Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
With an uncontrollable impulse much like the onset of puberty, young people thronged to 1970s Aspen with a city-escaping frenzy that turned the town into a mecca of poorly disguised, middle-class degeneration. We became a community of zero tolerance toward outsiders while proclaiming our uniqueness; personal freedom was thought of as an original idea, and escaping reality was commonplace.
Once, in the mind-bending atmosphere of the ’70s, it was possible to find a retired Alaskan bush pilot, a fearless young cowboy, green Chartreuse liqueur and high-speed stop-and-go landings at a deserted, chalky airstrip in the hills near Rifle all part of a weekday extravaganza moderated by no one.
Having survived that decade of decadence, I sometimes wonder how we managed such complexities and flew airplanes without killing ourselves.
Green Chartreuse, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is an alcoholic elixir made by Carthusian monks near Grenoble, France. Personally, I think it tastes pretty much like aftershave, although shaving lotion isn’t quite as pungent. It is, for those of you with a vegan bent, flavored with 132 different plant extracts, which is about as close to the secret recipe as any one of us ever will get.
I was introduced to this esoteric concoction by a neighboring ex-Alaskan bush pilot who shared his life with a woman I knew from high school. Occasionally, he’d come home from a tough week at work, carrying a bottle of the “mean green,” and if the vibes were right, we’d all sit around the horse corral, talking and downing a jug of the powerful-tasting stuff, usually polishing it off about the time the wilting sun dropped behind Pyramid Peak. If we were dangerously so inclined, we’d head for a wild night in town, temporarily forgetting about the resultant incredible hangover.
Bruce, longtime tender at the Red Onion, was convinced to keep a bottle of the stuff behind the bar, just for our convenience, and when patrons protested that one would have to be crazy to drink such stuff, we’d order up a round for the disbelievers. Eventually, Bruce kept the bottle out of sight due to some complaints he’d had after the fact.
So, in the roundabout way it’s taken to get thus far, my first ex-wife gave me an airplane flying lesson one year for my birthday, an arranged sojourn through brilliant, cloudless cobalt skies early one morning. The instructor was none other than my good friend, the man who occasionally brought home a jug of green Chartreuse in one hand, much as city men tug a briefcase up the home walk.
We did the preflight check, making sure all the rivets were tight and the oil and fuel tanks full. As he explained it, the engine was perhaps the most important aspect of the plane, as it was the one thing that prevented it from becoming a glider. Anyway, I sat in the pilot’s seat, feet on the rudder pedals, one hand on the stick, the other on the throttle, taxiing out to the runway.
My instructor was explaining what was soon to come, after the ground check. “Line the plane up in the center of the runway, throw the throttle to the firewall, and when we hit 85, pull back on the stick and you’ll be airborne.” I was thinking this to be a general description of taking the plane off and that “you’ll” was used in the generic sense and didn’t have a whit of relevance to my participation.
But, I did have my hand on the throttle and after aligning the plane on the runway, I pushed it to the firewall and sat back, enjoying the spine-tingling thrust of power as we rapidly gained speed. Suddenly, the plane began to drift to the left, toward Owl Creek, and my buddy, with a calm but insistent voice said, “Straighten it up, straighten it up.” Holy geezus, guess who’s flying this circus? And I did, too. Best ride of my life.
We polished my first lesson off that night with a taste of the green, just for a little birthday good luck.
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