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Tony Vagneur: Bad storms can hit in a flash

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

There was a letter in The Aspen Times the other day about a big rain storm on July 15 that seriously threatened an art exhibit at the Red Brick. The letter wasn’t clear, but it sounded like maybe there was a leak in the roof or a window was broken, or somebody left the door open. In any case, it should not be a surprise to anyone when a thundering, large pelleting rainstorm hits the area. Often accompanied by hail. It’s usually not widespread, but if you’re standing in the right (wrong?) place, you’re gonna feel the sting and get wet.

The other night, a good friend, a man I have known for a very long time, Doug Farris, called to offer condolences about Jimmy Gerbaz, and then talk turned, as it usually does between two people who have lived here a very long time, maybe about as long as dirt, or blue sky, and we got into other things. “Remember that rainstorm in the 1950s in Woody Creek, washed out about 20 acres of new-seeding alfalfa right next to your house? I was working for Kenneth Carroll that year, operating his big Cat, and I spread topsoil out over those red rocks and gullies caused by the flood, putting that field back into top-notch shape.” 

Hell yes, I remember that. My dad was up on the mountain, riding for cattle, and my mom took me, my friend Johnny Autrey and my siblings down to Grandpa’s house for safety, although it might have been a toss-up as to which house was safer. Our log house, near the mouth of one ravine, ended up with about three feet of mud in the basement. The mud in Gramp’s basement, at the mouth of another tributary draw, was only about two feet deep.



The Woody Creek Road was closed at our house (a couple of miles up the canyon) for two or three days, and people from Lenado walked through deep mud to catch a ride to town with friends on the other side of the mess. I stepped in a water-filled hole in the middle of what I thought was solid footing and went in over my head. I remember. 

As every mountain person knows, flash storms can come almost faster than you can anticipate, damned near drown or pelt you to death before you even can cover up or find shelter, and then after a while, the sun usually comes out. Sometimes not. The other day, packing salt for the cattle up in the high country, it began to rain and somewhere deep I knew it wasn’t going to stop. It was a strong rain, continuous, for about four or five hours straight. 




My Aussie slicker, chinks and tapaderos kept me reasonably dry, but my felt hat got heavier and heavier, until it bent both of my ears over, rested on my rather large eyebrows, and weighed about 10 pounds. Water ran down my neck. The hat took a couple of days to thoroughly dry out. “God willing and the creeks don’t rise,” but the three we had to cross did rise.  

There was the day my good horse Willie and I were coming through Kobey Park, headed back to camp after stringing some cattle up the trail, when a brutal hailstorm came out of nowhere. We hightailed into a stand of pine trees, so thick we barely fit, and still we were getting pummeled pretty good. Willie, almost like a kid, finagled his nose into my partially open coat, trying to escape the unpleasantness. It lasted about five minutes and then we were out of there, shivering and dancing down the trail, eager to put the day behind us.

Lightning might kill you, or your horses. It killed a couple on the ranch over the years, but the time I most remember is the one, once again scattering salt in the high country, where we’d traveled all morning under a cloud-covered sky, no thunder, no lightning, maybe a little drizzle.

I’d dropped off a salt block on a ridge near a place we call Twin Oaks, and was just preparing to mount up, when a bolt of lightning hit just behind the packhorse, a plume of dirt in the air. It knocked her down; fortunately, she got right back up. My horse, Donald, spooked, jumped sky high, capturing my ring finger between the lead shank and the saddle horn, breaking it. The hair on my head stood up for the rest of the day, even though underneath my hat. That was a little close for even me.

Bad storms come and go around here, I reckon, and no matter how bad you may have thought you had it, someone always has had it worse.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.