligence, and experience, and which looks – viewed on television from the living rooms of Paisley – as fully packed with bizarre aliens as the cantina scene from Star Wars.
What’s instantly recognizable, and loathsome, is the arrogance and hubris with which television pundits, politicians, and mincing intellectuals deride rural America and the legitimate concerns of the people living and working there — while universally championing some mythical image of the working class. It’s an onion of absurdity and stark enough when sitting around the Len Babb Saddle Co. on a Sunday morning, drinking a beer for breakfast, watching Peanut Babb build a saddle, and listening to the conversation which has to do with horses, wolves, and beef prices at the auction in Redmond. And stories – always great stories told and retold of the characters who have populated Paisley over generations.
These topics aren’t pastoral in the romantic sense. They are daily and real life, real issues that will help determine whether or not the Murphys, immigrants from County Cork who built a ranching legacy over more than a hundred years by flat-out busting their asses, will be able to pass those fruits on to their grandchildren. It’s whether or not the over-corporatized insanity of Big America will simply crush smaller producers forever and turn every last corner of the country into a homogenized and lifeless arm of Amazon, Inc.. It’s whether or not the American promise – that hard work and playing by the rules is a genuine path to success — is now more fiction than fact. It’s whether or not America will ever again be capable of producing a man like Len Babb, who has spent nearly 80 years earning a decent living, paying his share, and raising responsible children from the back of a horse.
After a few days in Paisley, riding, roping, filming, playing dice late into the night on the dinner table at the Murphy Ranch on Clover Flat Road, waking in my bedroll to coyotes and cold stars in the cow camp at South Flat, eating great camp meals and knowing we’ve done something to earn them that day, I simply don’t want to leave. I don’t want to go back. It’s a cousin, I imagine, to something that Benjamin Franklin once noted. He observed that children kidnapped by Indians rarely wanted to be rescued, but that native children kidnapped by whites spent the rest of their lives trying to escape and return to their people. That isn’t a racial issue: it’s a cultural issue, and its something I feel profoundly every time we have finished filming and pack up our gear to head home.
This week we are, Sam and me, headed to Wyoming and Idaho for interviews. We will travel straight through to Cody where we have an interview with Jeremy Johnston, staff historian at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. He will have something beautiful to add to our story about Len Babb, about our companion themes of faith, family, friends, community, and cowboys. As the keeper of William F. Cody’s papers, he might also be able to give us insight into Buffalo Bill’s vision of the west, of Sitting Bull’s stark transformation from a respected leader of his people to a sideshow in a circus act – reduced to riding around the arena in a war bonnet for $50.00 a week.
When we leave Paisley we re-enter the earth’s atmosphere at precisely the point we left it: the intersection of highways 31 and 97. Approaching that place the road is straight for miles, and in the daytime you can begin to see the snowy heights of Mt. Bachelor on the far horizon. The trees are tall and line each side of the road like disciplined sentinels. There is a distinct sense, much like a spacecraft returning to earth, of how important it is to get the angle right, to hit the perfect window, so that we don’t skip off the atmosphere and bounce back out into space. It’s a question of mindset, of concentration, and I find myself focusing intently, gritting my teeth, my heart racing as I work to line the truck up just right. As we sail closer I can feel the heat and the friction and the sparks and see the orange glow building up around the windows.
I keep getting it right, that re-entry angle, but there is always a little voice at work that tells me some day I might not. And entirely on purpose.