Tony Vagneur: Trails and tribulations
Stuck in the city, making college classes every day and putting the hum on my Smith-Corona electric typewriter late at night, my primary thought, after getting through the semester, was how much I missed the high country and the ranching life.
In the few moments it would take to doze off at the end of the day, I would often travel the old cattle trails in my mind, either packing salt to the disbursed herd, or just riding along in my mind for the relaxing effect it gave me. The promise I made to myself was that I would continue to do that as often as possible so that I never forgot my way through the mountains.
Not a small feat, for I’m talking the area between Sloan’s Peak and Mount Yeckel and all the drainages on the west and south sides of that, 20,000 or 30,000 acres of open country, if you add it up. Some places I’d been to once or twice, some numerous times every summer, and some maybe never.
Promises made (“Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,” according to Robert Service) sometimes fall by the way and after a time, I no longer traced those trails in my mind late at night. Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was carelessness, but the sharpness of my memory blurred like shallow footprints in the rain.
Oh, the genius of it, though, years later. Saddled up, with lunch in the saddlebags, I headed up to the high country of the Lenado range, my intention being to come down Casada Creek, one of my all-time favorites. We hadn’t run cows up there in 30 years and I missed it. Why take a map when a person such as myself had done that 100 times, you ask? Piece of hubris cake.
After putting my horse to a severe test in survivability, the map I later acquired told me we had descended down tree-clogged Sawmill Creek, a trail impossible, according to one wag, to navigate on horseback. My horse, Donald, could attest to that.
We’re all guilty of making wrong turns or getting discombobulated from time-to-time, and we generally live to tell about it. There was the day, shortly after an early summer snowstorm, much like the heavy stuff we’ve been receiving lately, that a buddy and I pushed a group of 30 or 40 cows up the trail toward our cow camp. The storm had bent and broken the aspen trees along the trail, and in one spot, the path became impassable.
Changing the plan on the spot, as often happens in the world of cattle and cowboys, my partner was instructed to head straight up the mountain, for about a mile, and when he got to the top and it leveled out, to turn the cattle east on the main trail running along that ridge. He and I had been down that track many times, knew it like the backs of our hands, or so the story goes. Yours truly would push them up to the ridge.
I’d about got those cows moved up to the top and it didn’t seem right; I should have been able to see them stringing along to my right, about 75 yards above me. Nope, no cows in view so I spurred past the bunch and found that my buddy hadn’t realized he’d reached the ridge. He’d crossed over the main trail, and our prized collection was following him down the mountain toward Ruedi Reservoir. Oops. With a little hollering and cussing, we got the gather turned around and headed in the right direction.
Weeks later, as we cleared the broken and bent aspens out of the lower trail, we talked about the mix-up and I asked him if he remembered the trouble we’d had with the cows. “You bet, don’t know what I was thinking.”
That fall, early November, a blizzarding snowstorm was working its way up that lonely mountain valley, and my cow-punching buddy was with a group of elk hunters. “If you guys stay on this trail, following the vale up, you’ll eventually run into camp. I’m gonna cut up the mountain here, catch another trail at the top, and follow it up to the cabin. I might spook something out of the timber for you guys, or the other way around. We better hurry, though, it’s gonna be dark soon.”
And my buddy went up the mountain, the way he had gone when we were moving cows, missed the trail on top of the ridge as he had before and continued down the other side, a treacherous, cold descent that included cliffs to be negotiated, surrounded by thick oak brush.
They found him and his horse, early the next morning, tired, wet, and still smiling.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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