Vagneur: Grandpa and me
Back in the 1970s sometime, I rode my good buckskin appaloosa, Kiowa, in the grand entry of the W/J Rodeo out on McLain Flats. As I left the arena, my cousins Alice and Ruth Vagneur came running up to me saying, “Oh my God, when you first entered the arena, we thought you were your grandfather, Ben. You ride just like him!” Grandpa had been dead about 15 years by then, and still to this day, that’s one of the most memorable compliments I’ve ever received.
Visions of the West are different for everyone, I reckon, but part of my vision is that of following my grandfather through the mountains above Woody Creek until the year he died. We moved cows, we rounded up wild horses, we fixed fences, and some days we just rode. Some days there was a haze over the mountains, others there was lightning and rain, and for some of the rides, I can remember the distinct color of the grass or the smell in the air. Sick cows we roped and doctored, one particularly striking wild horse from a distance, and the antics of his last cattle dog, Tag — all these memories burned themselves into my brain and became a substantial part of my vision of the West.
It all came around last week, totally unexpected. I’d been dispatched to southwestern Wyoming with a load of bulls we’d sold to a rancher up that way, near a town named Fort Bridger. It was snowing when I left.
Fort Bridger sprang up along the Oregon Trail in 1843, originally a trading post begun by Jim Bridger and his partner, Louis Vasquez. Further, a man forever vilified by history, Lanford Hastings, wrote some cockamamie guide (“The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California”) claiming the best route to Oregon and California was to leave the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger and cross the Great Salt Lake Desert, rejoining the main trail later. This bunch of nonsense led to the tragic tale of the Donner Party who, in all good faith, followed Hastings’ ill-informed directions.
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In the early years, this land around Fort Bridger didn’t appeal much to those with visions of a different West, one with more snowy peaks and lusher grass, and they didn’t stay any longer in Fort Bridger than it took to resupply their wagons with basic necessities. Soon, however, cattle ranchers recognized the tremendous possibilities for ranching and began putting a few herds together. Additionally, there was good proximity to the well-traveled Goodnight-Loving Trail, the grass was excellent and plentiful water with the Black’s Fork of the Green River close at hand.
Today, this part of the country hasn’t changed much from those early years. As I ripped across the high plains with a trailer load of Black Angus bulls, there was nothing but mile after mile of wide-open spaces, populated by thousands upon thousands of Black Angus cattle, with at least one Hereford ranch thrown in for good measure. The air was clear, brisk and clean, the water holes brimming with fresh water, and by the occasional movement of the trailer behind me, the bulls were getting their first scent of a new life ahead.
As I went to open the gate for unloading, a strong hand met mine, with a big smile behind it. “You want to try to keep them separate?” I asked.
“Nope, let ’em have at it now and get it over with,” was his relaxed reply. The snow had melted but it was a breezy, muddy mess.
I pulled forward out of the corrals and began handing the paperwork to him out the truck window. There in front of me was my grandfather, as real a replica as there ever could be. A deep voice that could barely conceal a profound sense of humor; deep blue eyes that meant business, and a two- or three-day growth of thick, gray whiskers.
The long shadows of late afternoon were upon us. We looked to be about the same age, and as he barked out some orders to his hired hand about what to do next, it was evident he wasn’t ready to let me leave, not yet. “I hear you got a new grand-baby up your way,” he offered through the whispering wind. When I said, “Well, yes, they’re the best, aren’t they?” his brows raised up over newly lighted eyes and between our broad smiles, we struck a bond that’ll be there the next time we meet.
The grin didn’t leave my face as I rumbled down the dirt road, followed by an empty stock trailer. There was a satisfaction deep inside that, on some level, I had reconnected with my own grandfather and in the process, had made a new friend, a man with a similar vision of the West.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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