Vagneur: Growing up on a ranch
A couple weeks ago, I was asked to speak at a men’s luncheon in Aspen; an honor I gladly accepted. This particular group may be the oldest continual men’s lunch group in Aspen, but you need an invitation to attend, so I’m not telling you its name or who is in charge. If I did, you know, they might have to kill me.
During the Q&A period, a gentleman asked if I could describe what it was like growing up on a ranch. My first thought, and one I may have blurted, out was, “Hell, I don’t know.” Anyway, I don’t remember what I said after that, but doubt that I accurately answered the man’s question, other than to say it was the best way to grow up, at least in my humble opinion.
One thing about a ranch, it is a lot of hard work, but there’s an indescribable “something” about the life that seems to drag most of us in. And in my experience, if you haven’t grown up ranching, it is almost impossible for most folks to put their whole heart into the effort later in life.
I started working for my dad during the summer months when I was 9 years old and got paid $10 a month. It was my responsibility to help the hired men fix fence, such as running for more staples or keeping track of the tools, or cleaning up the shop, rounding up the milk cows in the evening, running in the saddle horses in the morning or sometimes just staying out of the way. Everyone was patient with me and taught me so many things that I still rely on today.
Our ranch consisted of 1,200 acres in Woody Creek, one of five put together by my great-grandfather, Jeremie Vagneur, and his sons. Ours contained Jeremie’s original homestead, patented in the 1880s. We ran somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 pairs of Herefords, mother and offspring, plus a small herd of brown Swiss milk cows. We still ran draft horses for feeding the cattle in the winter and for raking hay in the summer, and kept a small cavvy of cow pones year-round. We had grazing permits on three different forest ranges and rented pasture from the James Hopkins Smith ranch, east of Aspen, which is now known as the Northstar Nature Preserve. In getting to the Smith ranch from Woody Creek, we drove our cattle straight through town after crossing McLain Flats.
By the time I graduated from high school, I knew enough to manage the entire ranch, the responsibility of which seemed to fall to me for a month or so each summer as my dad always seemed to be out of town for medical reasons. I was committed to making ranching my life’s avocation and was making more wages than anyone else on the crew.
Now in my 60s, I can accurately say my life hasn’t changed much. I’m still running after cattle, fixing fence, taking care of horses and irrigating hay fields, but sadly, I haven’t driven any cows through town lately. I’m still cutting hay on most of our old ranch, including an area now called Paradise Mesa, either because it resembles paradise or because much of its irrigation water comes from the Paradise Ditch.
In the old days, we called that area the Big Mesa, and we split it up into sections such as the Big Hollow, the Little Hollow, the “L”, Davis Crossing, the Cow Pasture, Buck Hollow and some others that escape me right now.
But what has changed is the view from Paradise Mesa. Back when I was still growing up, there wasn’t much to see, other than the Elk Mountains. You know the ones like Capitol Peak, Mount Hayden, Castle and others. We didn’t know their names, because no one called them by that. Mount Hayden was referred to as Belted Mountain, unless you lived on the other side of the valley, in which case its local nom de guerre was Ribbon Mountain. We didn’t climb mountains because we were too busy working the ranch.
There was no Snowmass Ski Area, no Brush Creek Village, no Community School, no Starwood, no houses peering over the ridgeline into Woody Creek, none of that other stuff to spoil our view. Highway 82 was two lanes and quiet. From the Paradise Mesa hayfields, we looked out into land that was still wild.
When I was a teenager, I could take a leak anywhere on those 1,200 acres, assured of complete privacy. So could my horse or dog. Today, it is impossible to hang it out anywhere on the place without being in someone’s view plane.
I don’t know if that tells you anything about growing up on a ranch, but at least that’s part of it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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