Trail to an Alternate Reality

By Hal Walter There was a paper American flag taped to the stair handrail. Each weekday morning, through an intricate intercom system consisting of a cell phone, landline, iPod Touch and a Beats Pill speaker, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited, followed by the lunch menu, school announcements and an inspirational quote. Routines are important …

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Not Autistic – A Photo essay

About a year ago I was busy obsessing about my entry to the Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer’s Fellowship Grant. Undaunted by the big city “East Coast” air to this thing, I set about selecting 10 photos from literally hundreds I’d taken of my son Harrison in hopes of not only doing something with my …

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Becoming “Coach Hal”

By Hal Walter It started when Harrison was in sixth grade and the coach suggested he go out for the middle school cross-country team. I’d never considered that Harrison would be on a school sports team, but when he said he wanted to do this, I was all in. I’d also never considered this would …

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By Hal Walter I’m not sure when winter began in earnest but probably back in January. I knew I was in trouble when I bought a 25-pound bag of wild bird seed at the feed store. I grew even more troubled when I realized the wind chill was such that I was feeding only two …

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Of Snow and Wild Burros

By Hal Walter One snowy morning this fall, at the school-bus stop, another parent commented on the weather, asking, “You think this means we’re going to get some actual snow this winter?” I thought about this briefly and then recalled that the previous fall it had snowed a couple times early, then basically stopped for …

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Extraordinary Chapters in the Annals of “Burrodom”

By Hal Walter The phone call came while I was riding the bus back from Leadville after coaching a cross-country meet there. It was Steve Short. Steve is a physician who lives in Kansas but has a long family history in Westcliffe going back to his childhood. He and wife Whitney have a home in …

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Fear, Loathing and Selfies on the Burro Trail

By Hal Walter At the starting line of the World Championship Pack-Burro Race in Fairplay, an ill-saddled donkey exploded bucking and kicking, causing a minor riot among the other animals and their humans waiting for the gun. On the other side of the street, another burro kicked out repeatedly in angst. My own burro tried …

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Between Fire and Flood

By Hal Walter After the driest spell in recent memory, the rains came pitter-pattering on the leaves of thirsty plants, splattering upon the dusty ground and at last creating a steady pouring sound as the water streamed from the roof splashing into the flower beds. I’d just finished a long period of “work” which mostly …

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A Pyrrhic Victory?

By Hal Walter When we last left off in the continuing saga of our efforts to get Harrison on Medicaid coverage through the Children’s Extended Support (CES) Waiver, his application had been denied by the state, and I was determined to raise hell about it. As background, Harrison is diagnosed with autism and ADHD, and …

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From the Editor: Newsprint Blues

By Mike Rosso

Hal Walter’s column this month struck a chord with me. I too worked for both the Pueblo Star-Journal and Chieftain newspapers years ago. I was employed as a photographer and Hal came on board about six months after I left. We finally met in Salida shortly after I moved here in 2001.

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Closing a Chapter in Colorado Journalism

By Hal Walter If all the portents are correct, The Pueblo Chieftain, the last of Colorado’s family-owned major daily newspapers, could be sold to a chain before you read this, and along with it a volume of non-news stories from within its walls will fade entirely into the banality of corporate-run media. My own story …

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At What Cost?

By Hal Walter I’ve followed with keen interest a case in which parents sued Colorado’s Douglas County School District to pay tuition after pulling their autistic son from the public system and placing him in a $70,000-per-year private school for special-needs kids. The parents claimed the district did not provide adequate education for their child, …

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A Snapshot of Gratitude

By Hal Walter

I don’t get a lot of photo assignments, but I wish I got more like the one this past Thanksgiving week. Publisher Mike Rosso emailed, overwhelmed with a production deadline and a move. He asked if I happened to know the Rusk family and if I could perhaps take pictures of them to accompany an article about land trusts in the upcoming issue of Colorado Central.

I quickly shot back that I had actually known Randy and Claricy for a long time and would be glad to take pictures of them, though I knew it was a busy week. Subsequently it was decided that I would visit the ranch on the Monday before Thanksgiving, as the Rusks would be working cattle there most of the day.

