Vagneur: Running with the elk | AspenTimes.com

Vagneur: Running with the elk

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It was a maze of switchbacks going up the side of a mountain and not much of a trail, either. Rocky and too narrow in places, there were no trees, and what brush dotted the hillside didn't amount to much cover, but if you knew the path, a breathtaking wilderness awaited us farther along.

My big bay horse, Willie, and I were unwilling to give up the good rides we'd had through the summer and fall and now, just a few days into the depths of December, were taking a late-afternoon excursion just for the hell of it. A trace of fresh snow covered the ground, muffling Willie's footsteps, and a cold wind stung our eyes as we continued on, excited that we were the only vestiges of civilization in this deserted landscape.

As we topped out, we found ourselves on the near side of a long, wide-open basin that sloped gently upward toward quaking aspens and whispering pines about a mile farther along. In the bottom of the wide valley sat a couple of half-frozen, glass-smooth watering holes, nestled safely away from the stiff breeze. The spread of jack-oaks thickened, and the trail leveled off. Willie's ears perked up and his muscles tensed, giving a sign that something was in the brush to our right, but a glance that way revealed nothing. Willie heard it or smelled it or maybe just sensed it, and now the two of us rode along in concert, eager to see what would emerge from the bush, if anything.

Soon, Willie's pace quickened, the rustle of animals moving through brush could be heard, and almost instantaneously we were moving along with a small herd of elk, although most of them were still hidden from view in the thick maze. Willie, whose walk could outpace most recreational joggers, kept even with the beasts, although I figured they'd spook at any moment and leave us in their wake.

By design, we moved closer to the herd, now in a clear expanse of sage and meadow, and it seemed as though they were encouraging Willie to take his place alongside their sinewy choreography, a courtesy to a fellow traveler on four legs. We got closer and closer, and then off to the left, across the expansive vale, I spotted another elk herd, about the same size as the one we were traveling with and headed in the same direction. We were in the middle of what appeared an ever-closing "V" shape, the leaders coming inevitably closer together, although they were still a couple of hundred yards apart. But the "V" was closing fast.

Willie and I held true, refusing to give up our position, and the elk, ever mindful of a goal up ahead somewhere, continued to move closer together and in the same direction. The unmistakable musk of their odor and the pungent scent of riled sage filled the air, and their occasional muffled grunts were barely audible above the now-insistent beat of their hooves against the frozen ground.

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And suddenly, the elk came together into one bunch, and Willie and I were in the thick of it, running along now at what was a fast jog for my horse. So close were we that as we moved, they occasionally brushed against my leg, and another world enveloped me, one filled with intense energy, purpose and vibrancy.

How long we rode like that is impossible to say, for the rhythm of nature doesn't measure time in the same sense we do. I was an innocent witness to the exuberance of animal life, that unconstrained enthusiasm for living each moment with instinctual tenacity, that birthright we humans bartered away so many years ago.

Then, with a serendipitous change that came not from the leaders but at once from within the herd itself, the pace quickened, and Willie knew, through the common thread of a natural language without voice, that the elk were going on without us. And again, you ask, how long did it last? For me, a lifetime.

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

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