Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Moonlit darkness covered the plain as I headed through no man’s land, that portion of Oklahoma sometimes called the panhandle, strewn with still-standing but abandoned homesteads, striking in their declaration of pastoral independence and nostalgic in their demise.

The road was “under construction,” as they say, and I found myself in a no-passing zone that seemed endless. Far in the rear, a pair of headlights was overtaking my meager 70 in a 55, and I anticipated pulling over when finally pushed, hoping it wasn’t a cop. The lights never got that close; whoever was following me got within about a mile and held it there, content to ease back on the throttle.

We traveled that way, in tandem, the only cars on the road, for at least 50 miles, maybe more, and I got to thinking about the common, unassuming courtesy involved in such behavior. It took me back to the days when those deserted homesteads first were built by people intent on a life free from interference, out on a slab of land as brutal and unforgiving as it was soothing in its promise of liberation and individuality.

A land where a little rain was the sustenance of life and could be waited on for months. Young families with daring dreams patiently waited under a glaring sun for sparse crops to grow, their smiles tested every day. A territory where your neighbor might be the difference between life and death.

Are the pace of life and the deserted homesteads found in no man’s land interconnected relics, collective anachronisms as one within themselves, like dinosaurs in eerily quiet museums, observable but no longer linked to us in any meaningful way?

The Roaring Fork Valley got in on the Homestead Act, as well, but there aren’t many deserted homesteads visible along Highway 82. Unlike the land beside Oklahoma’s ribbon of oil, the once-vibrant agricultural lands along “Killer 82,” decades in the making through hard work, patience and a bit of luck, have been mostly pillaged and raped, thrown on the sacrificial alter of real estate development (there’s a three-word oxymoron if ever there was one).

We’re high-tech, high-dollar city slickers now, ripping it up in cars oversized for our environment, four-wheel-drive SUVs that will never see anything but asphalt. We have become the “me” society that most of us came here to escape; driving while texting, reading tablets affixed to our steering wheels with “free” hands, endangering not only ourselves but everyone within striking distance.

We’ve come a long way from the days when the just-girls and their love-struck classmates used to play kick the can under the lonely street light hanging above the intersection of Main and Hunter streets. Very seldom did a car disturb our game. If the weather was bad, we played spin the bottle in a back room.

Today, we pride ourselves on being outdoor types, as if that’s an Aspen badge of credibility, but would likely die of hypothermia without our new-age tents and sleeping bags. We’re afraid of running into bears after dark and have no idea why they live in our backyards instead of in the forest. We ski faster but with less elan, forcing ski patrollers to spend part of every working day doing speed control. Many of us haven’t learned that there’s a difference between good skiers skiing fast and flat-footed scarvers skiing fast. That’s because we don’t seem to know the difference between good and bad skiers anymore.

Almost everyone in Aspen was a tourist here once, so it really doesn’t do much good for your “cool factor” to ridicule unsuspecting out-of-towners inelegantly, trying to play them for fools. They’re probably paying your way through this maze.

The Oklahoma panhandle really isn’t the promised land for any of us, and it will undoubtedly change very little in the next few millennia, but there is a good lesson to be learned there. A late-night drive through no man’s land brings a touch of humility and courtesy to those of us who think we’ve seen it all.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at