With school out for Thanksgiving break, I loaded up my son Harrison and we headed to the Rusks that morning. The drive over there was a nostalgic journey as I thought back on just how long I had known this family, and I was startled by the fact that I could remember names of their long-dead dogs, “Sis” and “Copper.”

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The Perfect Season

By Hal Walter

It was one of those awkward encounters. A casual acquaintance threw out a random statement and it made me think.

In this case it was in a grocery store and the statement was essentially that there’s such a gap in this country, everything from homeless people “doing nothing” begging in the streets and living under bridges, all the way up to Bill Gates.

This seemed interesting to me because it is believed that a high percentage of homeless people may be autistic, and it’s also been speculated that Bill Gates may be on the spectrum.

My answer to this was that yes, we sure do have a gap and I’m not sure people at one end are doing more than people at the other. This brought a look of total surprise, and the response that “I think Bill Gates does a lot” and that he does so much philanthropy.

I said Bill Gates probably does appear to do a lot because he is wealthy enough to have people do a lot of things for him. In fact a close friend received her Masters in Library Science from Denver University through a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, though I‘m fairly certain the benefactors did not personally sign the check.

But homeless people do a lot, too – they have to scrounge for food, and yes, often alcohol and drugs, find places to sleep, worry about their safety and try to stay warm in the winter.

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The Last Word: Commissioner Hal?

By Hal Walter

The early morning phone call caught me by surprise. It was a longtime and well-respected friend and neighbor. As I was rushing about trying to get my son Harrison to the school bus, he quickly explained he was calling on behalf of some local citizens hoping to draft me to run for county commissioner. They felt I had a good chance of winning.

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Postcards from Summer Vacation

By Hal Walter

It was perhaps fitting that the first real day of school coincided with the solar eclipse. For like the eclipse, it’s difficult to imagine such an event will happen until it actually does, and you don’t want to stare at the date on the calendar too hard lest it burn a hole in your eyes.

Over the past three months I’ve joked with friends that I feel a little like I’ve been running a summer camp for two kids, and I’m one of them, and on the other hand I feel a little like I’ve been running a mental asylum for two inmates … and I’m one of them.

Being the main caregiver for a teen boy on the autism spectrum here in rural Central Colorado is no light duty in summertime. The job is difficult and the hours are long. The opportunity for respite is scarce.

With school letting out in late May, you’re the director of activities and safety officer for 12 weeks until school starts back up. You’re also the chief of chores and the disciplinarian for someone who needs only slightly less parental supervision than the president.

By the way, people still expect you to do your real job. You know, those little tasks you do to make money. For me, that’s mostly editing and some writing, both of which require a certain amount of uninterrupted quiet time and focus.

It’s been said that one must make the best with what they have. In our favor we live out in the Wet Mountains with access to a trail system on a big ranch. I like being outside and teaching my son about the outdoors. This summer we also focused on archery as I am big on developing what writer Thomas McGuane called “high specific skills.”

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What if Wildflowers Could Sing?

By Hal Walter

Peter May has been a musician for most of his life, and even co-produced and played on a Grammy Award-winning album, but he never dreamed he’d be the composer for one of the greatest symphonies in the universe – nature.

The 52-year-old Michigan native and longtime Crestone resident recently released his new CD, Spreading Like Wildflowers – A Sonic Bouquet from Colorado.

The music falls under the new genre called Nature Fusion, and among the musicians are Colorado wildflowers, including fireweed, scarlet gilia, columbine, arnica, Woods’ rose, purple penstemon, lupine and others.

Yes, you read that correctly. Peter has produced an album of flower music.

Also making guest appearances with backup lyrics on some of the tracks are bluebird, hummingbird, owl, red-winged blackbird and Western tanager, and Abert’s squirrel.

Peter’s mother sent him to Michigan’s Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp every summer when he was a kid. He learned to play the trumpet at a young age, and later participated in concert and jazz bands.

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Whither Pack-Burro Racing?

The sages tell us that everything is always changing, and in fact the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that nothing endures but change itself. Thus is the case of Colorado’s indigenous sport of pack-burro racing.

It began back in 1949 with a race over Mosquito Pass to Fairplay. Nearly seven decades later I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps organizers should have stuck with this original format, or perhaps should consider going back to it. Then again, I may be jaded because I’ve been along for the adventure for more than half of those seven decades.

