Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Dynamite is one of those things that brings forth all kinds of images. Noise, for one. My buddies over at the Smuggler Mine used to get a lot of credit for waking Aspen up on the Fourth of July, with a little help from explosives. Apparently, the wrong feathers got ruffled and that’s now forbidden. Yeah, right.

Western movies always seem to have a scene with dynamite placed under the railroad bridge by thieving outlaws, or thrown through the windows of misaligned cabin outposts. The intensity of the suspense is always increased by the length of the fuse – will tragedy be averted before the fateful explosion?

The word dynamite comes from the Greek word “dunamis,” meaning “power.” Dr. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and other explosives such as gelignite, the first plastic explosive, also left an endowment worth millions of dollars in his name to benefit those who excelled in various fields such as literature, physics and chemistry. That’s not the same outfit that comes to town with Nobel/Sysco written on the sides of its trucks.

When we were in grade school, the story went around about Hoofy Sandstrom, an irascible holdover and drunk from the mining days, who blew up an ant hill in his front yard with dynamite. His house is still there, ironically, over on Midland Avenue, although it’s hard to tell about the ant hill. Indubitably, an Iowa farm boy retold the legendary tale just last week.

One year, we had a great flash flood out in Woody Creek and I learned firsthand about dynamite. Any mud and debris that wasn’t pushed off the hay fields by Doug Farris and a D7 Cat got blown out of the ditches by my dad’s blasting expertise. Mud went up in the air like so much Jell-O out of a cannon and landed about the way you’d expect it would. Splat. Like cow pies on pavement. I was 9 years old and in charge of traffic control.

Allen Vagneur, a man of my dad’s generation, was dispatched to blow up some porous red sandstone along one of our irrigation canals, with yours truly sent along as a helper. We methodically laid out numerous charges, over a length of maybe 20 yards.

We’d no sooner crawled under Johnny Hyrups’ behemoth D7 Cat for protection when Allen guessed he’d missed lighting one of the fuses. Out we came, the both of us, me just because I didn’t have any better sense, to find and light the errant fuse. We then ran like crazy back to the safety of the Cat, diving under it just as the inevitable concussion of explosive force rattled the canyon walls and flung powder-smelling rocks sharp against the steel blade of the huge machine.

Out at the ranch, we kept dynamite in a big, faded red, wood box in an unlocked building near the house. It probably held 50 sticks of telltale thin, greased and reddish cylinders, just like you see in the movies. Fuses and blasting caps were stored nearby. Every spring, I’d stop by Tomkins Hardware to replenish the supply. It wasn’t a big deal to anyone involved.

On my first avalanche blasting expedition for the Aspen Mountain ski patrol, I thought I knew more than Tim Howe, the Avalanchero, and didn’t quite properly prepare my charge. Tossed in a stellar and accurate fashion over the side of the Short Snort Cliffs, we waited impatiently for the muffled blast of the bomb, which never came. I’d created a misfire and was dispatched to rappel off the side of the granite cliffs to retrieve my “dud.” That might have been fun, had it not been accompanied by the embarrassment of having made a rookie mistake by someone who should have known better.

I’d like to wish you a dynamite day, or tell you that growing up in Woody Creek was a blast, but that sounds so silly, now doesn’t it? Instead, go check out the historic Smuggler Mine.


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