Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
September 10, 2011
Squatting on his haunches, a Ute child plays with a stick along a streamside trail, poking at the mud. Occasionally, he mimics his father by pulling back the imaginary sinew string in a mighty bow and takes deadly aim on an illusory, charging grizzly bear. Unobtrusively, the tiny creek burbles along, carrying a perpetual gush of lifeblood for all living things.
Years later, he may have come back as a young warrior, with three or four other youths, scouting the area for elk or deer, or perhaps seeking good luck from the elusive and magical bear. Stopping in mid-stride, his horse’s ever-alert ears may have flashed forward on their target, signaling him to the sow lumbering away after she’d sent her cubs up the nearest tree.
Portions of this trail the Utes traveled so long ago still follow the stream and dart through the woods in the same narrow valley. Huge, stately aspen trees, solidly at home, stand sentry in a basin at the top of the age-old passage, their pallid bark intermittently scarred black by the claws of ursine youngsters, scurrying out of harm’s way.
We sought this trail on purpose, a respite from the usual, well-worn paths we know so well. There were no mountain lakes, no majestic peaks to scale or throngs of eager-faced hikers, gliding along with the conviction they had found Nirvana.
With nothing but the deafening roar of the natural world for accompaniment to the exquisite display of our surroundings, our hike was one of unpredictable discovery. We found still-existing clues to the past here and there, and a certain solace pervaded our pace, leaving us secure in the knowledge that we had found something unique, even in this age.
Memories came quickly – the steak-fry’s we had at the mouth of the canyon when I was very young, the summers of tending cattle here as a teenager, the makeshift camps I held down each spring while I fixed fence and packed salt for the cows and the dreams I dreamed as a youth, both practical and otherwise.
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It has been 20 years or more since I’ve graced this trail with my presence, and it looked as though no one had cleared the debris since that last solitary visit. Ranchers no longer run cows around this neighborhood, and in places the trail is almost indistinguishable from the surrounding vegetation.
In the cool of the shade, I dropped down to examine green moss covering a portion of the ancient path, and suddenly an awareness of the encroaching obscurity drew me in, the redness and pungent odor of its soil flooding my consciousness and the deep labyrinth of my mind held the spirits of my grandfather and father strong before me.
In my vision, the mountain stream swirled and gurgled around us, the tall, lush grass gently danced and swayed with an exhalation of tender breeze through the aspen grove and my grandfather rode tall and straight in the saddle, setting the bar high. My dad walked beside me, teaching me the things I needed to understand to travel these mountains safely.
Think me crazy if you must, but I felt the pull of familial generations through the commonality of the trail we tracked and gratefully acknowledged the blessing that has been placed upon me. My daughter has been dragged all over this country, so strong is my perceived obligation to instill this appreciation in her, my only child.
For me, the thread is continuous and unbreakable, going back to my great-grandfather. But what of the Ute child, playing with a stick beside the soothing waters? Is his great-grandson, now in the autumn of his life and who has never been here, as profoundly linked to this ancient trail and relentlessly babbling brook, as I? Does the connection need to be nurtured, generation to generation, or does the depth of the soul, once exposed, transcend such human notions?
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