In the years since this first race, the sport has grown to include separate events in both Leadville and Fairplay, as well as shorter races in other towns including Buena Vista, Georgetown, Idaho Springs, Creede and Victor.

The original rules remain largely unchanged. Each burro must carry 33 pounds of gear on a regulation packsaddle (whatever “regulation” means) and the gear must include a pick, pan and shovel. The burro must be led or driven by means of a halter and lead rope no longer than 15 feet. Riding is not allowed.

Over the years some rules have been adjusted slightly to allow donkeys larger than 53 inches at the withers to compete, and also to allow mini-donkeys to be run without the weight requirement. 

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The Weed of Wrath

By Hal Walter

Marijuana. Most folks are either decidedly for it or against it. Me? I’m mostly a weed spectator though I lean toward the libertarian viewpoint that a person has the right to do whatever to their own body so long as it doesn’t harm others.

Like it or not, marijuana is now legal for both medical and recreational purposes in Colorado and business is booming. You can tell this by the number of shops with mostly cutesy names like “Starbuds” and “Mile High Green Cross” along the highways. And also by the number of greenhouse grow operations springing up across the countryside, particularly in nearby Pueblo County. Whether all this will withstand possible federal legal challenges remains to be seen, but for now a person can buy weed in several Colorado counties and municipalities, and some insiders say the biotech boom in northern Colorado is based on the prospect of future pharmaceutical takeover of the cannabis industry.

Here where I live in Custer County there is a ban on sales and industrial cultivation of marijuana, though residents are free to buy it elsewhere and use it privately.

Meanwhile, to the east, Pueblo County has been called the “Napa Valley of Weed” by The Denver Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette. I’ve been astounded by both the number and size of the grow operations that have sprung up along Colorado Route 96 in western Pueblo County.

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By Hal Walter

As I write it’s autism awareness month and I find myself reflecting upon just how aware we really are as a society.

To kick things off, the White House was lit up blue. Yet the new education secretary and supreme court justice are not exactly known as champions of those with special needs.

Leading up to this month, and all through it, autism parents are bombarded with emails from well-meaning friends and family about the latest this or that to help your child, ranging from tennis-ball chairs to herbal supplements including cannabis, to various therapies or the latest Temple Grandin book. Most of us realize there is no magic cure. As one psychologist told me: “If you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child.”

Nevertheless, we are constantly fed an endless stream of nonsense stereotypes from healthcare professionals who should know better and the media which remains clueless. Kids with autism can’t stand loud or sudden noises, don’t like to be touched, won’t look others in the eye, are sensitive to bright lights, are not social beings … and so on and etc. While some or all of these may describe many kids, none of them is true about my son Harrison, who becomes a teenager this month.

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The Synchronicity of Spring Break

By Hal Walter

Spring break is always an odd time around here and always seems to catch me by surprise.

While Harrison gets a week off from school, and Mary has a real job with paid vacation, my professional life – such as it is – makes it virtually impossible to take off 10 straight days between writing and editing assignments, my daily chores at the small ranch I caretake, and care of my own animals.

Nevertheless, I’m typically able to work around my schedule and fit some fun into the mix. We don’t really have the wherewithal for a trip to Hawaii or Mexico, but it’s not like we live somewhere we really need a vacation to escape, and the “Staycation” is now in vogue.

Regardless, 10 days straight managing an almost-teenage autistic boy is not exactly a “break” and certainly is no picnic.

The first day I had made plans for dinner in Salida with my friend Peter from Crestone. On the way there I decided upon a side trip up the Hayden Pass Road. I was curious about different visual angles on the Hayden Pass Fire burn area, and also about the snow line up the road. We found the road impassable just below the Hayden Creek Campground and got out to walk around. I immediately noticed the green of snake weed along the creek. I also noted the Rainbow Trail at this altitude was dry. Then I saw the aspens.

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The Final Gift

By Hal Walter

It’s never easy to say goodbye to a close friend but when Curtis Imrie headed over the pass last month, I found myself scrambling for words and trying to regain my own sense of balance and direction.

My first reaction was, Curtis can’t die. For here was a man who lived life by his own rules. Then again, how better to exit this life than to go while doing something you love, in this case showing donkeys at the National Western Stock Show.

