Tony Vagneur: Howling good memories are made on the road well-traveled |

Tony Vagneur: Howling good memories are made on the road well-traveled

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Sometimes it is not the wildest, most exciting things that find themselves imprinted on our memories of most importance, but the smaller, perhaps seemingly inconsequential things that stick with us over time.

The road to our cow camp, traveled countless times, got me to thinking about such memories. Getting to the cabin always had an urgency to it, one of: Let’s just get there, dammit, and we can get the fire started, season down the steaks, drink a beer or two and maybe break out the fresh bottle of whiskey.

How many times I traveled that road in the snows of autumn by myself, sometimes in pitch black, trying to keep my mind in tune with my ride horse, leading a pack horse or two with life’s essentials and doing my best not to give in to shivering from the cold.

One such night, sans snow but still chilly, and after a couple of hours on the trail, having a cigarette seemed appropriate, no, it was a necessity, and truly, it was very dark. The simple maneuver of smoking is not exactly easy, especially in the dark, when one has to keep track of the lead rope from the packhorses, has to remove at least one glove to get the smoke out of your pocket without dropping your reins, and then, there’s the lighter, or fire, to bring it all to fruition. Not that simple when it’s cold out.

My sorrel horse, Donald, the male of a mixed set of twins and who had convinced two previous horse trainers that he was unbreakable (Jeff Burtard, the third, finally got the job done), and who was still a coltish fireball at the time, was ambling along just fine as I thumbed the lighter for my smoke.

The sudden, bright flash from out of nowhere, and totally unexpected from Donald’s point of view, spooked the hell out of him and we took one long flight of fancy into the air, me trying in a split second to keep everything together. As I learned when a very young boy, never let go of your reins, and after the skydive jump and a couple of bucks, things got calmed down to manageable.

I still had the lighter in my free hand, my glove was where I had tucked it, although the lead rope for the pack horses had become un-dallied from the saddle horn (also from my dad: never tie a pony’s lead rope to your saddle horn), but those two steeds were pretty good with the whole debacle and were standing behind us on the trail, waiting for someone to take charge. After gathering them up and successfully putting flame to my smoke, we were off, once again. (By the way, I quit smoking about 20 years ago, not in time to avoid the tussle with Donald.)

There was the night, when I’d left the ranch late in the afternoon, riding my big bay horse Willie into a snowstorm that had been blowing and coming down off-and-on from the night before. As twilight faded, we hit the meadow around a half-mile above cow camp with about a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground and just enough visibility to see across the opening to where the trail ducked down to the creek crossing.

It’s so magnificent when it’s like that — the barely visible ghosts of shadowy trees far off in the almost dark but translucently white distance, stirred by the wind, and an aloneness in the air that pounds in your breast with a strange and unique joy.

As we pulled up to the hitching rail out front, the reminder came once again that in the dark of night, the only thing darker than the night outside is the dark inside of a cabin completely devoid of light — it portends of a lot of work to get the place lit, the woodstove fired up, and to get you and your horses settled and fed.

Just as I dismounted, the howls of several coyotes could be heard in the very-near distance, and as I swung my leg over the horse and onto the ground, with a shiver going up my spine, my only thought was to the coyotes — please don’t stop.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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