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Pack-burro racing in the “Real World”

Column by Hal Walter

Pack-burro racing – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

It’s easy to figure, but difficult to understand, that if it hadn’t been for the obscure sport of pack-burro racing, I might not be living in Central Colorado tending to this jackass and word farm. But here I am, and if I have anyone to thank for saving me from the madness of what most people call “The Real World,” it would be Jumpin’ Jack, Clyde, Virgil, Hannibal and Spike — my five long-eared dependents.

It’s customary in July to write something about the annual rite of summer in this neck of the Rockies, the only sport indigenous to this region. But what does one say? People running up and down mountain passes with burros in tow tend to get attention over and again. While Colorado Central stands as the unofficial official publication of pack-burro racing, other media giants also have chronicled the sport — The Wall Street Journal (twice), Western Horseman, ESPN2, Sports Illustrated, PBS, Runner’s World, Colorado Magazine, Rocky Mountain Sports, Summit, Snow Country, Rocky Mountain News, and The Denver Post.

But even with all this attention, few understand what it’s all about. Truly, most Coloradans haven’t even heard of pack-burro racing, despite its being almost two decades older than the Super Bowl the Broncos have failed to win in four tries.

For 49 years the World Championship Pack-Burro Race, 29 miles of rocky road punctuated by icy stream crossings, snowfields, rockslides and the fabled Mosquito Pass at 13,176 feet, has been held on the last Sunday of July in Fairplay. It’s followed by the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race the following Sunday, and the Triple Crown Pack-Burro Race in Buena Vista the next weekend. Earlier this year, pack-burro racers competed in Safford, Arizona, and in late May I helped organize a race from Silver Cliff to Westcliffe. One comment I heard from a spectator at the Westcliffe race was, “I can’t believe that people do this.”

Really, I can’t either. And I’ve been at it for 18 years. To quote veteran pack-burro racer and independent filmmaker Curtis Imrie, the sport is “complete in its absurdity.” Then again, people race cars in circles around a track, too, and others compete at triathlon, a sport which must be the epitome of yup narcissism.

The pack-burro racing theory is basic: Get your ass up the pass. But the practice is much more detailed. Consider for instance the 33-pound pack saddle loaded with traditional mining equipment — a pick, pan and shovel. Not to mention the actual burro which you are not allowed to ride.

More obscure than the actual rules is the lifestyle commitment that makes it possible to participate. If I’d followed the career-track path that most of my upwardly mobile college buddies took, I’d be sprinkling a lawn in suburbia on designated watering days instead of logging road and trail time, shoveling manure and pitching hay. I’d be polishing my bass boat instead of rewiring my stock trailer.

Or maybe not.

But surely I’d be a different person than the one I actually am. And not necessarily a better person either.

The danger with being an essayist and sharing your ideas with the world, or at least a small readership, is that you actually might start to take yourself seriously. That’s the problem with being a pack-burro racer too. It’s hardly the Super Bowl; most people would consider it beyond esoteric, hardly something to get butterflies over. Still, each year as I stand before the “Prunes — A Burro” Monument in Fairplay, with weeks, actually years, of training and preparation behind me, I can’t help but feel a twinge of nervousness. And when the gun sounds, there’s a familiar rush of adrenaline that covers my body with goosebumps as my burro and I gallop down Front Street.

Pack-burro racing is truly a Zen sport. What I mean by this is that to be successful you have to take the “you” out of the picture and concentrate on your ass. But that’s easier said than done. The week following the Westcliffe race a picture caption in the hometown weekly newspaper said I had suffered a “humiliating” defeat at the hands of a “gal.”

But both burros were male. Mine surgically more so than Barbara Dolan’s. When my jack stopped at the finish line, her gelding went on by.

That’s burro racing.

Disappointing? Yeah, more than a little. Frustrating? Perhaps. But not humiliating. It takes a certain degree of humility to show up for one of these things. Plus, I seriously doubt that Spike, my 3-year-old jack, had any idea at all that a line of flour in the dirt had anything to do with his owner’s gender pride.

When I planned out the Westcliffe race, I had two things in mind. One was a shorter, easier course that would ensure larger participation, a close finish and a field that wasn’t strung out over miles and miles. I figured that a constant stream of finishers would attract and hold the interest of a crowd of spectators. It worked like a charm. We had the largest field in recent memory with 22 entrants. And the large crowd on hand at the finish line lingered long enough to see all finishers.

But when it was all said and done, I wondered if I had done the sport a disservice by reducing it to something that most folks — competitors and spectators alike — could comprehend. For me, pack-burro racing is still a raw deal I cut on a yearly basis somewhere on the tundra of American Flats, just below the summit of Mosquito Pass. If you haven’t been there, you can’t understand. Even a little bit.

Pack-burro racing shares much with the sport of endurance horse riding, though it is rarely taken as seriously. One of my neighbors, Beverly Franklin, is training a horse for the 100-mile Tevis Cup race, which is the Fairplay of the endurance horse world. Bev’s Arabian mare Twig is on a training program that considers several years of preparation. Her feeding program follows a strict clock, and provides for a variety of top-notch hay, beet-pulp mash, grains, and vitamin and mineral supplements.

In the summer Bev and Twig sometimes accompany me and my burro on some of our longer training missions. The dynamics are interesting, but it’s not what most people think. Sure, on the flats it’s difficult for me — but not my burro — to keep up with the big trot of the horse. But on the steep hills we hold our own ground.

Just as pack-burro racing finds its roots — whether real or legendary — in prospecting, endurance horse racing’s roots hearken back to the Pony Express. Both were very real parts of the early American West and both required the incredible stamina of these equine animals. But pack-burro racing seems to balk at crossing the white line that endurance horse racing trotted right on past — the line from small-town festivity to big-time sport.

That’s burro racing. Perhaps that’s the way it should always be.

For me it’s just as compelling as anything available in “The Real World.”

Westcliffe resident and free-lance writer Hal Walter is serving this year as president of the Western Pack-Burro Association.