Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
“That’s where the babies are buried,” said my dad from the window of his 1952 Chevrolet pickup truck. He’d just chewed my butt about something else and wasn’t in the mood for my insistent grilling about the area in question. As he roared off, I spied a long tail of smoke billowing from his just-lit Lucky Strike, and wanted to kick his ass for leaving those words hanging in the air, without any elaboration.
It was a small, untouched rectangle of land, sitting next to a corner of our cattle pens, parallel to the Woody Creek road. Every spring and fall, hundreds of cows filled the corrals and in the late fall guys like Don Stapleton and myself roped oversized calves, born in the summer, and drug them through a specially designed wooden chute for branding purposes. My granddad kept a herd of wild horses up on the apron of Vagneur Mountain, and every spring, we’d corral them and rope a colt or two for breaking. Through it all, the adjacent corner remained a quiet enigma.
As time went on, the undisturbed, pristine parcel of secured ground took up more and more of my curiosity, but about the most I could get out of my dad was to “leave it alone.” Granddad died and despite my best efforts, no one appeared to know the secret other than my father.
Still, I cannot understand Dad’s reluctance to give his explanation, for simply enough, “the babies” were siblings of my grandfather, children who had died in infancy. They were born in different years and died likewise, and if we think back to Aspen’s 1880s or 1890s, it becomes believable that no records exist of their deaths. In those times, the story usually went like this: “my child became sick one day, suffered through the night and died the following evening.” It was of paramount importance to bury the corpse in a timely manner, for in a world without antibiotics and limited knowledge of germs, contagion was a life and death proposition, something to be feared. Any good rancher knew about the devastating effects of the spread of disease.
Out of necessity, it was a self-reliant world in those early years and my great-grandfather Jeremie, being a skilled carpenter, carefully constructed the tiny caskets out of whatever was on hand, probably working on the back porch for lack of a better place. Maybe his wife Estephanie helped him carry the coffins up the hill from the house, but most likely one or two of the older boys aided with the heavy lifting. The wooden crosses placed on the graves didn’t last long, and the urgency for something more enduring faded with the passage of time.
Maybe that was the source of my father’s angst ” something left undone that he felt an obligation to complete. He honored the sacred burial ground ” what more could he have done? We’ll never know, and I doubt there is anything unusual about a couple of unmarked graves out on great-granddad’s first homestead. With all probability, every major drainage along this valley contains the final resting places of young children, most of them unmarked and forgotten.
My great-grandmother Estephanie had eight children in all, five of them surviving into adulthood. One child died in Val d’Aosta, Italy, before they emigrated to this country, and two died in Woody Creek. It is said that until her own demise, great-grandmother surrounded her house and yard with many beautiful flower gardens.
One of the babies buried in Woody Creek was a girl, and I suspect that had that tiny creature, the only girl child, lived, the music in great-grandmother’s life would have played sweeter and the beauty of her flower gardens shown a deeper hue.
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High Points: Now I don’t want to be an apologist for the Aspen Skiing Company, but to me $199 to ski the crown jewel of American skiing during the height of what is traditionally the busiest time of year is a total bargain.