Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Where do old men go when they die, and who cares anyway? Does the hurt go away, or like a mountain before the wind and rain, does it just smooth itself around the edges?

He must have met my arrival into the world with ambivalence, or more likely, undeclared opposition, for dealing with out-of-town land poachers in 1940s Aspen was about as much change as a bachelor great-uncle could stand. Watching a bunch of outsiders act like they owned the place didn’t sit well with many, and bars like the Red Onion and Ski ‘n’ Spur transformed from celebratory taverns into quiet hideouts.

He was a pioneer, born just outside town on the family ranch in the 1880s. He rode the high country: Capital, Snowmass, Willow, chasing wayward cattle and the dreams of youth; he whistled draft and mule teams and ranched the valley floor, raising hay, potatoes and grain. He plumbed the depths of Aspen and Smuggler mountains, fulfilling a miner’s desire to follow a silver vein, broke broncs for ranch use and lived the best of what Aspen had to offer.

If you look at old 1920s or ’30s photographs taken at Snowmass Lake or up Willow Creek, Tom Stapleton is the easiest person to spot, with a handsome, curious, engaged countenance. At the profile and almost as an afterthought, the prominence of a proboscis big enough for two is the unavoidable betrayal.

Maybe by the time I was born, memories made up much of the present, assuaging the simple drudgery of getting through another day. Tom and his buddies had worked and owned the big ranches in their younger days, falling prey from time to time to the insistent, irresistible allure of mining’s siren song. Tom, Harry Holmes and Harry’s son, Russell, knew more about what’s underneath Aspen than anyone ever would again.

With the death of my grandmother, Tom’s remaining sisters fled the March cold of Aspen for Denver, an even colder city disguised as Nirvana, leaving Tom the lone sentinel of their Bleeker Street house.

Fresh out of high school, I spent part of the summer living with Tom, an association blessed by trouble all around. I snuck a woman in through a back window, only to have Tom figure it out the next morning and forbid such activity. He took to locking the doors so that if I did show up, he had to let me in, a way of checking on how many of me there might be. Attempting to sneak through a window on another night, I found myself staring down the barrel of a lever-action 30-30: Tom was serious.

The next fall, I came back from college to visit. Loneliness was tearing him up from the inside and my visit put a long-lost energy back in his step, a reason for an 85-year-old man to find some enjoyment in life.

Early the next morning, we hunted for deer without luck. As I readied to escape for downtown, a move he knew would last me until the bars closed, he invited me back for dinner with a sincerity I’d never heard before. “I’m throwing together a Mulligan stew,” he’d said, and, embarrassed at my ignorance, I never even asked what it was. Hours later, fully surprised to be back at his house, we sat down together and scarfed up his delicious concoction. It was an honor to be his friend that night.

Two years later, around midnight in a Denver hospital, he was lying flat on a slab of a bed, a relentless machine of unending energy breathing for him with a maddening, dead rhythm. “No one is allowed in that room,” the nurse called after me as I gently closed the door behind me.

Unsure of what to do, I paced, cried, massaged his arms and vowed to stay until they turned that damned horror of medical science off. Hours later, Tom was finally returned unto himself and allowed to perish without interference. Where do old men go when they die? We shall see.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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