My friend Miles F. Porter IV introduced me to Curtis in 1980 when I ran my first marathon in Denver. Later that summer we visited Curtis’ cabin at 4 Elk near Buena Vista and Curtis convinced me to give pack-burro racing a try. We became fast buddies. Curtis was initially the crazy brother-from-another-mother that every young man should have. Later in life he would evolve into a mentor of sorts. After his passing I realized he was a once-in-a-lifetime friend.

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Lessons in Guitar and Compassion

By Hal Walter

The guitar has three major cracks in its soundboard and bears the scar of some unknown impact to the rosette that encircles the sound hole. The saddle to which the bridge is attached appears to have been retrofitted from a piece of thin wood paneling, perhaps an attempt to hold the entire thing together, and an analogy for what Longfellow called “the universal language of mankind.”

It was handed to me by Don Pinnella when my son Harrison and I showed up for our first guitar lesson at Custer County School. Don had told me how this instrument had been a “camping guitar,” and had traveled around Colorado in the backs of vehicles and strapped to roof racks. A friend donated it to his music program at the school, and he refurbished it. Don also provided a smaller guitar for Harrison, whose neurodiversities include autism and perfect pitch, and who has taken piano lessons for several years.

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Keeping the Darkness at Bay

By Hal Walter

In the wake of the recent election, I found myself pondering the future and reading a book called Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

We’ve all heard of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. One piece of history I was not aware of is that the Nazis also exterminated more than 70,000 disabled people, as many as 3,500 of them believed to be autistic.

Through a program called Aktion T4, the Nazis carried out their ideology of “eugenics.” Part of this was the notion that those who could not work were a burden – “useless eaters” and unworthy of life. This involuntary euthanasia program targeted mostly disabled or mentally ill people, primarily children, who were put to death by lethal injection, gassing, starvation and shooting. In many cases, parents were urged to send their disabled children to an institution and were later sent a letter saying their child had died of natural causes.

Also killed under this program were some political dissidents, including artists.

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Hal Walter: A Gorilla Named Train

Photo by Hal Walter
Photo by Hal Walter

My friend Don Conoscenti, a Taos musician who also lived in Alamosa for a while, put out a new album recently called Anastasia. The collection includes new songs as well as remakes of some of his previous work.
My son Harrison is a fan of Don’s as well, dwelling particularly on a track called “That Train.” The stereotype of autistic people is that they take everything literally, but Harrison has become increasingly aware of metaphor through music. Ironically the lyrics of “That Train” speak to me in my advancing middle age as I reflect more and more about life’s minor questions like, “What is the purpose of my existence?”

“If you leave this world defeated, you’ve got your own damn self to blame.”

One evening I found a bright blue, green and white gorilla on the bathroom countertop. I think this stuffed critter has been around here since Harrison was a baby. He never played with toys like that, so I found it peculiar that he had brought it out from a closet. He is 12 now, and apparently sought out the gorilla after seeing either a ventriloquist or puppet on YouTube.
The next morning as we got ready for school, he started out the door with the gorilla under his arm, wanting to take it to school with him. I told him that it was a bad idea and the other kids might not know what to think. I expected an argument, but he handled it OK. He then asked if he could take the gorilla in the car. I said OK, but just to the bus.

“Will I end up like that train, asleep beneath the snow, rusting in the rain?”

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The Art and Science of Showing Up

I wrote in my book, Full Tilt Boogie, that for sure no burro gets up in the morning and thinks, “Dang, I think I’ll run up a 13,000-foot mountain pass today.” And likewise, no autistic kid gets up in the morning and thinks, “I think I’ll conform to societal norms today.”

I go on to explain that the real key to success with either burros or autistic children is extreme patience and allowing them to find their own way.

This past summer I entered the pack-burro racing season with a 7-year-old jack named Teddy that I’d literally liberated less than a year ago from a small corral in the middle of a San Luis Valley junk yard. Colorado’s pack-burro races are 9-29 miles in length, at high altitude, and since no riding is allowed, we run, jog and power-hike the entire distance alongside our animals, which are loaded with 33 pounds of gear. Despite my relative lack of natural ability, over the years I’ve been fortunate to have had some great success at this sport, including seven world championships, mostly by consistently showing up.

