On Sunday, I drove through Fairplay, Colorado, which I imagine is normally a pretty quiet mountain town. Not last weekend. A banner along the main drag declared it “Burro Days” and the place was a madhouse! Traffic, people, vendors, re-enactors shooting off guns in the streets! And donkeys! Yes, Burro Days does involve actual burros!
We were on our way up the road to Alma to hike three 14′ers in one day, but I’m a big believer in road trip serendipity: when I stumble upon something interesting, I pull over and check it out! So we parked and wandered around, trying to figure out what Burro Days were all about.
Then we heard an announcement over some speakers coming from the upper deck of the Historic Hand Hotel: the leaders of the long race would be coming down the homestretch soon! Apparently there was a race! And then, through the gates at the end of the main street came one of the more bizarre sights I’ve ever seen: two tall, lanky men, clearly ultra-type runners, were sprinting down the street, neck and neck, both leading long-eared donkeys. They crossed the finish line, one edging out in front of the other. I had just witnessed the very end of the World Championship Pack-Burro Race!
This only-in-Colorado-tradition dates back to the late 1800′s, when donkeys were used by miners to transport gear and rocks throughout the mineral-rich Rocky mountains. Since the donkeys were laden with packs, the miners couldn’t ride, they had to walk alongside. Legend has it the burro racing tradition started when two miners found gold in the same location and raced each other to the nearest town to stake their claims.
Today there are five burro races every summer in Colorado, including three “Triple Crown” events: the 29-mile race in Fairplay, a 22-mile run in Leadville and a 12-miler in Buena Vista, which take place on three consecutive weekends in late July and August. The other races are earlier in the summer in Georgetown and Idaho Springs.
Donkeys are laden with 33-pound packs of traditional mining gear, including a pick, gold pan and shovel. Runners lead their donkeys, or run behind them, and can even carry their donkeys across streams or other obstacles, but the donkeys may not at any point carry the runners.
I’ve long fantasized about getting into donkey backpacking, Everett Ruess-style. Stumbling onto the World Championship Burro-Race definitely inspired me to think more about someday traveling with a donkey by my side. Donkeys are amazing creatures: smart, sensitive, brimming with personality. Plus they’re strong and hardy as hell: after trotting more than 29-mountain miles at elevation, none of the donkeys was even winded at the finish line and few had broken a sweat. Sounds like a great travel partner to me!