Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 19, 2009
It’s all relative, but it is safe to say it’s been a tad cold lately. Not cold enough to suit my inherent craving for the chill, but it’ll do. The official Colorado record low, 61 below zero, was recorded at Maybell in 1985. Aspen claims 42 below zero in 1922. When I was studying Greenland survival techniques, we were told that anything under 60 below zero all feels about the same.
Back in the 1960s, sometime before I was old enough to drive, we had a severe cold spell wander through, one that convinced me I liked very cold weather. It lasted about a week, never warming up much during the day, and the sky remained crystal clear. For days, we recorded temperatures colder than 36 below zero out on the ranch, probably similar to town temperatures, and I remember we couldn’t get off the spread for a while because nothing would start, including the school buses, which, sarcastically speaking, was a heartbreaker.
My maternal great-aunt, Marie Stapleton, lived with her two sisters and a brother in the family’s large Victorian house on Bleeker Street. No one called her Aunt Marie; it just didn’t make sense to children of my mother’s generation, and neither did it make sense to those of us in the next layer of ankle biters. We all called her “Aunt Wee,” for what I think are obvious reasons, and nothing can change that.
Aunt Wee, in addition to having a unique name, had a different look about herself. Ever since my earliest recollections, she was a stooped woman, bent severely at the waist, her spine curved into what a youngster would call a “hunch,” and she walked with a slow, deliberate shuffle, dragging her feet (pointed straight ahead and encased in over-the-ankle black leather lace-up shoes with 1-inch heels) every step of the way. Sometimes as she trudged through the large house, her waist-length gray hair pulled back and twisted into a bun held together with large, plain pins, she’d catch me watching her and give a bit of a smile, as if to say, “I’m going as fast as I can.”
Anyway, to get back to the cold spell of the 1960s, we need to know that Aunt Wee, well into her 80s, owned and cared for a large flock of chickens that she kept in the carriage house alongside the alley. Aunt Wee had become quite agitated about the cold, insisting she needed to visit the henhouse, even though her brother, Tom, had kept a responsible eye on them. She was emotionally tied to those chickens, and by God, she was going to take care of them, no matter the temperature.
You should know, also, that Aunt Wee was a pioneer gal. Born in Leadville in 1879, she arrived in Aspen the spring of 1880 and never left again until 1965. She was not an outside winter person, other than overseeing her chickens, so getting her dressed for an outing in minus 30-degree weather was a bit of an undertaking. You’d a thought she was on an expedition to the North Pole, the solemnity given her mission. In hindsight, the preparations may have been an overreaction, but I clearly remember her, standing in the middle of the kitchen, looking like an adventurer of a different kind.
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Two tightly tied babushkas enveloped her head, which was tucked into the raised collar of an 1880s, knee-length fur coat. She’d put on a pair of men’s long underwear underneath her dress, slid her feet into a pair of black rubber, lined galoshes and swathed her hands in oversized ski gloves. A leather belt held the fur coat snugly around her waist. I’m not sure how she managed to walk, but with her determination, she got the job done.
For those of you who think you’ve cracked Aspen’s dress code, you may have missed the quintessential essentials. Quite a sight on a cold day, to say the least.
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