Also this past summer, my son Harrison entered his second season of running on the Custer County Middle School cross-country team. His first season I journaled in my short book, Endurance – A season in cross country with my autistic son.

The parallels between the neurodiverse mind and the animal world never cease to amaze me, and my belief in sport as a metaphor for life seems to be strengthened with age and with the challenges of raising a neurodiverse child.

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A True Champion

By Hal Walter

In my book, what really sets the greatest athletes apart from the really good ones is what they do off the field of play with the skills they developed through sports.

Recently, when I was asked to introduce my good friend Tom Sobal to the Leadville-Lake County Sports Hall of Fame, I began to research his athletic accomplishments in order to prepare a short speech. The thing most striking to me was how Tom’s community efforts were just as impressive as his achievements in running, pack-burro racing and snowshoeing.

Many years ago I wrote in Rocky Mountain Sports magazine that like many other explorers before him, Tom Sobal rolled into Leadville over Mosquito Pass. He pitched his tent in the highest valley in the Arkansas River drainage and he began prospecting.

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A Matter of Time

By Hal Walter

I was running with Teddy the Junkyard Jack down Music Pass in preparation for the upcoming pack-burro races when I first saw the smoke from the Hayden Pass fire. I knew at once these were not cumulus clouds with their billowing heads, amber undersides and dull rainbows in the folds.
I had failed to reach the top of Music Pass that Sunday, not due to anything physical but rather because of time constraints so common to the steel-jaw trap of family life. The summit would have to wait for another day.
From this vantage at the south end of the Wet Mountain Valley I could not get a pinpoint on the fire, only that it was somewhere in the range north of Westcliffe. Judging from the height of the smoke I figured it was mid-altitude on the range, and large.
I watched the smoke boil and fan eastward with the afternoon wind as I changed out of running clothes. Then I began driving toward town, where I could clearly see the fire was in the Coaldale area.
Back home, the edge of the smoke towered overhead, with a breeze cleaning the air at ground level. I knew this would change.

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Of Pools and Dunes and Bullfrogs

By Hal Walter

To borrow just slightly from the writer Thomas McGuane, camping in your own backyard becomes with time, if you love camping, less and less expeditionary. When summer vacation hit, the camp stove seemed more like a campfire than it ever had before, and the Suzuki hatchback more like a pack-burro.

In this case the back yard was the San Luis Valley. I’d promised my son Harrison a trip to the Hooper Pool (as it’s known by locals) and the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve as a reward for his outstanding finish at the Hardscrabble Mountain Trail Run, which I help organize. He placed third in his age group, and as far as I know was the only kid with autism in the race.

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By Hal Walter

Last year when my son Harrison was suspended from school for taking swings at teachers, he asked if I’d ever been suspended. I answered truthfully that I had been, once, then I told him why.

I was serving out the senior year of what I viewed then as my school sentence at Moffat County High in Craig, Colorado. I also worked at the local community newspaper, the Northwest Colorado Daily Press. As part of my duties there I wrote a school news column called “MoCo Highlights.”

As I recall, someone in the school faculty had suggested I write about the new audio-visual equipment in the library. However, when I interviewed the librarians I found an even better story – they had some great new equipment but had received no training on how to use it; thus, it was collecting dust.

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Two Laps to Awareness

By Hal Walter

T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruellest month,” but then he was not referring to a calendar for autism awareness.
Each year I greet the proclamation of Autism Awareness Month as a source of amusement and with a sense of duty. The fact is, every day is about autism awareness around here.
Actually, I have been doing my best to avoid using the term “autism,” though this is nearly impossible when writing about it. Instead, I prefer “neurodiversity.” It is more accurate for one thing, less of a label and more inclusive.
I do not hide my son Harrison or his neurodiversity, as some parents do. I put him, and it, right out in the open because I think it’s important for him to move freely through society, and also for people to know about this issue and have at least some small understanding of it. It may make some uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable too, but anything worth doing at all always pushes the comfort zone.

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Time is but the Stream …

By Hal Walter

My life in fishing began, literally, because I could not be held in captivity, as evidenced by my escape from the daycare facility by digging a tunnel beneath the fence.

