Pack Burro Stories by Hal Walter

Review by Ed Quillen

Pack-burro racing – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Pack Burro Stories
by Hal Walter
Published in 1998 by Out There! Publishing

AS A FORMER OWNER of a burro — in 1973 we _spent $15 for a jenny named Bonita who was never in much of a hurry to go anywhere, except when she heard a chain rattle behind her, in which case she remembered that she had pressing business in the next county — I’ve always enjoyed their lore, which extends from biblical times to the “winning of the West.”

Burros are far too idiosyncratic to generalize about, but as a species, they carried firewood for the farmers who came north from Mexico and picks and pans for the miners who came west from Illinois.

Both streams of historic invasion relied upon equus asinus, but the New West invaders don’t have much use for the long-eared critters. The horse thrives, I’ve met a goat-packer or two, and the Peruvian llama bids fair to become the Official State Pack Animal the next time the legislature convenes.

Fortunately, the burro isn’t quite extinct, and the donkey gets the attention it deserves from a writer who’s just as cussed and headstrong as any jackass.

If you like Hal Walter’s columns in this magazine, you’ll enjoy this book — several chapters are amplifications of pieces which first appeared here during the past four years.

Hal and his wife, Mary, raise burros on a few acres near Westcliffe, and they also race them. Pack-burro racing is the only organized sport indigenous to Central Colorado, but as Hal explains here, its origin half a century ago was not the resurrection of prospectors racing to the courthouse to file their claims. Instead, Fairplay wanted to attract more tourists to its Gold Days celebration in 1949. So its promoters got in touch with the movers and shakers of Leadville, and the result was a 23-mile race that started at the Lake County Courthouse, crossed 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass, and concluded at the Prunes Monument in Fairplay.

The rules haven’t changed — no riding, and the burro must carry a packsaddle with 33 pounds of mining gear — but the competition has. It began with miners, but now most competitors are long-distance runners. The two-legged competitors, that is. This is a partnership between man and beast, and Hal goes into affectionate detail about the practice and training required to forge that partnership.

“It was obvious that we [he and his burro Clyde] had prepared for the uphill at Dillon but that I really hadn’t practiced running downhill under pressure. To do well in burro racing you have to prepare for everything you encounter on a course. The next race was scheduled in Chama, New Mexico…. The word `Vietnam’ best describes the burro race course in Chama.” And unemployed Hal was “down to beans, tortillas, and methane. And methane wouldn’t fuel my truck.”

Beyond the racing adventures, Hal also writes about the decline of hay production and resulting price increases, important to burro life because his critters need five or six tons for a winter, and the difficulties of organizing a burro race in a society where lawsuits are increasingly the preferred form of competition.

I wish he’d explored some of these topics in more depth. I also wish he’d given more about burros in our lore — for instance, he mentions the Prunes Monument in Fairplay, but doesn’t tell the story of Prunes, the burro who lived on Fairplay charity to a ripe old age after working in most of the district’s mines.

But even if the book might have benefited from more material, what we have is still mighty fine — interesting, engaging, informative, written with energy and exuberance. This may be the only book on earth about pack-burro racing, and we should consider ourselves fortunate that it’s a good one.

— Ed Quillen

Hal Walter will autograph his book 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15, at Hungry Gulch Books in Westcliffe.