Tony Vagneur: Reliving college life is lesson in how to play cards you’re dealt

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It’s always a question that comes up, “Where are you from?” as you share a lift ride or attend a big get-together around town.

Having been born here, it’s difficult to acknowledge such birthright without creating one of two general comments in response, either “bulls–t” or “Man, you must have seen a lot of changes.” Yeah, probably.

In an attempt to throw the conversation off the rails, I sometimes say Woody Creek, but then I need to explain that, so sometimes I just say something like Denver or Grand Junction. It makes me occasionally wonder, though, what it’s like to be from somewhere else and, as do many, have somewhere to return to if things all go to hell here, like during the last big recession. Or at least a place far removed where one could visit family or at the very least, mine some memories of years ago. If they wanted.

Rattling around in my brain the past couple of years has been the desire to return to the one place I spent more consecutive time away from Aspen than anywhere else, my first college, the University of Northern Colorado, hereinafter referred to as UNC. I hadn’t set foot on that campus in 51 years, excluding the two hours or so I spent in Fraser Hall, after dark, watching my nephew Andrew Henderson in his final onstage performance at the school.

If you keep up with folks who have left Aspen with memories of the 1960s or ’70s (maybe even the ’80s) swirling in their heads, you know that some of them dislike returning to Aspen, hate the changes they find, and many of them would rather stay away than see their memories tainted with the present reality.

It’s kind of like those who took the money for their ever-escalating property and ran during one of the many real estate spurts. Sorry, you left and unless you made a boatload of money somewhere else, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get back in.

Some people keep up with their collegiate schools, becoming alumni members or donors, or something, but that never interested me. My mission was to graduate and return to Aspen, unlike some of my high school contemporaries who turned their longing gaze to other horizons. When I left UNC after three years for the University of Colorado, I never looked back, eager to move forward.

There were some learned things that didn’t register when I made my abrupt departure from UNC, things that should have had more conscious import at the time, but that I subconsciously missed. Deadlines, how to meet deadlines with written assignments; how to study for tests (I had never studied for a test until I got to college, sad to say); how to stay one step ahead of going broke or missing too many meals. How many times did I leave my car parked on a side street, out of gas, waiting for the next payday from my part-time job?

Unlike those who return to Aspen only to find it unbearably changed, the UNC campus at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning was remarkably unaltered from my memory. My return was rather limited as all the buildings were locked, but from the outside, I could have been there just the day before. Even the curious bridge to the student union, where I occasionally handed out copies of my latest English creative writing class assignment, was intact. The biggest change appeared to be the building where my old football locker room was located; the sign on the door said something about an auditory and speech program.

Mostly though, I wanted to go into the library basement where thousands of old books were stored, a warm niche void of people that smelled of well-read, aged paper, and where I found the black-and-white magic of literary geniuses in graceful volumes of poetry and essays.

There apparently is an up-to-date (expanded?) campus to the south about a mile with new buildings and new names, but I didn’t wish to go there. That’s not where I could find my old home, and I turned around before I got lost in the newness.

Wait, there on the corner was the house where I lived as a sophomore, still intact. From behind the fence along the driveway, being dragged by a large black dog, a young woman appeared with the usual Sunday morning bleary-eyed and half-smile appearance you’d expect from a college student who had partied hard the night before. Ah, yes.

Going back in time is a reminder that if we only knew all the cards we held as we played the game, we might have done it differently, but we never know until the last card falls. It was time to return to the mountains.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at He gives a shout-out to classmate Vic Garrett.