Tony Vagneur: Dreaming your way back to the green grass of home
The popular song, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” written by Claude “Curly” Putnam Jr. and sung by various artists, including Tom Jones, talks of a man returning home to touch the green, green grass of home, only to find in the end that it was, indeed, a dream.
For me, the dream came true in 2013, 50 years after I’d left the Vagneur homestead in Woody Creek. My feet touched down on that hallowed ground after such a long absence, ground that my great-grandfather had homesteaded and I’d worked alongside with my grandfather and father. Ah, sweet once-in-a-million opportunities.
The old Southside ditch is still there — the one I learned to irrigate out of — only in conversation its name has morphed into Sunnyside, a more pleasant moniker. The little waterfall it goes down had been in my memory since the day I’d left and it was almost exactly the same when once again I turned water out of that ditch onto the bench pasture above Woody Creek 50 years later.
Or the memory of sitting on the ditch bank, at 12 years old, trying to project myself into another dimension so I could talk to my grandfather, who had died the year before.
One day Gramps and I were sitting horseback across the valley, looking down on that very pasture, with Granddad admiring his fine irrigating job out loud with me. And then he said, “Someday this will all be yours.” I didn’t know exactly what he meant, I was too young, but I never forgot what he said. Long story later, it didn’t work out that way.
Gramps and I traveled up Collins Creek many days together in the summer, pushing cows up to higher ground and doctoring the occasional sick one. After he died, I inherited the Collins Creek range on my own. How many days I moved cattle up that narrow valley, it’s hard to say, but that’s what I did.
A lot of stories come to mind, but one day coming down Collins Creek alone at about 13 years old, wondering where the transition was between childhood and adulthood and how would I know when I hit it, the somewhat disheartening conclusion came that the changeover took place one day at a time, year after year. I’m still wondering if I ever got there. What horse was I riding? Damned if I can remember, but I know precisely where I was on the trail while thinking about all that.
The head of the Hamilton Ditch was up Collins Creek, a nasty son-of-a-bitch of a water transference that became my responsibility when I was 14. A huge project, it was built by my dad through loose red rock prone to leakage, but an experience worth every cuss word. I’d follow the flow down in the spring, leading a pack horse loaded with gunny sacks (or is it burlap bags in the modern world?) and bentonite used for plugging up the leaks.
I did that every day for several weeks in the spring until we were confident the ditch wasn’t going to wash out and then I’d scale the ditch ride back to a couple of days per week. The lay of the ditch bottom, a distinctive swirl of water, or other clues let me know where to stuff the sacks to plug the leaks. It’s a learned talent very few people have anymore. The ditch is still there, seldom used today, apparently too much trouble for the new breed of rancher.
Maybe we were living the dream, as many like to say, and for a youngster it was a life well-remembered. Hunting out our back door, riding horses to work whether on the ranch or in the high country, driving tractors or feeding hay off horse-drawn sleds in the winter, it was a wonderland for a guy like me. Hopefully, my grandchildren will outdistance me in their appreciation for that way of life.
As in the song, there is the eventual realization that one can never really touch the green, green grass of home again, not as we’ve kept it in our memories, for somewhere that innocence of the first time through has gone by the way, but there is the realization that to relive the dream in today’s world provides a magic all its own, and in remembrance years from now, may be even more potent than the first time through.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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