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Vagneur: Knocking on the past’s door

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur

My horse Drifter and I cross the bridge across Woody Creek, thick wooden planks ringing out the methodical sound of hoofbeats just as they did in my youth. An imaginary curtain closes gently behind me, shutting out the modern world of computers, cellphones and frenzy.

We ride the same land my great-grandfather did in the 1880s, my grandfather after him, down through the generations to yours truly. Although my daughter never has lived there, she has pastured cattle and run irrigation water over that well-preserved land.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” according to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The lonely curmudgeon may have been on to something, as that line was repeated centuries later, more or less, in the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

After a hiatus of almost 50 years, I find myself on the old home place, the ranch that molded much of what I am today. Through a turn of almost certain impossibility in this growth-driven community, little has changed during my absence.

Each morning, just as I did in the 1960s, I saddle my horse and pull on my irrigation boots, preparing to check the ditch headgates and change the irrigation water. It’s a routine almost as old as the existence of white men in this valley. As I mount up and swing the all-important shovel over my shoulder, just as my ancestors did for unfathomable decades, I cannot help but smile inside, heading out on an adventure that I’m certain the horse feels, as well.

I ride the mile or so to the beginning of the ditch, check for obstructions and adjust the water level if necessary, and then I move the water along the hillside pasture, wetting the dry mountain grass with the sustenance of all life. Then I’ll move the water in the hayfield behind the house. The solitude and steady beat of the horse’s gait is wholly conducive to the free-fall of relaxed thought, and most pointedly, it’s almost as though I never left the ranch but rather stayed and marveled at the same amazing lay of the land in a continuum that never saw interruption.

Our chores done, Drifter and I return to the barn, where he is put in dry-dock with the other horses, plenty of water and shade available to them for the duration of the day. My thirst takes me to the house I grew up in, its interior kept cool by the ever-present massage of cool breezes through age-old, shade-producing cottonwoods. As ancient as snowfall itself, a natural spring waters the row of blossoming, fragrant lilacs along the perimeter of the yard.

A snack and cold drink become the order of the day, and just as I did all those years ago, I sink into a big, leather chair and read the book of the moment, glancing out occasionally at the familiar emerald green of well-tended fields. Back then, the readings were of Kenneth Patchen, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Herman Hesse and a smattering of poets to include Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg and William Blake. Today, the fare is less dark — Pam Houston, Jim Harrison, Stephen Ambrose, Antwone Fisher and Robert Bly.

The magpies sing, the floor and stairs creak the same as they did all those many years ago, and if I were in the mood, I could sit at my father’s roll-top desk, which is still in his old office today, and write this column as I look out the very window he undoubtedly gazed through as he gathered his thoughts. And it’s about the same as it was. The spirits of my ancestors have ridden with me always, but they seem closer now. Old memories, long suppressed, creep their way into my consciousness with stunning frequency, but the lesson has been well learned. The past provides but a foundation upon which to build the future. The gentle closing of the curtain behind me cannot muffle the intervening years, and as Heraclitus and Wolfe well knew — “You can’t go home again.” But you almost can.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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