Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
June 24, 2011
Standing in the middle of the horse pasture, wearing thigh-high waders and leaning on my irrigating shovel with the rain drizzling down on my light canvas jacket, making mush out of the new Stetson protecting my head, a jubilation crept into my chest, the thought that maybe, by God, I did it right after all.
Never mind that it was Father’s Day, a Sunday, and I was alone. Hell, we work seven days a week only because that’s all God gave us, and besides, my daughter and I had taken a ride earlier in the day.
We covered well-worn trails, traveled hundreds (maybe thousands) of times by my fathers before me, starting with my great-grandfather in the 1880s. How many times had I, as a young boy, clip-clopped over these winding pathways, just my horses and me, packing salt for the cows or carrying a double-bitted axe wrapped in burlap, later a chainsaw, to clear deadfall from the cattle paths.
My grandfather and I took our last ride together along this stretch, the day before he had cancer surgery. Never again would he see the beauty of the narrow valley, or saddle his good horse, Slim. I cried for days after he died, so strong was his influence in my life, but come summer I didn’t have much time to think about him as I pushed cattle up the gut of Collins Creek.
We cut across the mesa and checked out the old gold miner’s small cabin, a gem gladly given up by the proprietor long before my granddad took out a surrounding homestead. The attempt is still there, a shaft hand-dug straight down, fashioned out of the whitish-clay that errantly promised soon-to-be, but unrequited riches. Did he look upon his view of the Elk Mountains across the valley as part of the expected wealth, or did the craggy peaks represent further hardship?
Down below, my daughter and son-in-law’s cattle graze in thick, lush grass, unaware of the history that has preceded them, or the way of life that some would think harsh. We lived large the dream of the West, the enduring fantasy that so many city dwellers think about while they stare at computer screens in windowless cubicles or beat the streets, wearing out shoe leather while trumpeting for more customers.
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By virtue of our way of life, our daily mode of transportation was horseback through verdant meadows of plentiful grass; everywhere we looked were landmarks of the centuries, Capitol, Daly, Triangle, Larkspur and other peaks; we raised fat steers that many only wished they could, and rode horses that could purposefully out-walk the cool, early morning breeze. We listened to the mighty roar of Woody Creek as its explosive high-water run-off rolled boulder into boulder, and we thought of it as our friend.
We sold that ranch, the original Vagneur spread, many years ago, but it has remained a part of my being. If I was 17 again tomorrow and headed out to move cows, no one would have to tell me the lay of the land or where we were headed. The memories have remained for almost 50 years, the priceless experiences of youth so numerous it’s hard to linger on any particular one, they blur by so quickly.
Contrary to the expectation of many in today’s society, there are no regrets about money left on the table or unrealized, nebulous opportunities for wealth, unlike those the long-ago jilted gold miner may have felt.
No, I’ve kept my hand in ranching all my life, because that’s what I love, and I’ll undoubtedly go out with a horse between my legs or a wish there was.
What makes it all right with the world is being able to ride the ageless ghosts of the past with my daughter and hear her say, “Wow, Dad, thanks for showing me this part of the ranch. Not many know it’s here.”