Tony Vagneur: The boys of summer
It was a rite of passage every spring, gearing up for the summer months, and maybe it’s why I’m not a beach bum when the lifts close. The nearest I can come to developing material images about it all are dirt, water, boots and horses. But there’s so much more.
The last day of school could never come soon enough, and after that, I was glued to the ranch, mostly enjoying the freedom it offered. Depending on how old I was, there were horses to ride, cows to move, tractors to drive, mountains to climb, fields to irrigate, and whatever else a kid could think up to entertain himself. And it might all happen in the same day.
Although they weren’t as popular in my youth as they are today, running and hiking were two of my favorite activities “after work,” as I called it. In the late afternoon or early evening, I’d be climbing up behind the ranch, ducking through the thick brush, hopping from rock to rock, spying on the wildlife and going higher, sometimes a mile or more.
Wouldn’t want to be late for dinner, so my exit strategy was what made it all worthwhile — I’d run down the way I came, as fast as the terrain would allow, jumping over small serviceberry bushes, cutting hard “slalom” turns on my feet, zig-zagging through quakies or jack-oaks on the steeps, and slashing fast and furious through the sage brush. No one ever knew about these excursions because they just didn’t seem important enough to talk about, except maybe occasionally with a hired hand.
One year, school got out early and it was a different kind of year. My mother was in the hospital recovering from complicated surgery, my younger brother and sister had been farmed out with my grandma in town, and my dad and I were left alone on the place, “batching it,” as people said.
My dad had plowed up a hayfield on our big mesa, an area we called the “Little Hollow,” steep on both sides, flat in the bottom. He’d already plowed it by the time school let out, but it still needed to be disked and harrowed.
We’d go up there together in the morning and while he disked the field, I’d sit and watch, daydreaming and waiting my turn. After a bit, he’d let me get in there with the harrow, all by myself, to totally smooth out the dirt. We traded off like that for several days, working together until the job was done. That was one of the best years my dad and I ever had together but unfortunately, school never got out that early again.
After a long hiatus I am back field dragging and cutting the hay in that same area and can never forget that spring my dad and I spent there, working the soil.
One spring I had a new saddle, which I proudly threw on my horse from the year before. To be clear, the ranch provided the horse but I was responsible for buying my own saddle, which by the way, came from F.M. Light & Sons in Steamboat. Probably a teenager by then, I was responsible for keeping the ditch irrigation boxes clean on the northern side of the spread. Late in the spring, what with high, roily water, there is a lot of detritus that travels with the water, plugging up man-made structures, or sometimes natural blips, as well. It requires daily, eagle-eyed watching and personal maintenance.
Anyway, there was a large clog of sticks, dead grass and weeds plugging up one of the boxes, backing up the water, and as was my usual custom, I just dropped the reins from the horse on the ground and went about my work. In the midst of it all, I caught a glimpse of my horse (a 5-year-old mare), upstream from me, lying in the cool of the deep-water ditch, her head sticking up above the water, my new saddle almost completely submerged.
I let out a holler, banged my shovel on the metal gate and the horse immediately got the message. Up and out of the ditch, she ran straight down the hill, dragging the reins off to the side. My intemperate response cost me a long walk home, in rubber waders, no less. Today, I wish I could give that mare a big hug, just for the memory.
It’s spring again, heading into summer, and I still feel that young kid exuberance about getting back to work on the ranch. I can’t move as fast and powerful as I once did, but almost, and I’ve learned to work smarter. Besides, I have a 6-year-old gelding to partner up with and I’m smiling a lot. If you think of it, send me a card from the beach.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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