Vagneur: When the strangers visited | AspenTimes.com

Vagneur: When the strangers visited

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur

It was a nondescript get-up, the kind seldom seen around here: loose-fitting beige cotton-twill pants, the too-high waist pulled awkwardly sideways by a hurried fastening of the belt; barely contrasting long-sleeved shirt above, a couple of sizes too big, covering an obviously skinny torso, all topped by a floppy hat of straw, reckless in its shape but totally efficient in blocking the sun. The bespectacled face underneath spoke of generic features, with the exception of a small knot on one cheek, and the voice, soft but yet direct, resonated with familiarity, as though we should know this man although we'd never seen him before.

His wife sat in a faded, small pickup truck, content to let the man do the asking, with a large-brimmed, droopy hat covering almost all of her head except the eyes. Piercing eyes flicked from movement to movement, person to person, assessing either the value of the place or nervously wondering what our reply might be.

Their sudden appearance, soundlessly from around the corner of the house, surprised us in that way the abrupt and unexpected appearance of strangers does, and my mind quickly calculated whether they were the main show or decoys out front while skulduggery was happening on our backside.

"Who owns that apple tree along the road?" Clearly ripe apples are falling off the trees in abundance this year, and a man would be a fool not to pick as many as he could. But still, this fellow wasn't talking much, and our direct questions, in the course of conversation, got vague answers. It's interesting to note, however, in the desperate oddities we create for ourselves, that if you go to the Eastern Slope this weekend, odds are good you could buy umpteen bushels of Western Slope apples in a farmers market over there, delivered by a man who stood in my yard the other day.

In a bygone era, before we were forced to create a new vocabulary to reinvent normalcy in our eating habits, Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley were true paradigms of "farm to table," "locovore," "organic" this or that and whatever else you'd want to call common sense. Instead of folks from the Eastern Slope, local citizens took to Aspen Mountain for chokecherries and serviceberries, wild raspberries; other mountain valleys were buzzing with folks intent on the fall "harvest," catching up with old friends they hadn't seen in a year or so. They combed roadside orchards for leftovers, salvaging apples, plums and rhubarb patches.

And so it was one day years ago, as a hired hand and I whiled away a rainy afternoon in the ranch bunkhouse over hot coffee and gin rummy, a car from town pulled up alongside our orchard, and a couple of women got out, carrying large baskets. A sense of ownership pride, instilled by reading too many books and watching Western movies, overtook me and I headed out the door, prepared to put a stop to this blatant trespass of our peace and quiet, an unconscionable disruption of our serene sanctuary.

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It's worthy to note that in those days I never went anywhere on the ranch without my .22 single-action rifle, so I suppose the women felt threatened by my lumbering presence, telling them that they were trespassing and unwelcome. Upon their departure, my 12-year-old psyche was unreasonably inflated by their quick retreat, and I imagined myself to be one tough SOB.

That is until my dad cornered me later, curious about what I was doing threatening innocent town ladies with my gun. Read that any way you want, but the essence of my father's talk was that the sheriff had called, wanting to know what the hell was going on, and further, if I took a close look at the orchard, some 12 or 15 trees resting there, it would be obvious that we had more than enough to share.

"But," he said, "you were right: They should have asked for permission first."

The couple from the Eastern Slope, mentioned at the outset, strangely rekindled my senses, and yesterday I took a closer look at the orchard. There's something about apple pie that sounds good, and I picked a bucket of serviceberries from across the creek, dreaming about some homemade jelly for my toast.

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