Vagneur: The outlaws | AspenTimes.com

Vagneur: The outlaws

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Had I known the depth of late-October snow on top, I might never have left on my journey, but by the time I reached Lenado with two horses in my 20-foot trailer, a foot-and-a half of new snow wasn't capable of deterring me. And we still needed to climb Larkspur Mountain and head across the flats on top.

As I stopped alongside the road to chain up, a bit of desperation swirled by me, a steady line of hunters scared off by the snow, anxiously seeking lower altitude. Several were kind enough to stop and tell me my mission was an impossible one, advice I refused to acknowledge.

It was my second or third trip that fall as a Forest Service volunteer, riding the area between Sloane's Peak and Porphyry Mountain, offering advice to hunters and other lost souls who occasionally needed a little help understanding the rules of backcountry camping and the laws of nature. The Vagneur cow camp, about three miles west of Kobey Park, was our headquarters and our destination. There was plenty of hay and grain for the horses, a cupboard full of necessities for human consumption and a large stack of firewood outside the door. Fresh steaks, eggs and other essentials would be packed in by horseback for this most recent trip.

Donald and Telby, sorrel geldings both and half-brothers out of the same mare, were my trusty steeds and stalwart companions on such missions, a threesome well-versed in the howls of coyotes, marauding bears, camouflaged elk stands and the occasional person who thought the great outdoors was the perfect place to act like a total asshole. I carried an old-west .22 pistol on my hip for distraction and a .38 special next to my breast underneath my coat for reality.

Skirting Kobey Park, we found the snow to be about 21/2 feet deep and a challenge for my truck and heavy horse trailer, but we continued on. Here and there, hunters were off to the sides of the road, camped where they shouldn't be in obviously "hurry up" bivouacs to avoid the rage of the storm the day and night before. We parked in our usual spot, thinking we may never get out again, and I saddled my horses for the long ride to cow camp.

Ours were the first tracks down the trail in days, and my mounts plowed through belly-deep snow with the enthusiasm of horses headed home rather than to a remote outpost in the wilderness — simply because we spent more time at the cabin than at home that time of year. My feet dragged through the soft snow as we ducked down steep banks and across frozen streams, the thought of steep ski terrain dashing through my mind.

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I never went anywhere in the mountains without Donald and Telby, my mainstays for many years, and that's just how we traveled — they didn't understand any other method. To leave one behind would have been an act of disrespect and near-treason. Telby, the big, stout horse, always carried the chainsaw, fuel and other paraphernalia, or he packed the camp provisions, depending what we were up to, and Donald was always the lead horse. It served us well for many years, and people became accustomed to us riding into their camps to check on things and shoot the breeze. We made many new friends that way and likely saved a life or two.

The opening day of hunting season dawned early the next morning. As my horses and I were cutting across a trail through some dark, deep timber near a large park in the Dry Woody drainage, we ran into the local district wildlife manager, Kevin Wright, making his rounds. After an exchange of pleasantries and a catch-up on what each of us thought about the freshly opened season, Kevin let off with a snort and remarked with an all-knowing, jovial smile. "In all this snow, can you believe some dumb son of a bitch brought a horse trailer up here?" Yes, Kevin, I can believe it.

Kevin and I still cross paths occasionally, but those two big-hearted ponies aren't with us anymore — Telby died five years ago, and we put Donald down this past spring — and I don't visit the cow camp much anymore; life moves on. Larkspur Mountain is still there, always will be — same as the many unforgettable years I spent with those two outlaw horses, Donald and Telby.

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