Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
We were a little spoiled, coming from the big town of Aspen, but hell, maybe linen tablecloths aren’t de rigueur in all of the world’s finest restaurants. We’d been eating dust all week, watching some of California’s best thoroughbred colts, dancing and climbing up the backs of their pony horses, fighting the necessity to become “broke;” riding through magnificent, lush country, past orange grove after hay field; and unwittingly enjoying the last vestiges of that verdant area before crushing growth smothered it.
The big boss had promised us a dinner in town, and true to his word, we traipsed into the finest that sleepy little Murrieta had to offer. Formica-encased tabletops were about as fancy as it got, sitting over a linoleum floor, and a whiskey and water or an old-fashioned, take your pick, came in a tall water glass.
The next afternoon, we loaded up my buddy’s mare (left previously in Murrieta to be bred), and headed home, through a circuitous route difficult to decipher in my mind. Cresting the Mojave Desert shelf and glimpsing the lights of Vegas in the distance, we took on a euphoric, although subdued and bleary-eyed countenance, thinking of the horse stalls we knew to exist behind a big-strip casino and the promise of a good night’s sleep.
Through youthful miscalculation, the beer we’d been drinking left us dog tired and news that the hotel had torn down the stalls in favor of miniature golf or some other notion of equally ridiculous substance left us without a game plan. The hotel manager directed us to a nearby fairgrounds, complete with horse stalls, but the humongous bug populations creeping around underneath the bedding convinced us to keep our headlight beams piercing the night sky.
Trying to sleep alongside a busy highway, in the back of a pickup truck, isn’t the best of worlds, and when a couple of semis pulled in, their diesels rattling at idle (necessary for the continuation of sleeper cab air conditioning, I guess), we moved on.
A deserted road somewhere in the flat landscape served as a good campsite, with room to feed and water the mare alongside the horse trailer. First light seemed to come almost immediately, and off to the side, about a hundred yards away and previously unseen in the black of night, was a corral, perfect for keeping our horse, had we known it was there.
Headed north on 91 for untold hours, we eventually decided we couldn’t go on without more sleep and pulled into a small town with a spreading cottonwood just off Main. The July sun was beating down, and not only did we need some shade, the mare might have needed it more. And, by some stroke of good luck there was a small corral just off the huge tree, perfect for the horse to stretch out and move around a bit.
This wasn’t a town on the tourist track, not even a cafe, so first we went to the tiny police station to inform the only occupant, a steely-eyed kid seemingly used to oddities, of our mission. “That’s good to know,” he said. “I’ll keep folks from bothering you, then.” Snoozing away the afternoon in a strange town with out-of-state license plates isn’t a good idea in a tight-knit, deeply religious community, not without explaining yourself.
Murrieta, with 1,500 population in the late ’70s when we were there, now numbers over 100,000. The thoroughbred farm is long gone, as are the orange groves and open fields. Highway 91, a lonely road on which we seldom saw another vehicle, apparently disappeared up our tailpipe and was soon replaced by the Interstate 15 corridor.
Las Vegas has always been a land unto itself, but the saddest part, I reckon, is the old cottonwood just off Main, in a town without a restaurant. The ligneous desert impostor, ravaged by desolate winds and scarce water, finally gave way to the march of time, and like an age-old middle-fingered salute to a dying West, a shiny new McDonalds sits across the way.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.