I feel extremely fortunate to have escaped much of the Cat 5 Garbage Tornado that is Big America while down in Paisley, Oregon, with videographer Sam Pyke last weekend – where we began filming for the Len Babb Movie Project.
Just one note on the collapse and then I’m moving on: I feel emotionally and physically very distant from all of the pillaging and ransacking but one thing I’ve grown extremely weary of is the trend toward righteous political thinking. That’s become inescapable and dangerous because it appears now to be hardening into militancy on a broad scale. Most of this stuff is simple: treat people the way you want to be treated – but the messaging has somehow become so convoluted and spastic and packed with overwrought emotion and finger-pointing and historical nonsense and outright fear that I just find no profit in engaging.
And, while all the morally upright and progressive world-savers were defacing the Lincoln Memorial and killing each other because some bad cops blew it, out on the desert the ZX cowboys were pushing a couple of thousand head single-file down a draw fit for a Charles Russell painting.
May you someday be blessed to behold such a vision.
At any rate, last Sunday morning I rolled out of bed at 3 a.m., pouring coffee stronger than hot turpentine down my gullet – which isn’t my usual morning jam — and drove south into Bend to load up Sam and a small mountain of production gear. Sam runs with no fewer than five cameras — including a Mavic Pro 2 drone for which he has a very snazzy FAA license – which one would expect from a guy who travels the world shooting outdoor television shows and short films and whose work is so superbly – and I really do mean superbly — accomplished.
Sam’s work reveals that he has feel, that intangible thing which elevates both art and horsemanship and is exactly what this project requires.
At Sam’s place we got the gear squared away by the glow of my taillights. There was a gray buzz in the air when we rolled south through the zombie-tweaker forests of La Pine, Oregon, and made the hard turn east, onto highway 31, down the Oregon Outback Highway. And you could almost feel the burdens of Big America fall off like an old skin as we left the smoking crater of human passions well behind — racing past the ancient packrat middens of Fort Rock in the rising sun and onward onto that great big desert that raised me and stole my heart and soul so long ago.
For me – and we are all different – creative projects come in the form of random threads and hazy images. They just come flashing through, and I’ve learned to pay attention to them, which is why I have piles of notebooks everywhere. 99% of those flashes come to nothing, but I get them down in the books anyway. And so my head and notebooks are filled with images I want to put in this movie project about buckaroo and western artist Len Babb, and one in particular meant that we had to drive up on Winter Ridge to shoot some B‑roll footage.
History buffs might remember that it was up on Winter Ridge, in 1839, that Fremont came stumbling out of the Klamath country, mostly lost and wandering, and found himself on the sheer-edge of a towering fault block – one of the largest fault blocks in North America — in two feet of snow, staring down into the Great Basin desert and what looked like an oasis paradise far below.
Fremont’s travels gave those places the white-man names they are known by now: Winter Ridge and Summer Lake, but natives had been living in the country for over 14,000 years and presumably had their own names for them. Far across the valley sits 5 Mile Point, the oldest known habitation in North America, and the frisson I experienced next day, when we were filming Len and the buckaroos work cows within a stone’s throw of those same caves was nearly overwhelming. History on the desert is layered, and nuanced and just quietly as complicated as anywhere else.
At any rate, Kit Carson and the other scouts with Fremont found a way down off the ridge and built an enormous bonfire at the bottom so that the others could aim for a point to land. Based on my unscientific calculations, and Fremont’s journals, that fire would have likely have been built and burning somewhere behind where the Summer Lake store sits today.
And some truly unlucky bastards in the party had the unenviable task of getting Fremont’s howitzer off that mountain too.
As we approached the turnoff to Winter Ridge – it’s an eighteen mile trek on decent dirt roads to get to Fremont Point — the weather did not look promising for shooting video or even still photography. The light was dull and bad and everything sat under a kind of thick fog. We had been watching a bank of clouds that seemed to be squatting on Winter Ridge but as we approached we discovered that high winds were pushing the clouds around and the result was an unbelievable opportunity to shoot in almost magical light. Every hue in the spectrum was somehow suddenly dazzling as the clouds shredded in the wind. There were clouds boiling over a rocky precipice and Sam launched his drone to capture some very impressive footage that will feature in the trailer we are producing.
High up on Winter Ridge the grass was green and deep and the only thing missing were the elk, who were probably watching from some of the Tolkeinesque meadows that are strung unexpectedly through that part of the country — and this time of year full of nutritious feed for ungulates. There are wolves back in that country which will play absolute hell on elk populations on into the future.
We shot a lot of great film up there before coming down the Government-Harvey road into a scene that seemed to jump, fittingly, straight out of Russell or Remington. To the north Summer Lake was a flashing mirror under clouds and out east the shadows of those clouds went racing across the desert floor into a kind of prehistoric distance.
We made it into Paisley where there are no stoplights and the café burned down last year before heading on up to Len and Gloria’s for lunch and to interview Len.
After, we followed Len down to the Len Babb saddlery — now run by Len’s son Peanut — and were fortunate to be able to interview both Peanut and a working ZX cowboy named Jody Cooper. Jody works the Viewpoint ZX out of Christmas Valley, Oregon, and is learning to build saddles alongside Peanut. Peanut builds about a dozen saddles a year and fetches a fine price for what are handbuilt masterpieces of functional art.
The saddle shop itself is a kind of memorial to the desert cowboys who call this part of the world home and headquarters, and enormous ranches like the ZX remain high on the checklist of working cowboys everywhere because they still send cowboys out to ride every day. Every year new crops of cowboys passes through and the walls of the shop are covered with photographs of the legends.
The interviews went well though I began to see that this project is bigger than I had initially imagined, and so a lot of this process will be me refining what it is I’m doing, what questions I’m asking, and probably circling back to re-interview. I had expected that – to some extent – and anyway I’m always comfortable when I’m learning something new.
The next morning started early. I was out of the rack at 2:30 and opened the door to my room at the Sage Inns to see what the sky looked like. The report had called for rain which is sometimes hard to come by on the desert. But it had been raining and when I opened the door an old black cat was staring at me. It skittered off but I’ll admit I worried about the omen proving some superstitions are packed into the marrow.
I made a pot of coffee that was utterly terrible but by 4:30 Sam and I were gathered outside the pasture where Len and Peanut keep their saddle horses. We filmed them saddling up and shortly after Brady Murphy and the rest of the Murphy Ranch crew rolled up. The horses were loaded and away we went out onto the desert.
I’m going to leave it all right here, for now, because I’d like to leave some surprises in the trailer and also the feature film, and also because its raining and I’ve already had one lightning fire on the Figure 8 this year — and I hear lightning cracking again. Lightning struck an old juniper not far from the barn last week and turned that tree inside out — a raging flue fire until the firemen showed up.
I’ve attached the GoFundMe.com video update that I’ve made for contributors to the project, which will give you a flavor of some of what we are doing. The first few minutes is me yapping which you may want to skip, but the latter half of this vid has some images you might like. The high quality stills are from Sam’s professional cameras, and the vids are just iPhone stuff I shot for the updates. The real stuff is off the charts good.
At any rate, keep dodging the rocks and bottles, treat your neighbor the way you’d like to be treated, wear a mask if it makes you feel better, and when you lay down tonight after getting a full toxic dose of the evening news, maybe conjure up those cowboys out there on the desert rim, pushing 2000 head single-file down through the rimrock just last week.