Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Johnny “Blue Shoes” Zurfluh. If you read the June 25, 1956, edition of Life magazine, you’ll see the following about a very young Swiss immigrant: “Foolhardy men on a raft meet tragedy in the rapids of Glenwood Canyon, Colorado, Bob Mann, Hans Zurfluh, Ken Moore.”

They’d put in directly below the Shoshone Dam, and lasted about five seconds. According to The Aspen Times, Ken Moore was taken to the hospital; Zurfluh, a native of Switzerland, lost his shoes. Bob Mann’s body wasn’t recovered for weeks. (Yes, that’s the same Kenny Moore you thought it was.)

Zurfluh was a hell of a skier. If he and his good friend, Dave Stapleton, didn’t invent “big air,” they certainly enhanced the concept. Fighting the tedium of Red Rowland’s seven-day-a-week ski patrol schedule, they launched back scratchers, iron crosses and spread eagles off everything on Aspen Mountain, getting more hang time than a young Aspen Airways could muster. Zurfluh was one of the first to join the fledgling International Professional Ski Racers Association, racing under his given name, Hans. Nobody seems to remember where “Blue Shoes” came from, but maybe it was from painting his cutting-edge, black plastic Lange boots, blue, just for a splash of color. Or maybe the raft trip.

Older than me by about 12 years, Zurfluh and I first met on a cattle drive. He was billed as the “Swiss Cowboy,” which among the impressive contingent of Swiss at the time (Guido Meyer, Klaus Christ, Werner Kuster, etc.), certainly gave him distinction. He was a rider and a roper and loved the West. Hell, sometimes folks might have thought we all were Swiss cowboys, the amount of time we spent with Johnny at Guido’s Swiss Inn, which was across the street and about halfway between the old Eagle’s Club and the Red Onion. We wore a triangular path in the concrete between the three.

Johnny was educated in the finest European schools of hotel/restaurant management and through a series of circumstances that may not have been entirely beneficial, got drafted into the U.S. Army and ended up in the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command, attached to the 10th Mountain Division. Like so many, he ended up in Aspen, with all of its benefits and distractions.

As it does, the world changed and though we’d skied, partied and rode horses together, we lost touch. Johnny wasn’t into skiing any more and there might have been some wonderment in his heart about being a well-educated Swiss whose dream of an Aspen restaurant never materialized. As I roamed without purpose after my brother’s death, Buck Deane got Zurfluh and me together again, our free time suddenly taken up with music. We had jam sessions four or five nights a week, the three of us forming a nucleus of musicians that attracted plenty of others. Although he could play the piano with a wonderful, light touch, Johnny wanted to master the fiddle in the worst way, and I think he practiced 16 hours a day.

Zurfluh led a prolific life, encompassing at least two marriages and three daughters, Simone, Laramie and Cheyenne. Like some of us, domestic harmony wasn’t really his forte, but he gave it what he believed was his best shot. He was the kind of guy, though, when he walked into a room and flashed his mischievous smile and sparkling eyes around, everyone’s spirits picked up and they wanted to get closer to Johnny.

There’s nothing fair about life, but dying isn’t particularly evenhanded, either. I was with him when he had his first seizure, the sign of an incurable brain tumor. We’d been drinking, but we sensed the seriousness, anyway. He finally laid it down, his motionless body curled into the fetal position, on a Grand Junction VA hospital bed.

When I mention Johnny’s name, people smile and remember. “Ah, yes, Zurf.”