Zen and the Art of Pack-Burro Racing

Column by Hal Walter

Pack-burro racing – July 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

The thin air smelled of stone and snow, the sun came through it and lay warm on her hands and face without warming the air itself. Up, up, up. There was no top to this pass. — Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

A COUPLE of weeks before the World Championship Pack-Burro Race in Fairplay, I’ll sometimes park at a place known as “The Resurrection,” named for a mine near timberline at the base of Mosquito Pass above Leadville. From here I can cover the top sections of both the Fairplay and Leadville courses in one last, long workout before these races, which combines long-distance running, mountaineering and equine handling skills.

In the long run, it’s not the racing that will get you. It’s the training. The catch is, if you don’t do the training, then you and your burro can’t do the racing, at least not very well. The Fairplay race is 29 miles, and the Leadville course is 22 miles. After 20-odd years, I find each year that it’s mentally more difficult to put in the training. The body’s still very game; it’s the mind that’s calling it all into question — the same way some friends and family members are: “How long are you going to keep doing this?”

I don’t know. But I do know that I still love getting out and rambling in the high country with my animals, and this workout is one of my favorites.

I head up the Leadville side of the pass, reach the summit at 13,187 feet, descend the Fairplay side of the pass, and turn back up at the fork to the South London Mine. I cross the tundra of American Flats, climb the talus headwall, and again reach the summit of Mosquito Pass. Each time on the summit, I circle my burro around the sign just as we will do in the race. Then I jog back down to The Resurrection. It’s a good half-day’s work.

It’s always tricky timing this workout. Attempt this run too early and the route will be impassable due to snow. But make this practice run too late, and you and your animal may not recover properly for the races. Following nature’s almost unerring alarm clock, the snow is usually mostly gone by the last Sunday in July, the day of the Fairplay race.

Each year, with chronological age now keeping pace with my physiological age, I find the latter more crucial than the former.

And so this is how I found myself on the Fairplay side of the pass with Spike mired to his chest in the last road-blocking snowfield near the ruins of the old North London Mine. I also had an audience of aging Jeep tourists armed with digital cameras and totally rad fluorescent-clad snowboarders. None of these people had the first fleeting clue about what I was doing there, or why.

At the beginning of a new millennium, I find myself contemplating the end of an era in this sport which has been around for half of the last century. Scenes like this bring it all into focus. With many pack-burro racers aging, and not many youngsters following in our footsteps, the sport appears at a crossroads, or at least stuck in a snowbank with a bunch of folks wondering what it’s all about.

Sometimes we blame it on the commercialism and materialism that is such a driving force in our society. With no new blood, this sport is as much a fading art form as it is a contest, and with time this art form is becoming more and more abstract in a world of digital images.

Pack-burro racing isn’t flashy; there’s nothing “high-tech” about it, and it takes a lot of hard work to even begin to feel the thrill.

Compared to sports like snowboarding and mountain-biking, there’s little appeal to the younger crowd — the get-it-now generation, who can quote off-the-shelf prices of material goods and web-page addresses of make-nothing economic icons much faster than they can come up with the name of one good author.

THE ULTIMATE IRONY is that without the lust for sudden wealth, and the genetic flaw that humans have for greed and self-destruction, there would be no pack-burro racing. The sport was born out of gold and silver rushes, when miners used burros for prospecting, hoping to strike it rich. The first race was run in 1949 from Leadville to Fairplay; first place prize then was $500, no small purse in those days.

Sadly, the prize money has not kept pace with inflation the way it has in other professional sports.

Many modern sports are glorified versions of skills that were at one time essential or useful for survival. Thus, we have activities that mirror those skills — distance-running, sailing, skiing, and, among the equine disciplines, rodeo, cutting-horse competitions, competitive trail and endurance rides. In each case, the skill evolved long before there were finish lines, clocks, judges or prize lists. As for pack-burro racing, the skill was traversing rugged mountain country with a sturdy beast of burden carrying the gear. The prospectors who did this weren’t up there for “the experience” of it all. They were looking for gold and silver, the ultimate wanderlust for power and wealth.

ON THE WAY back up the pass, alone except for the spirits of all those who had ever passed this way, I experienced a moment of greater understanding. At the very base of the talus, where the tundra meets the granite, there’s a little rocky knoll that must be climbed before dipping through a hidden snowfield, and then making the last ascent. The trail through this boulderfield is indistinct, and even though I’ve been this way dozens of times, I sometimes have to look closely to avoid a wrong turn to the right that dead-ends a few feet away in a pile of rubble. I put Spike ahead of me here. Though he had only passed this way twice, and never without the company of another burro, he picked his way precisely through this stony maze as if guided by the collected psyches of all the other burros that had been this way before, not excluding his dead grandfather Moose, with whom I first passed this way 20 years ago, and his father Oscar, who has also passed this way many times.

Or maybe Spike simply remembered the way through the rocks.

Though animal telepathy is one of the skills involved in pack-burro racing, the true mystery of it all is that you never really know for certain what’s going on in the animal’s mind.

And thus I keep showing up, trying to figure it out. I do the training and run the races. For me, there’s something real, raw and honest in this.

Hal Walter is the author of Pack-Burro Stories, available in bookstores everywhere in Central Colorado.