Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

It’s never been a tough call, deciphering the few hut invitations that have come my way. Maybe I’ve had a different attitude about it, but such forays never seemed intriguing.

“A solitary cabin in the woods,” you say? “I’ve done enough of those, thank you!”

I was born into a four-room log cabin in 1940s Woody Creek. The nearest neighbor in any direction was at least a mile away, and horse-drawn sleighs took precedence over cars and clatter. Solitude was our one constant. The only running water was in a ditch out front, and the outhouse was at least as warm as the ambient temperature. Woodstoves and kerosene lanterns finished off the idyllic country charm. That was for 12 months out of the year, without respite, not just for a few days in the mountains. If memory serves, no one did much complaining, and there was a lot of laughter.

For more than 100 years, my family has maintained a cow camp in the Kobey Park area at about 10,600 feet, a one-room shelter designed for warm-weather living and not much on amenities. It seems like I spent half my summers in that place, as near to heaven as one might get, riding the range from Sloane’s Peak to Mount Yeckel, either alone or with one or two other people. Later, as a solitary Forest Service volunteer, I kept vigil over 30,000 acres, staying there through warm summers and the cold months of October and November. I’ve snowshoed in, hiked most of it, rode horses over the trails and, on a few occasions, relied on a snowmobile.

But this invitation was different – it came from Jane Cigrand and Ed Pfab, folks you likely know – and was impossible to turn down. Ed and I worked together on the Aspen Mountain ski patrol in the ’70s and more recently shared a view of the rising morning sun, gently exposing the darkened valley far below as we prepared to ski the famous Crystal Chute from the top of Mount Sopris. We’ve spent more time under broken-down hay machinery than a lot of folks would admit, and occasionally we get into a pissing match about the best way to move cattle. Margaret, my partner in adventure, and I signed up in a heartbeat.

Fifteen people, half of them hovering around age 30, the rest of us somewhere between 50 and 65, took off from the Hunter Creek trailhead without fanfare, headed to the McNamara Hut. The group, put together by Jane and Ed (based on intuition and knowledge of the players), was a marvelous concoction of lively mountain people, all interacting in a most magnificent manner. Group conversations and behaviors serve to enlighten many confused tangles of mystery and riddle.

The trail through the dark timber at the top of Van Horn Park follows an old 1880s logging road that has been kept up over the years by sawmill operators, cattlemen and the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. The last time I traveled that route, I was as an 11-year-old day worker for my Uncle Victor, trailing cattle up to the head of Hunter Creek for the Red Mountain Cattlemen’s Association. It was a treasure to relive that day so long ago and remember parts of conversations we’d had along the way.

Light pollution is one of the scourges of modern civilization, and even though the faint glow of Aspen town can still intrude on the midnight sky over lonely mountain cabins, the intensity of wild country starlight, far from home, can refresh one’s soul. Constellations and stars normally hidden from view suddenly reveal themselves in a glory long thought to be forgotten. Sharing celestial knowledge with companions takes on a mission from the heart.

Unlike the winter cabins I’ve frequented along the Canadian border in northern Minnesota, there were no serenading wolves, but certainly, McNamara was well-stocked, well-built and well-situated. If you like wilderness adventure with friends, put a hut trip on your list.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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