Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
January 5, 2013
I came upon them from behind, a group of hunters looking out across eons of time, from the top of Larkspur Mountain over to Aspen Mountain, Mount Daly and Capitol, a view encompassing Independence Pass to Mount Sopris and beyond, including all the majesty of the Elk Mountains. Horses, for the most part, don’t make much noise as they travel, and it startles some people when they realize I’m getting close.
The U.S. Forest Service insignia on my jacket fairly well gave away my reason for being there, and the men invited me to sit and visit with them. The overhead sun had warmed the grass, and there was a general air of relaxation as we exchanged pleasantries. It wasn’t their first hunt, but they’d driven up from Texas so there was a sense of urgency to their mission.
Even though new to the territory, these guys didn’t have very many questions, and it seemed they had studied the lay of the land well. As we sat and talked, it was clear they were in the midst of a plan of action, although it was impossible to tell what, exactly, they were waiting for.
Then I heard the muffled crackle of a radio, concealed underneath a heavy coat, and the plan started to take shape. Three of the guys grabbed their rifles and headed toward the aspen trees on an expansive ridge to the west. A couple of guys down below on the mountain had spooked some elk our way, and with the radio transmission, the guys I had been visiting with were given the cue to get in the most likely spot to intercept them. Their excitement was running high, but as I prepared to mount up and leave them to their hunt, I noticed one had lagged behind.
He was big, well over 6 feet tall, and as he approached, he stuck out his hand, creating an intimacy in the moment that hadn’t been there before. He was a fighting man, back on leave, but “come December,” he offered, he was heading back to Iraq for his “third tour of duty.” And then he lobbed the nature of the conversation out where it couldn’t be missed.
“I don’t think I’ll make it back,” he uttered, with an accompanying sadness in his eyes that gave full weight to the statement.
Two tours like that can use a man up; there wasn’t a full deployment left in his being, and he knew it. The intricacy of staying alive in a war-torn country filled with civilian insurgents requires energy the rest of us are poorly disposed to understand. Experience told him his predicament, but it wasn’t something he could talk about with friends. Like men of honor everywhere, he’d made the commitment, and that’s how it was.
After he quickly spelled it out, we silently stood there for a few minutes, looking out at the wildness of the surrounding mountains. Without speaking, he was struggling with soul-searing, end-of-life issues no young person should have to contemplate, and somewhere deep inside, a shiver went through my psyche. My brother Steve died in 1977, a tragedy still strong in my heart, and the mystery of that event gave me an empathy I might not have otherwise had.
There was nothing left to say, and what could you say, anyway? I gathered up the reins of my saddle horse as notice of my departure and reached my hand out in one last gesture. Suddenly, in the serendipity of the moment, we hugged, a warrior and a horseman, two strangers on a mountaintop at 11,500 feet, joined only by our wonder at the mortality of our choices and the strong embrace of men who had fleetingly recognized eternity in the brief moment we had together.
His name was lost to me almost as soon as he said it, and I’d never check anyway, but I hope he made it through his tour and is enjoying life somewhere. Maybe it’s possible our short-lived encounter gave him the strength of another day or two that he didn’t have before. And that’s the heart of the story.