The tunnel – inspired by episodes of the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes – was really not much more than a trench beneath the chain link, but it was large enough for a skinny kid to wriggle through. My partner in crime elected to not follow me under the fence. Within seconds a general alarm had been sounded, and I was apprehended in the side yard between the daycare and the neighboring house by a woman who contained and tackled me with all the deftness of Von Miller.

Since it was clear I was not happy at the daycare and was possibly an escape risk, my mom elected to turn me loose with a fishing rod along one of America’s great rivers. I was perhaps 8 years old. This was before the advent of “Free Range Kids,” and I thank her for this experience to this day.

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Only a Loose Wire Apart

By Hal Walter

When I first moved here in 1991, we had no snail mail delivery. I circulated a petition to get that started, and had one person refuse to sign, because her weekly visits to the post office were the only time she had a chance to visit with other people.

Phone service was by landline and often it went out for days at a time. Cell phones were unheard of, and dial-up Internet was still a few years off.

We didn’t have TV, though the previous owners had installed an aerial antenna that was better at attracting lightning strikes than it was network reception. Movies were rented on VHS tape from a small but busy business in Westcliffe.

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Full Circle to a Junkyard Donk

The scene reminded me of something out of Road Warrior, a fenced-off section of sagebrush and desolation in the southern San Luis Valley, and behind the closed gate was a veritable junkyard of car and truck bodies, old camper trailers, ramshackle structures, various heaps of well-pipe casings, cement blocks and other scrap.

The sign at the gate got my attention.


Somewhere in this tangled mass of one man’s treasures was a jack donkey/burro I’d driven three hours from the other side of the range to see. In fact, I could detect tall ears sticking up out of the junk.

I’d first seen a picture of this animal on Craigslist, and a call to the number listed began a conversation that went on for several phone calls, as I tried to get more information about the animals for sale and when and how I could see them in person.

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A Bike Ride to Where We Are

By Hal Walter

The phrase “No matter where you go, there you are,” could not be more true than it is for an autistic child. For when one is fully contained in his own mind, he truly cannot be lost.

And thus it was for my son Harrison one recent Saturday.

Since Harrison finally learned to ride a bike last spring, it has opened up a new world for him. And for his parents, too – now we can go for a run and he can ride along, sometimes pedaling for many miles. Lately he has gotten even faster and more independent.

Recently, I watched as he rounded a sweeping curve, maybe a half-mile or so ahead of me, and then vanished.

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A Docent Out of Retirement

Photographer Grey Villet had a saying: “Every story should be as real as real could get.”

Grey was an award-winning lensman for Life magazine back in the 1960s, and he never had any idea that someday I’d be representing his photos at the annual Art for the Sangres here in Westcliffe.

Each year the San Isabel Land Protection Trust organizes Art for the Sangres as its major fundraiser for the year. The annual art sale brings together artists of many mediums from all over the country, as well as locally, to raise funds for land and water conservation in Southern Colorado. Celebrating its 20th year in 2015, San Isabel has administered 128 conservation easements protecting 40,000 acres of land, 174 water rights and 61 miles of stream frontage.

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The Danger in the Fun

By Hal Walter

I was running third place in the last couple miles of the Buena Vista Gold Rush Pack-Burro Race and had just regained much of the ground I’d lost to the leaders. In fact, I’d just seen them turn off the Midland Railroad Grade and onto the steep and rocky trail that leads down to town and the finish.

I followed in their footsteps, anxious to catch back up to them before a final push to the finish line. I was already visualizing catching and passing them on the street.

That’s when I tripped on a rock and went careening toward a big piñon tree.

I could see the trunk approaching at high speed. Since I had a lead rope in my left hand, I instinctively raised my right arm in football stiff-arm fashion to absorb the impact. I bounced off the tree sideways, bloody from some scrapes with smaller branches, and somehow regained my balance while stumbling downhill and not losing my grip on the rope as the burro continued on with a half-ton of momentum.

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About the Cover Artist – Hal Walter

Colorado Central readers best know Hal Walter as an essayist and columnist, but he actually began his career in journalism as a photographer. Over the years his photos have appeared in several national and regional publications, including a recent cover for the inaugural issue of Local Food Shift, and of course, Colorado Central Magazine. On …

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