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“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.
Keith West says
Well said, sir. And I love the pictures.
Craig Rullman says
Thanks Keith. These happen to be my photos but between Sam and myself we are assembling terrific collection that we intend to put into a companion book.
Chris Youman says
Well put. I felt as if I were right there with you reading this one.
Noreen Murphy says
I cannot wait to see the film as your words have transported me to another world. The scenery is beautiful. It’s always nice to see an Irish connection with America.
Craig Rullman says
Thank you, Noreen. We are working hard it. Rest assured that the Irish-Americans in and around Paisley — even the name is a giveaway — take tremendous pride in their heritage. As well they should. We are hoping to make a beautiful, and maybe even important, film that many will take pride in and look to as a source of inspiration for years to come. I am grateful for your support. Slainte. 🙂
Noreen Murphy says
You are very welcome ?
Find and keep your peace. It seems to preserve my own intellectual autonomy I must now work much harder as the cacophony of top of the brain thinking mouthpieces jab relentlessly at my ( albeit limited) cerebral resolution with superficial spears of witless and vapid pronouncements pretending punditry.
Find your peace
Craig Rullman says
Keep it and guard it jealously. Pay it forward where you can. Thanks for being here, you crazy Salmon Santa 🙂
It’s great that you found something MEANINGFUL for you. Part of the problem with modern times is that people look to politics to find meaning. Politics, of whatever stripe, does not give one meaning.
It is also great that you actually CREATED something.
Craig Rullman says
I think something in that combination of meaning and creation is the key. I have recently become obsessed with Chef’s Table on Netflix. The principle reason is that the one common theme between these wildly different talents is that when they started sourcing and cooking with local ingredients, each and every one of them took the next step into profundity. It mattered to them. And they created from it. The formula seems to work no matter the genre.
David Wrolson says
Craig‑I ran across a documentary “Losing the West” that seems to hit many of your themes.
I bought it on Amazon-but it looks like you can watch it for free on Youtube.
»>”“Losing The West” is a documentary film that promotes small ranching and farming, as told though the eyes of a 70 year old native american cowboy. The film was shot primarily in Colorado. The director was born in Denver and owns a small ranch near Ridgway, Colorado.”««
Seems to also touch on the new urbanized inhabitants of the rural west.
Craig Rullman says
I have seen it and what distinguishes our film from
So many others in the genre is that we are not mourning loss or focusing on how hard everything is. We are distinctly focused on a brighter view. Challenges, yes. But people
Of incredible resilience and fortitude who love what they have built, what they are doing, and the future they are fighting for. Far too many treatises in this oeuvre are built around loss and losing. We are focusing on resilience and winning. It matters.
Cary Schwarz says
Good stuff amigo. See you soon.
Craig Rullman says
Thanks, Cary. Can’t wait.
Don’t forget the fake meat…
One of the most refreshing elements of coming up north is the real working class. People who want to work; people who will say something if you are acting like an a*****e; people who do support cops and soldiers; people who don’t (at least on the outside) hate the concept of a free, lawful country.
Covid sucks big time up here, but seeing people run to nature for healing and connection even as Winter approaches to remind us of who is in charge, is refreshing and encouraging. My wife and I watched Eagles ripping salmon form the lake yesterday as that generation is wrapping up their chapter of life and now providing the animals and trees food to continue the cycle. Humbled to witness it.
We just watched the boys roll out three-deep, 0530 in the 4WD, on their way to the first wrestling tournament of the season. Hungry, thirsty and ready to get after it for eight hours of wrasslin.
What else is there?
Also excited for the film and I can remember my own pause at the Sherman Pass intersection, wondering how I was going to endure the city until I returned to the high country? Answer: not very well.
Your Wyoming adventure sounded super interesting, can’t wait for that debrief.
Denise McEachern Gross says
How I will forevermore think of this intersection. For four years I had the pleasure of traveling these roads, using this portal almost daily to this otherworld getting to know and falling in love with the land and the people. I left a good chunk of my soul out there and am grateful to have done so. I get back as I can but I miss it all the time. Thank you for the trip in your words.