Tony Vagneur: Appreciating Nature’s draw is good for every generation’s soul
The depression in the ground was perfect, just below the wind, the kind of place a dog or wolf would use for cover if needed. Tying my horse on the lee side of some jack-oaks, I curled up inside it, bracing for the squall that was quickly approaching. Not quite making it in time, but close enough, it was the perfect spot alongside of the ridge to get out of a blizzard, but almost as soon as it started, it was over. Had I a dog at the time, he would’ve been snugged up in there with me, I’m certain.
With this week’s snowstorm as a backdrop, the above memory came to me as I perused a painting by Michael Kornafel, one-time Aspen resident, ski bum, famous photographer (Playboy included) and of late, a bursting with talent painter. One of his canvasses, a man alone on a horse traveling through a snowscape surrounded by tall pines, hooked me like an eager trout. You can find Kornafel’s paintings on Facebook.
There’s something unique about leaving the cabin into a couple feet of snow, still falling lightly, dressed for the day or an hour, whichever plays itself out. There’s a warm fire in the cookstove upon embarking, and the knowledge that it will likely be stone cold by the time I return never seems to enter my mind.
It comes out in twos, the breath of the horses, blown toward the ground like an upside-down steam locomotive with dual stacks. Seldom do I go on these journeys without a pack horse, whose panniers usually carry a chain saw, fuel, spare chain, lash rope, rubber bungees and an ax. Two-by-one, we travel the world above 10,600 feet. We’re a team, although these early snowy mornings have sometimes elicited an occasional certain outlaw rambunctiousness on the part of the horses, but it wouldn’t be very western without it. Fresh horses, fresh riders, roll the dice and plant your seat deep in the saddle.
How many times I’ve headed up that trail over the years, uncountable. A thousand, more or less. Summer and fall, I’ve pushed cattle up there more times than I can remember, packed salt that direction, headed that way to clear trails. The list goes on, but there’s something special and unforgettable riding that direction after a big snow.
Kobey Park is a huge expanse of mostly relatively flat, open land, interspersed by stands of evergreens, pine, spruce, you name ‘em. Of the many ways to enter the park, it is always an adventure, for each view is different from any of the others and naturally, there is a favorite.
With the higher-altitude wind blowing the falling snow, a white blanket on the ground before me, the line of trees in the distance, translucent in the blizzarding light, it always sends a shiver up my back and my chest fills with excitement. It’s the feeling, I reckon, the ice-cold pulsing of adrenaline rushing through my veins and muscles that makes me want to cry out.
Alone, the aloneness of it is precious, unattainable in most other ways. We are there of our own volition, no outside contact, no one within miles to hear a cry for help or to share the feeling. If my horse stumbles, goes down and injures me, there I am. Alone. It is dangerous to travel like that, but it’s the only way to get that emotion, the sense of how an invincible beast must feel.
One year, on a day as that just described, a very large coyote, beautiful gray checked with black, came into view, walking through the wind-whirled snow. He stopped, we looked at each other for a long time, and then without further comment, he lazily resumed going in his original direction. Just seeing him made a connection between us, at least in my mind, and as he drifted back into the unseen reaches of his world, it left me feeling a bit lonely in that vast expanse, and I followed his track for a way, hoping to get another glimpse of him.
As I told the story later, there was speculation from others who had seen the same animal before and swore it was a wolf. In that world where fantasy, reality and aloneness sometimes intersect, there was no reason to argue. Years before, he might have snugged up with me in that dirt depression on the ridge above Bear Creek.
These are some of the steps I’ve taken in the wild, on my own without urging, and it is my fervent wish that as my grandchildren grow into adults, they find the same freedom and desire to experience nature in a way that pleases them immensely.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.