Tony Vagneur: Lesson from our youth — You can’t cry over spilled coffee

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It was still a little dark when we left the horse trailer, my good horse Kiowa and I, headed up Hannon Creek on a mission to cow camp. There were easier ways to get there, but my intention was to cover some ground I hadn’t been on since a teenager, re-live some experiences and review the lay of the land. It had been almost 20 years.

At about daylight, we crested the saddle at the top of the draw and headed down the other side, into Collins Creek. At one time, there had been a Forest Service sign there, explaining the fork in the trail, but it appeared to be long gone. Disappointed we didn’t see a bear in Hannon Creek, a notorious hangout of theirs, we did spot a big muley buck down the steep hillside below us on the Collins Creek side, giving us assurance that Mother Nature still was in charge.

Collins Creek, where I spent a good deal of my youth, was warm with memories. As we climbed, the tell-tale red dirt of the suddenly steepening trail brought back some recollections just before the path took a quick upswing, not too far below the switchbacks. Ah yes, my grandfather and I used to eat lunch in this spot, where I often played in the creek while Gramps took a nap. And then, like a dream, another memory overtook me, rolling back over the years to a brutal snowstorm I had ridden through on the way to Kobey Park.

It was the fall after Gramps had died, and I was expected to take up the slack with him gone. One of the hands, Ted Winter, and I had taken off from the ranch not too much after daylight. It was cold, overcast, and gray. My recently new rough-out chaps covered my legs and I remember being eager and curious how they’d hold up in bad weather. Twelve years old and undaunted.

The plan was for Ted and me to ride up Collins Creek to Kobey Park and meet some other Vagneurs from the lower range. If we found cattle up high, we were supposed to round ’em up and bring ’em down to either ranch, or both, depending how they trailed.

About a mile from the house, it started snowing, those big nickel-sized flakes that are wetter than hell and mean business. By the time we got to the lunch spot mentioned above, my chaps were beginning to soak through and I was cold. I had a thermos of coffee in the saddlebags, and without getting off, told Ted maybe it was time for a cup. It was one of those cheap thermos jugs, the kind with a glass liner, the type that easily broke if dropped on the ground.

Don’t you know, being wet and cold, I dropped the damned thing before I even got the lid off and disgusted, just let it lie there along the trail, sure that broken glass had contaminated the coffee. “No sense picking it up, Ted, it’s broken for sure.” Some of that hot coffee might have been salvageable, but that didn’t seem to register at the time. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood.

That day turned insufferably long; we made it to Kobey Park, looked into Rocky Fork Creek, spied the remains of Deane’s cabins from the old days, built a bonfire under a big pine in the early afternoon, got warmed up and dried out a little bit. The others we were supposed to meet, a couple of the other Vagneurs, had played it smart and stayed home, thinking we’d do the same. Hell no, we were too smart and belligerent to let the weather change our plans. No cell phones in those days.

Back in the present with Kiowa, the memory of the snowstorm and the broken thermos heavy on my mind, I looked off to the right, where the thermos might be, and there it was, faded and rusted red plaid, with a red top, lying beside the trail under a partial cover of trail-side grass. Incredible.

I dismounted, gently grabbed the thermos and began unscrewing the top. Oh man, if only I could turn back time — there was still coffee in there, only about a third full and an off-color sort of green, not anything you would want to drink, and yes, the glass was cracked. However, it might have been salvageable, at least for a cup or two, if I hadn’t been so hasty to let it go. How good a hot mug would have tasted on that snowy, cold day all those years ago.

The arrogance of youth sometimes catches up with you.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at