Tony Vagneur: Waking up to memories
Once upon a time, 10 years ago or more, The Aspen Times inadvertently posted my column in the online obituary section. Family members began receiving condolences before I’d even turned on my computer. Since there was never a retraction, only the later positioning of the column on the opinion page, I have no recourse but to paraphrase Willie Nelson’s words, “I woke up today still not dead again.” To that I can only say, “I woke up today, still dead again.”
Dead or alive, I found myself in one of those monsoon downpours the other day, a heavy Aussie slicker and a Stetson hat keeping me dry while my horse, Easy, ducked his head and bowed his neck into the beast. A full load of cattle salt rested on the pack horse’s back (Django) and we still had a long way to go, much of it uphill. And then the hail arrived, followed by lightning and the usual thunder.
After a good rain, at least around here, the clouds usually roll away; taking the rain with them, and then the sun comes out, at least sporadically, and reminds us of its importance. That didn’t happen the other day — it just kept raining, long after the hail and lightning had finished, and it was clear to me the romance was fading. Slick, slimy mud at each salt lick, covering my boots, tree branches weighted down with raindrops slapping me in the face, horses slipping and sliding, occasionally objecting, and I started to think the truck and horse trailer, still hours away, would be a welcome sight.
And then, before long, we were making our way down the trail, our deliveries made. We took a seldom used path through the dark, piney forest, which shielded us from much of the rain; the horses found a faster pace, even eager, and the storm clouds in my mind began to ease. The day was a brute, to be sure, and I cussed a lot, but it didn’t take long to realize that to miss that day would have been a tragedy.
Even if you haven’t seen your name on the obituary page, it’s one of those things about getting older, I reckon, how you begin to appreciate things more and more, especially the little ones, like a familiar hand in yours or a smile from a stranger. Maybe someone shares a story with you. Our lives aren’t measured by the big things we’ve done — it’s how we’ve lived them, day in and day out.
If you want my opinion, it’s kind of a dirty trick to let us amass a lifetime of memories and then take us away from all of them when we croak, but just like with avalanches, all the true experts are dead and aren’t talking.
There are things I genuinely miss already, events that will never happen again for me, or anyone for that matter. Imagine a young child, 7 or 8, on a big, coal black horse named Spades, trailing a herd of cattle down Woody Creek to the stockyards at the old Woody Creek Store. The chuff-chuff-chuff of the coal-fed locomotive preparing to stop, steam hissing from its mighty hulk, causes Spades to rear up, but the child, far from being scared, smiles wide with the excitement of it all and he’s pretty sure Spades likes it, too.
Another childhood memory is riding Collins Creek with my grandfather, roping and tying cows to stout trees for doctoring, sitting under the shade of the aspen trees alongside the stream for lunch, eating the homemade cheese or homegrown fried egg sandwiches that Gramps had made.
How about the days in Canada with my cousin Don Stapleton and other great skiers, hitching a ride in a helicopter, ride after ride, day after day, skiing untracked powder all week long? I don’t think anyone could forget that. Or throwing ski patrol bombs into Bingo or off the Short Snort cliffs, trying to kick off avalanches. For safety.
There are 10 million unforgettable memories if there’s one; women, parties, playing music, honors received, rodeos, hunting trips, hikes, road trips, and on and on it goes. Some good, some bad, but all real.
And you know what I’m talking about. Every one of us has these memories, but maybe the lubrication that makes so many of them possible is the fact that the Roaring Fork Valley is our home base. Enough said.
So, if you ever see your name in the obituary column, it can only mean that you, like me, are waking up still dead, every day. And happy to do it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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