Vagneur: From the ranches to high-rises |

Vagneur: From the ranches to high-rises

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

If you know Brunnhilde from “Gotterdammerung,” then you know “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” Sports writers and sportscasters have made a mockery of the phrase, but still we respect the notion that we cannot know how an event will end until it actually does.

Many times we see the curtain dropping, but do we truly know when it ends? Or do we realize later, somewhere in our easily deflected memory, that we don’t remember the last time we did something?

The reality may have begun to sink in when I returned to the ranch after a weeklong high school post-graduation celebration trip to Texas, but I doubt it. Reality and consequences have different meanings to a teenager. The downstairs was full of moving boxes, with cupboards and countertops bare; a few chairs were left to sit on, but they would be gone with the moving van scheduled to arrive the next morning. Impressed that my parents had cleaned out a three-story house in one short week, I was relieved to find my bed still intact.

Out early the next morning to catch up on all the work I’d missed, I didn’t return to the house until late afternoon, only to find the house empty. No good-byes. The handwritten note explained that the new owners were now in charge and that my dad had left me a cup, a spoon and a blowtorch with which to heat tea water. No stove, no refrigerator, no kitchen table. My upstairs bedroom, of which I had been so proud, had been reduced to a mattress on the floor, my sleeping bag on top. A small dresser remained along one wall, containing some of my clothes; several shirts hung in the closet.

Like a deer that has been mortally wounded but doesn’t understand inevitability, I careened forward, unaware of my vulnerabilities. On some level, there was muted celebration at my abrupt, ascetic aloneness. Tough and desperate, I refused to recognize my circumstances, to acknowledge that life as I had known it had irreversibly been torn asunder.

After a couple of frustrating weeks, with no improvements made in the living situation, underage self-medication became the norm. Primed on beer and whiskey, I made the Aspen rounds after dark, chasing women and telling tales of cow punching, ranching and debauchery to anyone who would listen. On the way home late at night, my 1958 Ford sedan, which I had bought secondhand from the Eagle County sheriff, could hit 130 on the straightaway by the airport before it started to vibrate and shimmy. Alone and inebriated, I should have died there.

About halfway through July, I quit the ranch, probably a couple of steps ahead of getting fired. It’s taken me most of the 50 years since to understand that it’s impossible to work for a ranch owner who isn’t a rancher. That’s kind of like a vegan sitting down to a good ribeye.

Following my dad’s tracks, I found him in a downtown Denver high-rise office building, buying and selling ranches in the seven-state Rocky Mountain region. His secretary, with a wink and a smile, handed me a sweating glass of ice water, and Dad showed me around. I was impressed, but the air conditioning and shaking hands with a ton of people were wearing me down.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said.

The changes in my life at that time were tough, but I survived, and now older and wiser, I more caringly wonder how my dad made the transition from rancher to broker of ranches. Did he ever feel the pull to go back to the land, to pick up those scattered bits and pieces that surely held his sanity, to massage and reclaim them for his own? Or did he leave them lay, shut off from his consciousness by sheer force of will? Did he ever wonder when was the last time he hitched the team to feed the cows or spent a day on the mountain, just him, his horse and the dog? Or did all those treasures get lost in the shuffle as time rolled on? He never talked about it, and still, I wonder.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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