Vagneur: These things aren’t supposed to happen |

Vagneur: These things aren’t supposed to happen

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

How do we deal with grief? It’s personal, and unfortunately no one has a formula. We are pitched onto a sea of jagged reality, our emotions left raw, scraped bare of any safe harbor. We are left to our own devices.

My lifetime friend, Max Vaughn, died July 4, the result of a freak and catastrophic accident at his mountain cabin near Gunnison. As I told his son, Luke, this stuff isn’t supposed to happen, but it does.

Max and I went to school together in the old Red Brick, long before it was an arts center, walking those creaky wooden floors in the long hallway between classrooms, wanting to be almost anywhere else. We moved cows and spent time at cow camp together with our mutual hero, Al Senna, a professional range rider. We played football together for the Aspen Skiers in Wagner Park and on some all-dirt fields along the Colorado River Valley like in Silt and New Castle, and then we went our separate ways.

Older than me by a year, Max went to work for the city along with his good friend Jinx Caparella. Now they’re a couple of local boys, for sure. It’s probably still true that between Max and Jinx they could tell you where every water and electrical line in the city of Aspen was located. Those boys made a study of such things, and when the Engineering Department occasionally failed to come up with needed answers, they went to Max and Jinx.

By his own admission, Max’s time spent in Woody Creek and at cow camp was some of the most memorable of his youth. Max was a quick study and was the kind of guy you always wanted on your team, not only for his brawn but because he could think. He and Senna had a great friendship, and Al was the kind of guy who didn’t put up with any bullshit, something I learned the hard way. My cousins Wayne and Clyde Vagneur liked Max a lot and always looked forward to the days when he’d be around to help out.

We all know about Facebook and its ability to bring people together after many years of separation, and Max and I rediscovered each other through that venue. Well, that was after the time I spied Max and his wife Alice sitting in their car outside the Community Church after a memorial service. Surprised to suddenly see his countenance after about 40 years, I blurted out, “Jesus Christ!” Max, ever the cool one, replied, “Close, but not quite.” The significance of that one encounter opened the door to a communication between us that could only be possible in today’s world.

After we rewarmed our friendship a bit, Max began sending me little snippets he’d written about cow camp or his days at hunting camp in Hunter Creek. One in particular caught my attention, titled “Collins Creek and Yellow Jackets,” a great piece about one of our adventures at cow camp. Max Vaughn’s story became my column for April 2, 2015, with full accreditation, of course. You know damned well he got a kick out that.

Something very few people knew: Max had an archive of Aspen material second only to the Aspen Historical Society, and maybe not even second at that. I’d ask him about something that happened in the 1940s or ’50s and before I knew it, Max had sent me a newspaper clipping or photograph concerning whatever it was. I wish I’d asked him about his cataloging system, because it certainly seemed infallible.

I learned of Max’s death after a day of running a chainsaw up on the mountain, clearing deadfall from cattle trails. He’d been cutting down a gnarly aspen tree with a chainsaw at his cabin near Gunnison when the SOB spun around, like they can suddenly do, and fell on him. Max hung on for a couple of days, but not even a hard-hitting bastard like him can tough past a wreck like that. God, it hurt to get the message.

How to deal with news like that, so sudden and so tragic, big tears rolling down my cheeks? And so the other night, I stayed up most of the night going over all the emails Max and I had exchanged across the years, reliving our younger days in Aspen through family photos he’d sent me, reading his short stories again, admiring him for his deep love for Aspen and interest in its history.

We’d talked about having lunch somewhere in the valley, catching up in person. Max joked that at our age, maybe we shouldn’t take too long to get it done. Hell, ol’ buddy, we didn’t know a sneak attack was going to take you out. I’m going to miss you, my friend.

Max Vaughn’s service will be Monday at 1 p.m. at Martin Mortuary in Grand Junction. A full obituary also appears in today’s Aspen Times.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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