Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
“If you ever need any help, give me a holler,” he’d said from under a big, black hat and for some reason, it stuck in my mind. Like so many things Aspen, the aura of somewhere else seems to carry weight with those who are from somewhere else, and they think those of us who grew up here should be impressed. “Yep, I learned to pack in Wyoming, spent a summer in Montana, too.”
As the old saying goes, “push came to shove” on a job I couldn’t handle alone, trailing six heavily-laden pack horses through the mountains near Lyle Lake, around Hagerman Pass, and I took him up on the offer. We were meeting a large group of hikers who had been in the wilderness a week or so, re-supplying them for the remainder of their journey.
The guy seemed good, ten years older than me; he had all the lingo, the right scuff on his boots, a great pair of batwing chaps (just shy of rodeo fancy), and a wiry grin under a full mustache that might have made even Calamity Jane drool a bit.
He scoffed at my insistence we use a scale to balance the weight in the sawbuck panniers and it unsettled me a bit, but everybody has an idea about how to do things, especially “experts.” He tied his canvas-covered loads down with double-diamond hitches and truly, they were a thing of beauty.
Loaded and ready to move out, my helper insisted I tie all six pack horses together so he could get going. “You get the stock truck turned around and parked and catch me on the trail.” And he took off toward Hagerman Pass instead of Lyle Lake. “You’re going the wrong way,” I shouted, to which I could only hear, “Bullshit.”
It’s amazing how fast things can come unraveled and this trip was no exception. By the time I caught up and showed him the map, a half-hour had passed and instead of going back down to the trailhead, my “assistant” insisted we could cut across the face of the mountain and still make the lake. “I’ll show you how to get things done,” he said. I was starting to see him as a deficient dunce, crippled by an oversupply of hubris and lack of brain power.
We’d divvied up the pack horses, but I wasn’t having much of it. We were traversing through large boulders, up a steep mountainside, and the switchbacks, as always, were creating a dangerous situation for the horses on the end of the string. It doesn’t matter how you do it, the rope between horses gets shorter on the corners, the further down the line you go. A good hand goes slow enough to allow his ponies to all get safely around the switchback.
That’s what a good hand will do. However, this guy seemed oblivious to the problem and on one particularly bad corner, the last horse just couldn’t deal with the lack of lead rope and available trail to maneuver around the hairpin. Without choice, she pulled back, broke the rope and tumbled backwards off the ledge, landing about ten feet below, stuck between two humongous rocks, feet in the air.
I could feel his itchy breath on my back, and while he fingered his .357 with an unfaltering throwback attitude to dime western novels, he spit it out. “We’ll have to shoot the bitch. Goddamn clumsy mare.”
“You stupid bastard, put that gun away and get back on your horse.” With a lot of cajoling, cussing, and downright physicality, I finally got Sourdough out of the mess she was in.
In spite of the broken pack saddle, and with no further “help” from my partner, we managed to make our rendezvous with perfect timing. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
He said something about wanting to go back to Wyoming, and I replied that I’d do everything I could to make that happen. And we never spoke to each other again.
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