If you were ever lucky enough to live out on the great sagebrush sea, like I was during a certain vanishing era, you might have enjoyed a slice of old Americana in perhaps the rarest of ways: trailing cattle and working horses.
The outback was, in those days–and still is to some degree–a kind of underworld, a parallel universe, richly populated with characters and stories both real and imagined.
Most folks, I think it’s fair to say, travel through the desert without much pause. They might admire some dazzling vista, or stop at a favorite greasy spoon, or even camp for a night or two on a lonely butte, but mostly they pour coal to the fire and yawn at the empty miles.
But there is a real enough daily life out there on the big oceans of desert, and it was out there, last Friday, that I was blessed to spend some time with a real American legend, Len Babb.
I first started hearing about Len, and his magnificent saddles, in the long ago, when I rode the big empty with another legendary buckaroo named Bert Lambert. Bert was a Mescalero Apache, up from New Mexico, who could rope a tick off of a dog’s ass at a dead run, and whose stories were so outlandish, so outrageous, and so thoroughly questionable, that I actually started writing them down. I have an entire notebook I titled, way back then: The Bert Lambert Lies.
An example from the notebook: “Bert said today that he once rode an ostrich somewhere near Christmas Valley, up in Oregon. ‘Not much buck,’ he said, ‘But they sure do run fast.’”
Imagine my surprise then, all of these years later, when I finally met Len Babb in person, and was enjoying a fine lunch prepared by his wife Gloria, and learned that so many of Bert’s imaginative stories of mayhem were actually true.
What makes Len Babb a hall of famer in the buckaroo world is not just his wonderful artwork, his appreciation for fine horsemanship, or his work for storied ranches such as The Padlock, out in Wyoming, or the ZX here in Oregon. It’s the longevity of his career. Most buckaroo careers look more like mine did: a deep, and altogether too short, dive into the depths. With wages stuck forever in the 19th century, that’s really just a matter of economics, and very few ever accomplish what Len and Gloria did, let alone raise 6 children.
Sipping root beer under the wind chymes on his porch—Len told me he had real beer, but we agreed the interview might go awry–I asked him the obvious question: Why did you stick it out all these years?
“Because I love it,” he said. Simple as that. And it filled me with a certain hard-edged, inexplicable personal remorse such that I couldn’t find a way to the next part of the interview. Len, mercifully, gave me an out. Bills are bills, he said, and then told a joke about his friend John Adamson, who was being interviewed by photographers out documenting the buckaroo life. They were curious about the changes John had seen in his decades as a working buckaroo. “Well,” John told them, “the wages are the same.”
I’ve long held a thought in my head, maybe too simplistic, that as soon as they start paving the roads, a mostly unexplored and unfamiliar and wide-open chunk of country is more or less finished. The mystery runs all out of it. At least for the folks that once enjoyed it for its demanding, and beautiful, remoteness. That’s possibly stupid, but when you’ve lived mostly horseback on a country, and learned its moods that way, there is more than a bit of remorse to see how easy it suddenly is to get from here to there.
We commiserated, just a little bit, on how the big ranches are breaking up and disappearing with increasing speed. We talked about how the country was filling up with people, “settling up” in Len’s words, and I mentioned, perhaps too bitterly, that “We can’t stop what’s coming.”
Len just smiled: “You can’t even slow it down,” he said. “Just be glad you got in on a piece of it. That’s the way I look at it.”
One of the things I love about Len, and it’s been true of so many of the real buckaroos of his generation, is how genuinely open-minded he is. “I never wanted anybody telling me what to do, and I never wanted to boss anyone,” he said.
A man like Len can say that without irony, and offer his life as proof, which makes him rare enough in the world.
In his hand-built log studio, which could easily stand in for a perfect bunkhouse on any ranch I’ve ever known, Len has an old FA Meaney saddle sitting on a rack. It has the WT mark on it, meaning it was built in the Wyoming Territory, probably in the 1860’s, and most likely in Cheyenne, by Frank Meaney—another legend of the cowboy underworld. He has a collection of beautifully crafted rawhide reatas—which he still ropes with—beautiful enough to make a sadsack towny like myself cry out loud. He has a pair of big-rowelled spurs that his father traded off of a Sioux Indian back in Wyoming, a rack of muzzle-loaders that he has killed bucks with, and a single skylight that throws the heavenly desert light down onto his canvas while he works.
Winters, he sits by the big wood stove in the middle of the room, turning beeswax into beautifully sculpted horses.
He has a buckaroo’s hands, lithe and precise, soft in a horse’s mouth, steady for brushstrokes on canvas, but hard enough in the right places to knock a rude man into next Wednesday.
Len focuses his work on the early years of the open west. “After the automobile came in, the glamor of cowboying went out the window,” he said. “I did a lot of good cowboying, but not like you wanna draw pictures of. People come around and say, ‘Well, Len, I guess you get a lot of ideas out there,’ and I tell ‘em I really don’t because what would you paint? Somebody getting out of a horse trailer? An old black cow staring at you?”
Len wants his paintings to sell, and they have, and I’m confident he’s on the edge of something much bigger, once the world finds him, but that isn’t why he does it. “The people I’ve associated with could count all their money without taking their hands out of their pockets,” he said. Which is the same motivation a buckaroo finds when he is moving three hundred pairs alone, miles from anywhere, up-canyon in a storm blowing sideways. Money isn’t the reason a man signs up for that kind of thing. It’s passion, a deep, abiding, unwavering passion.
My own grandfather begged me not to go out into the desert. “You’ll never have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of,” he said. He was right about that, and I knew it, but we both knew that it in my case it wouldn’t matter. You either hear the siren song or you don’t. And if you look out into the desert and hear it, and chase it down, lashed to the mast like Ulysses, it alters forever the way you see the world.
What informs Len Babb’s art, his drawings, paintings, and sculptures, is that siren song. He’s heard it his entire life, since the day his father moved the family from South Dakota into Glendo, Wyoming, hauling one truck full of horses, and one full of cattle, and stopping every now and then to pour water on the over-heating engines.
And then Charlie Russell came into Len’s life and threw gas on the fire.
Len Babb truly is a legend, and a man I am honored to have shared a few laughs with on a beautiful desert afternoon. He has heard those beautiful sirens of the outback singing in his ear, been lashed to the mast, and has sailed as close to the shores of Titan as a man in the modern era ever will.
this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, 1 August 2017