Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
It came like a fury, a sheet of rain unlike any I’d seen before. On a mostly sunny afternoon, it started easily enough, a few large drops that hurt when they hit, and seconds later, a veritable downpour. My friend Johnny Autry and I were playing in the grass about 20 yards from the house, and by the time we slid through the front door, we were soaked through and through.
No sooner did we find shelter than the lightning did its thing. My dad stored seven or eight pristine aluminum milk buckets on a dry rack, high above the basement floor of our log house. We had a state-certified dairy program, built around an elegant, big-uddered herd of registered brown Swiss cows and shiny, clean, aluminum buckets, used for collecting the milk, were part of the requirements. Any time lightning hit at or near our house (two or three times a summer), the milk buckets would come crashing down to the concrete floor, making one hell of a racket.
On that day, the skin-tingling, brilliant sizzle from the sky, followed immediately by horrendous, crackling thunder – accompanied by the heart-stopping cacophony of metal against concrete in the basement – sent my mother flying out the door, insisting we all sit in the car for safety.
Our rubber-tired island of protection soon became a liability. A flash-flood torrent of water and mud began to dash its way across Woody Creek Road toward our house, and despite the excitement it provided us kids, my mother hit the gas driving down to my grandfather’s house. Granddad helped us get settled and then went to the barn and saddled his horse.
“What the hell is he doing?” someone asked.
There were several huge, lodgepole pine logs lying alongside the barn, waiting to repair a portion of the structure. Gramps lassoed those behemoths, and with his big sorrel horse, Slim, pulled the dead trees and other debris to a spot uphill from the house, effectively creating a wall of diversion, which forced much of the water and mud to miss his abode. The vision is still persistent in my mind; man against natural forces, wide-brimmed Stetson, black raincoat, well-trained horse with its feet splayed out to the sides for support in the slick and fast-moving mud, all seen through a translucent film of incessant rain that seemed hell-bent on redefining our reality.
The rain eventually stopped, my dad got home from cow camp, where the rain had been short-lived, and we were out just before dark to check the damage. The Woody Creek road by our house was impassable, and unlike today, a convoy of earthmoving equipment did not immediately arrive on the scene. The road would be closed for days while cleanup progressed.
The next morning, my dad used the dynamite on hand to begin blowing out the mud that clogged the creek-water ditch that ran in front of our cabin. That ditch was both our household and livestock water. He also blasted mud out of the entrance to our driveway so we could get a car to the house. Lenado, the bustling lumber camp up the valley, was landlocked, so to speak, and those who truly needed to get to town or the grocery store stopped on the upper side of the gooey, slick-dirt mess, tiptoed gently through the mud and bummed a ride from someone on our side.
Kenneth Carroll, local excavator, sent a Caterpillar D7 up to the ranch, driven by a young Doug Farris, and the mud and rocks were pushed from our crop land. Eroded washes 6 to 10 feet deep through the hayfields were filled in and covered with topsoil. Everyone else went to work cleaning up the houses – 3 feet of mud in our basement, half that in Granddad’s.
Huge, earthen water bars were bulldozed into the draws above our ranch, and things slowly returned to normal, although the landscape in that neighborhood was forever changed. There are still telltale signs of the fateful day – if you know what to look for.
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