Saddle Sore: Together, Gramps and me
We tailed them up from the lower reaches of the mountain — cows, scattered through thick brush, that fought our every move to get them to go higher. We struggled, cussed, hollered and moved them up a bit at a time, across one ridge, down the other side, across the draw and up toward another ridge. Stuff you’d think only a kid could love, me and my 60-something grandfather each loving it about the same as the other.
Just before the last gully, we passed through a deep thicket of jack-oaks — dark-green leaves slapping us in the face as we hurried along — and I swallowed the first bug I’d ever eaten, something like a daddy longlegs, menacing and brown, purely by accident. It bothered me for a while, but there really wasn’t time to worry about it, as to let up on the cows was to create a mountain of work to get them moving again.
We topped the last ridge and came out on a relatively flat, narrow trail across alkali dirt, a welcome respite from the toil of the steep trail, even with its choking cloud of dust, and the cows began to move with ease. “It’s something like riding across the desert,” I always thought and smiled inwardly at my pretend worldliness, picked up from Western movies at the Isis Theater, a vision of cowboys struggling against waterless landscapes.
Every spring, Gramps and I pushed cattle up that trail, keeping them on the forest land behind our ranch — or trying to, I should say. The cows didn’t seem to like the terrain and much preferred our hayfields down in the valley or the hayfields of our neighbors. From the time I was 8 through my 11th year, Gramps and I traveled that bitch of a trail numerous times, following a herd of uncooperative bovines at whatever speed seemed to suit them.
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Together, we were good, Gramps and me, and I’ve come to realize that I was a valuable member of the team, or Grandpa would have left me at home after the first skirmish or two. In reflection, my granddad was about the age I am now the last time he and I made that trip, 57 years in the past.
A few days ago, I rode that trail again with a gnawing gut feeling that it needed to be done, a gathering storm of destiny, an anniversary trip that couldn’t be halted, like an unstoppable force. And it took me back to the last ride my grandfather and I took together all those many years ago. It was fall, just like now, and a big deal was made about the fact that on the upcoming Saturday, Gramps and I were going for a ride. We didn’t ride much together when school was in session, but this time it seemed important, and we took a rather short ride on a rainy day with a good lunch. And when we were almost back to the house, Gramps said he had to check into the hospital for some surgery the next morning. I didn’t really understand, but it was like when the pin is pulled from a grenade — not in real time but in very slow motion — activating it seconds before the destructive explosion. Figuratively, I knew the pin had been pulled but didn’t quite grasp the significance.
The other day, once again riding that trail from long ago, my mind was flooded with memories of the many cattle drives we wrangled up that way. The trail was clear, the weather outstanding, and then, near the top, we came to a tangle of fallen aspen trees, blocking the way forward. We could have gone around, through a grove of evergreens, the blanket of ground cover underneath made emerald by the glancing sun, but the trail seemed to disappear into shadows and then darkness, a mysterious dead end up ahead. My horse Billy and I left it lay and wisely turned around.
And I wondered how my grandfather must have felt that last day we rode, a brilliant and memory-filled trail behind him, looking ahead at his life brusquely disappearing into dimness and then blackness. He knew. There was no turning back for Gramps — the die had been cast.
The significance of that last ride with my grandfather has hovered over my mind ever since, and I’ve often wondered why he chose to spend it with me instead of all the other people in his life. Now that I have a grandson, I understand completely.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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