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The treasure of the Sierra Mojada

Sidebar by Patrick O’grady

Pack-burro racing – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

I ran my first 10K on Memorial Day weekend, and I’m here to tell you — I’ve never seen a bigger pack of jackasses.

That’s not just a figure of speech. The event was the Silver Cliff to Westcliffe Western Pack-Burro Race, and as such featured a herd of four-legged jackasses to complement the two-legged variety.

Hal Walter, the renowned Custer County burro racer and Colorado Central columnist, had persuaded me to forgo my annual humiliation at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic in Durango in favor of a six-mile, dirt-road foot race tethered to a 650-pound, alfalfa-powered attitude, name of Virgil.

Hal and his wife, Mary, another burro-racing veteran, provided an oral owner’s manual of sorts: Expect a rodeo at the start, wherein rookies and burros will part company faster than Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley; try to hang back early, getting in front of Virgil to slow him down; and then, once things settle down, link up with another team, because burros like to travel in company.

So much for the gospel; now, let us bray.

Twenty-two six-legged, four-eyed teams toed the start line, from grizzled veterans like Curtis Imrie to tyros like me. The critters ranged from Rambo, a thigh-high mini-burro, to Oscar, a giant jack with more testosterone than a Camaro full of teen-age boys.

When the gun went off, we all took off at a dead run. In 22 different directions.

Ever wonder where the phrase “hauling ass” comes from? I don’t. Not any more. Virgil and I were passed at once by a half-dozen burros, none handicapped by human contact. This irked Virgil, who upshifted from canter to full gallop.

Me, I clung to Virgil’s bridle and lead rope with everything but my feet, wishing I had an emergency brake, a boat anchor, a drag chute … anything to take us out of four-legged drive and back into two-leg, compound slow.

Get in front of this four-legged Ferrari? Not without a rocket sled. I might have been able to slow Virgil down, or even stop him, but I’d left my .357 in the truck.

Like it or not, I was bound to dance with the one what brung me, and that burro knew how to boogie. Virgil shot right to the front and rounded the first corner as I flapped behind him like a poorly pinned race number.

“Check it out, Virg’,” I gasped. “We’re winning!” Well, yeah. We had a mortal lock on that first half-mile. Then Mary and Clyde, Hal and Spike, and Barb Dolan and Sailor thundered on by. Virgil and I were suddenly a poor fourth, with Curtis and Waymore coming up fast, shouting advice to the burroless Chris Kanagy and Neal McGowan.

“Cut the course! It winds on over to the left there, and you can cut ’em off that way,” Curtis bellowed genially, adding sotto voce, “Welcome to burro racing, boys.” While the boys legged it after their burros, Curtis and Waymore relieved us of fourth place. Fifth, I thought, trotting along. Been a while since I took home a fifth from anything other than a liquor store.

And that, of course, was when Sue Conroe and Oscar lumbered up in the Montfort lane, westbound and down. “On your left,” Sue offered politely. But Virg’ and I had begun to find our stride, and we picked up the pace, holding our pursuers at bay.

“Awright, Virg’. Good boy!” I panted.

Too soon. As we left the road for the mile-long cross-country leading to the fairgrounds and the finish at Vimont Park, Virgil decided the field looked a little parched and needed watering. He’d even brought a hose.

Worse yet, Chris had retrieved his burro, Taco Bell, and they were coming up faster than a bulemic’s breakfast. “Pee break!” I called hopefully. They didn’t need one.

As I got Virgil back in gear, the four of us legged it toward the fairgrounds. It was anybody’s race … and after two lead changes and one brief rodeo, Chris and Taco Bell galloped off into fifth. Virgil and I strolled across the line for sixth place and 50 bucks, playing the finish for some Treasure of the Sierra Madre-style laughs.

“Burrrrro!” I shouted, rolling the R’s and twirling the rope. “¬°√†ndale, burro!” Okay, I’m no Humphrey Bogart. Hell, I’m not even Fred C. Dobbs. But Fred got dead in Sierra Madre, losing his shoes, his burros, and his gold to boot. In Sierra Mojada, I managed to hold onto my life, my shoes and my burro. I even picked up some gold at the end.

And you can kiss my ass if that ain’t the God’s honest truth. Pucker up, Virgil.

Patrick O’Grady races bicycles and the occasional burro from Rancho del Perro Loco near Westcliffe.