Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
October 17, 2009
I was the fourth generation of my family to raise livestock in Woody Creek, on a place dubbed the Elkhorn Ranch by my grandfather. It was his pride and joy (mine as well), and as a man born into it, the sweet dirt of that canyon would still be under my feet if circumstances had been a little different.
Gramps and I were on our way to round up the wild horses on Vagneur Mountain, and as we stopped to rest our steeds, high up the hill, we had an excellent view of the sprawling ranchland down below. As we admired our summer irrigating work, Grandpa said, and I will never forget the phrase, “Someday, this place’ll be yours.” I believed everything the old man said, and I’m sure he meant it, but life took a different turn.
A year or so later, Gramps was stricken with cancer, and while he wasted away on his deathbed, he apparently forgot to tell his lawyer the plan he and I had worked out. Never mind that Grandpa was full of pain killers the size of horse pills and didn’t know if it was day or night, but that well-meaning lawyer put together a textbook case of a simple will that they must teach in the first year of law school. Thus was extinguished any hope of my ever owning the original family homestead. The ranch continued on as a corporation, which didn’t sound like Gramps at all, not to me.
It didn’t seem to matter, for my role in the operation continued on much as before, only I accrued more and more responsibility each year, which I thrived on. All the while, real estate prices in the valley kept rising, and my dad’s off-ranch siblings began to think that selling the land would bring more wealth than continuing to draw from the meager profit the operation provided. Just as the lawyer had done before, this was a textbook case (even though I present it in a simplistic fashion) of the evolution of ranching in the U.S.
I’d made a deal with my dad that I’d get a college education before I did anything else, and spent three solid years in college, learning and thinking about all kinds of things, certainly not ranching. But the ache for home was there, and every time I came back, which was seldom, it was difficult to leave again.
When I finally finished up, degree in hand and not much smarter than when I left, the changes in Aspen flummoxed me. Hardest to comprehend and cutting to the quick, the old homestead had been sold. Added to the makeover, Wagner Park, once the football “stadium” where I’d set rushing records for the Skiers, had become a rugby field; the high school had moved to Maroon Creek; and the two shiny trophies I’d won, football MVP and one for setting the school high jump record, were shoved so far back in the trophy case as to be almost invisible. I’d broken up with my longtime high school girlfriend, and although I had instigated it, surmised that I was the one with a broken heart. I felt like a stranger.
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It would be easy to talk about feeling lost, to detail the drinking and partying, but simply put, depression was recognized as having more to do with the weather than emotions in those days, and it was a struggle to work my way out of the darkness.
However, there was a saving grace, years in the retrieval perhaps, but tangible nonetheless. There is a spirit here that transcends the material and far surpasses the illogical sleight-of-hand put on us by the outside world (or ourselves sometimes). Behind even the smallest ridge line is a new adventure, a fresh perspective on some of life’s ills, whether in actuality or just in our imaginations, and for that we are exceptionally fortunate. As a good friend of mine recently said, “My personal history is this landscape.”
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