Tony Vagneur: Visions of the West have clouded over time

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Imagine walking out your back door, lifting up a curtain of gingham and being able to see as far as the eye could imagine. Vast expanses of land, plains, mountains, rivers, streams, forests, wildlife; a veritable garden of immense possibilities, and it was yours to explore. That’s what almost everyone saw before the West was “settled.”

Whether they were looking west to Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, or later, west to Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado or California, that’s what they all saw, each view different to everyone one of them, but on the whole, an uncivilized continent that needed to be tamed.

Although in today’s contemporary philosophy, such viewpoints are untenable in our rear-view mirrors, we need to recognize that that was a different time, if not a different place. But we need to dig deeper into our psyches, to wonder if we’ve actually learned anything or if we’ve just moved the pieces around on the same table.

Many years ago, I showed a friend a large meadow of uncluttered land behind our cow camp, a beautiful expanse of green, lush grass surrounded by aspen and pine forests. “If only there was a house along the edge over there,” she’d replied. Visions of the West are different for everyone.

Just down the road a piece from my keyboard, on land once belonging to my great-grandfather, there’s a patch of ground bifurcated from the original ranch, split off in a subdivision style that has killed so much of the reality of wide-open spaces, of contiguous acreages that made up the West. It might be 35 acres, maybe a bit larger, just the right size to disrupt and discourage the migration of wildlife over the seasons.

Whoever first built on that subdivided land had the good sense to put the house down by the river, almost out of sight of the county road. He built a barn just across from the house and left the rest in open pasture, a veritable heaven-on-earth for horses or cattle. The gravel road about three-quarters of a mile long leading to the house remained on the edge of the property, leaving the heart of it reasonably unmarred by civilization. That layout remained virtually unchanged for around 40 years, through three or four owners, until a man with a different vision bought the place.

Have you ever noticed what’s important to most all of the new owners of large pieces of land, besides over-sized houses? An asphalt driveway and an over-sized pond. It happens like clockwork. It’s almost like those two things are required by imaginary HOA rules. Or maybe these people all drink the same brand of Kool-Aid. Those ponds are rarely natural looking and where are they getting the water rights to fill them? They like asphalt so they can squeal their tires like teenagers, speeding through the bucolic countryside without getting dust on their cars.

The aforementioned place, on a part of great-granddads chunk of the American dream, was taken over by a man with a different vision of the West. He built a huge pond, at least a million bucks worth of excavation by my practiced eye, before he discovered that his water rights to fill it were rather nebulous and depended on the good nature of an upstream neighbor. It filled when it could, not before, but in all fairness, for a million dollars, he had it well-lined so that once filled, evaporation was his main enemy.

Oh yeah, don’t forget the road. Apparently it wasn’t in a good place, following the outside property line as it did, so a new one was built, directly through the middle of the once-open, attractive meadow. That’s kinda like cutting your face in half, by my reckoning. The last thing to go down was, you guessed it, the asphalt; greasy, stinking, hard asphalt right down the center of a once-beautiful horse (or cattle) pasture.

That was his dream and since he owns the place, who can argue. But to call that a vision of the West might be a misnomer. Like many of the developments on once-open land, it’s more a display of someone’s deep-seated hubris, crying out for recognition in a cynical world that values bigger and bolder over naturalness.

In the same sort of misunderstanding, don’t forget the hairdresser who surrounded his stream-side Woody Creek house with huge, man-made boulders. As they say about so many things in our world, you can’t make this stuff up.

Maybe the problem is that some people have enough money to trump common sense. There was the developer up Capitol Creek who had a large hillock removed because it violated the almost-perfect view from the house. The county found out and fined the owner $20,000 to $30,000, a mere pittance compared with what he had invested in the place. What’s that old saying, “Don’t ask permission, ask forgiveness.”

Clearly, myriad visions of the West have become clouded and parochial, stamped on one’s personality like a “kick me” sign taped to one’s back.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at