Vagneur: Rocks in the Rockies |

Vagneur: Rocks in the Rockies

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Margaret has the technique — something she calls “football style” — head down, butt in the air, pitching rocks backward between her legs with an aim that is quite accurate. Don’t piss her off. After making a round with the disc, breaking up the plowed ground and stirring up more rocks, I drive along in the John Deere tractor, the one with the bucket on the front, and Margaret throws the collected rocks in the bucket. I know, I know — in the name of chivalry, our roles should be reversed, but they’re not, although I do help her sometimes. It’s a Woody Creek tradition — the men drive, the women pitch — going back to the ’50s, when our neighbors the Barbiers picked hay bales out of the fields the same way.

When we’re picking rocks and the monotony level rises, a bit of tired humor is indicated, the usual line being, “That’s why they’re called the Rocky Mountains.” During my days at T Lazy 7, many horseback riders would return from a lovely outing through aspen forests, the up-close view of Pyramid and the Maroon Bells impossible to miss under a cobalt-blue sky, and their first comment would be, “How come those trails are so rocky?” As an aside, and to the possible detriment of this column, may I say that I much prefer the Utes’ more poetic “Shining Mountains,” although “Rocky Mountains” is quite descriptive, as well.

Rocks don’t get a lot of discussion unless you’re in the earthmoving business, but they play a huge role in our everyday lives. Our houses are held from sinking into the earth by rocks, the retaining walls keeping our driveways and highways from sliding away are increasingly built of rocks, rocks keep the rivers from eroding too quickly, and rocks are a dirty trick to put in someone’s backpack when he isn’t looking.

The comment is often heard early in the ski season that Aspen Mountain isn’t as rocky as Snowmass. Of course it isn’t — Snowmass didn’t have Robin Perry as a patrol director, a man obsessed with picking rocks off the various trails and a man who instilled such a habit in me that 38 years after leaving the patrol, I still stop to pick rocks off the hill. Robin also could see a dollar bill under a lift from a mile away and would sometimes ski up on what he thought was a dollar only to find a fifty or a hundred.

There are some new-age farmers in this valley who think they invented crop rotation, but they didn’t. As a young boy, one of my jobs on our Woody Creek ranch was to pick rocks out of the newly plowed ground my dad had furrowed. If you’ve never picked rocks out of a field, you likely have no idea how mindless and boring the work can be. Especially for a young person. We picked the rocks so they didn’t damage the potato-planting equipment that would cover the ground in the spring, and then we’d pick rocks again after we’d plowed the potato ground in preparation for oats. Sure, and guess what — we’d pick rocks again after we’d plowed the oat ground up for spring planting of alfalfa, timothy and clover.

In my teen years, I’d invite friends from town out to the ranch to help pick rocks. They didn’t really know what they were getting into — either that or they were awfully nice to help out — but to keep them working long enough to stay for the great lunches and dinners my mother made, I’d have them take turns driving the vehicle we used to collect the rocks.

All this recent rain has slowed us down somewhat, and although we’re making progress, we’ll never win. The rocks keep coming, just as they have for the past few million years. But if you don’t pick the rocks, the meadows and pastures will be a minefield for agricultural equipment, and the rocks can potentially be injurious to grazing animals, as well.

The ultimate compliment was paid to Margaret and her Diamond W Ranch the other day in a conversation with a neighbor. “She has that place looking like a Kentucky racehorse farm,” he said. Well, yes she does, and she’s worked very hard to get it looking that way, down to and including picking up a lot of damned rocks. If you’re bored, come on out.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at