Close calls, but not curtain calls
July 21, 2006
With some hikers having a run-in with lightning around Marble this week, thoughts of close calls have been searing through my mind, much as a lightning bolt would. The stuff doesn’t really scare me, but then again, I have a healthy respect for it.A few years ago, when my sorrel horse Donald was not much more than a colt, we took off from the cow camp with a pack load of salt on Reid, a crooked-legged quarter mare of excellent breeding, our first-line packhorse for the day. It was drizzling cold rain out of a steel gray sky, and the temperature, for July, was in the 40’s, maybe less. We had about a 10- to15-mile journey ahead of us, and lacking the diversion of a female campmate, took off at an early hour.Donald was skittish, dancing around and spooking at all kinds of imaginary goblins, almost to the point of being tedious. As we passed the neighbor’s cabin, my friend Wyland saw the performance and implored me to be careful. “Don’t worry,” was the reply.We rode for a couple of hours, me being challenged almost every step by my enthusiastic mount, and found little change in the weather. There was absolutely no thunder or lightning, giving me the sense that the clouds would be with us for a long time. We’d crossed maybe five or six ridge lines, passed an equal number of water holes and finally, after a slow slide through the dicey mud underneath Indian Playground, topped out at our first stop, the lick at Twin Oaks.I’d just realigned the pack after throwing off a salt block and was still on the ground when all hell broke loose. Out of the corner of my right eye I saw, not ten yards away, the dirt behind Reid explode out of the ground and an eye-burning flash from the sky above meet the yearning dirt at the same time. Reid was instantaneously knocked down, dead, I thought for an instant, but back on her feet almost as quickly as she went down.Donald pulled me high with his first jump, catching me up in an awkward position. Reid’s lead rope had been loosely dallied around my saddle horn, my left hand casually on both. When the explosion hit, the rope was inextricably stretched tight over the middle finger of my left hand, breaking it as I later learned. Somehow, I managed to get hold of Donald’s reins with my right hand as the desperate attempt of the horses to escape continued, jump after jump. At first I was afraid that I’d get more tangled up in all that mess and maybe killed, but then the reassuring thought struck me that, with my hand strapped to the saddle as it was, those horses weren’t going to leave me anywhere without a ride.Thankfully, it was over in a hurry, and we headed for an aspen-filled draw at a pretty fast lope, jumping over downed trees and sliding and slanting around others. The top of my head felt really weird, and I wasn’t too keen on finding out its disposition for a long time. My finger hurt very badly, and in a quick stop to regroup, splinted it with some cardboard and duct tape, and kept going. After traveling all that way, we weren’t going to throw in the towel just because of a little lightning.It was about dark, hours later, as we rode by Wyland and Judy’s cabin on our way home, the drizzling sky still draining down, and Wy said something about being worried and was glad we were okay. “Yeah,” I said, without stopping, “just another day on the mountain.”Much later that night, after waking with the shakes, I pulled on the whiskey bottle for its calming effects and wondered what a sight we might have made, two dead horses and a rider, without visible explanation, lying on a lonely ridge, high above the valley floor.Tony Vagneur thinks that episode was almost too close. Read him here on Saturdays and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.