Tony Vagneur: Making a mark old Gramps would be proud of
We had just busted through the thick brush, up a steep trail and had finally come out at my favorite lunch spot. Right next to the place where several years ago, a huge bear had his lair, his den, an area where I found evidence of his kill ability. From there, he could overlook and experience the sight and smell of the huge expanse below.
As the horses and I stopped for air, we could see the trail far below that we had ridden up, and in that weird way that being alone can sometimes bring, it was kind of like looking back on the trail of my life, imagining where different paths could have diverged, or merged. Not unique to me, we all look back after a time and wonder how it all might have turned out differently. For better or worse, I reckon, but none of us can change much about how we got here.
My paternal grandfather, Ben, born in 1891 in Woody Creek, didn’t have much choice about the direction his life took, it didn’t seem, but from my point of view, all he saw ahead was a clear path to a life he seriously wanted. If he had been sitting up there with me at my favorite lunch spot, would he have wondered where another path might have taken him?
He went to college at Colorado A&M, precursor to today’s Colorado State University, and majored in agricultural management. His diploma used to hang in the upstairs hall leading to the attic stairway in his ranch house — he was proud of it. We kept it there after he died.
He knew where he was going, it seems, although maybe he had another vision but couldn’t reach out for it, coming from a strictly farming and ranching environment that his family provided for him. He was given the original Vagneur homestead as part of a land split between his father, his four brothers and him. It wasn’t exactly a gift — he had to pay his father for it, back in the 20th century teens.
Similar to me sitting near the big lunch rock overlooking the valley underneath, he and I used to stop to rest our ponies at the top of the hill where he had built his own homestead cabin when Woody Creek was little more than the back of beyond. He’d brag about the fine irrigating job he had done on the bench far below, on the opposite side of the creek. He was a happy man. After he died, I’d ride up there alone and tell myself what a fine irrigating job I’d done on the same patch of land.
I had a dream about him once, years after his death, where he roared up behind me in a fast-moving car and flagged me down, just wanting to visit. He was on his way to town from the hospital he administered on top of the hill. Wow, what an atypical job, although it was the same old Gramps, but in my mind, he sure was out of place in khaki pants and a dark sport coat.
My dad and his sisters sold the original ranch back when I got out of high school. Inheritance taxes had put a chill on the fun of it all. My turn to be the big rancher no longer existed and away I went to college, thinking maybe I could be a different kind of pioneer, make a difference in some other kind of fashion, in a civilized, city kind of way.
It didn’t work. My grandfather had done his job well; he taught me to love the land, to love the animals, and how to be tough when the hard rains fell and the hot sun blared down. It was impossible to get ranching out of my blood.
There was the offer of a partnership in a Denver public relations firm; a close family friend offered to pay my way through medical school if I so chose. With such rewards dangling in front of me, I got on the Aspen Mountain ski patrol and went to work at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch in the summers.
Eventually, the Vagneur Ranch Co. took me on as a sort of wayward, contributing member, letting me steer my own ship, so to speak, and I’ve spent the past 40 years packing salt and moving unruly cattle through the mountains for either my family or other ranchers in the valley.
My dad’s original brand rests on the left hip of the cattle I own; my grandfather’s brand, once also mine, is now owned by my daughter and son-in-law, and life is reasonably grand. My mark has been made. How it will be judged is another matter.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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