© 2014 By Hal Walter
Welcome to the online serial edition of my book Full Tilt Boogie. I’ll be adding to it each week. So start at the beginning or scroll to wherever you are in the book. Buckle up. It’s a wild ride.
I wanted you to see what real courage is . . . It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
In the fresh moonlight she floated on a loose rope like some strange creature out of a dream, part “racehorse,” part moonbeam. Her long ears trailing shadows on the gravel, and her sleek form slipping softly through the night air. Not exactly of this world. A locomotive with a heart and 10 million years of selection, both natural and supernatural, she was everything the past had conspired to bring to this moment and in the balance of her very being, everything her future held.
In the summer of 1986 Mary and I were engaged to be married. We’d been together as a couple on and off, but mostly on, since meeting in college as freshmen eight years before. The engagement was short and Mary’s parents would not accept any marriage unless the ceremony was performed by a Catholic priest. I really had no problem with that — someone had to do it — except there was the matter of the church’s required marriage classes which I refused to attend. After some gnashing of teeth by the family and discussion with the parish, and since the family was prominent in the church, it was decided that a couple of sit-down discussions with the priest would suffice.
We met with the priest in a small windowless room at the church. He told us of the meanings and challenges of marriage and then went through the process of explaining the ceremony, and the questions that would precede the vows, at last reaching the one question that truly mattered to the church.
“Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?”
He looked at me and then at Mary and then back at me. There was silence.
“No,” I finally said. “I don’t want to have children.”
The priest looked down and chuckled, as if he’d heard this same line from so many young men before me. He sat back and clasped his hands before him. I wondered if the wedding actually might be off after all.
“Well,” he said, “could you just say you would accept children lovingly from God on this day?”
My mind swirled as I thought deeply but quickly about the absurdity I believed organized religion to be, not to mention the irony of using literary license in dealings with God, who surely had the ability to get to the bottom of such matters. The double, maybe even triple, entendre played over and over in my head as I thought it over. “Would you accept children lovingly from God on this day?”
“Sure,” I said. “OK.”
• • •
On the last Sunday of July, 2012, I was bounding over and around rocks and boulders, racing down Mosquito Pass in the 64th World Championship Pack-Burro Race. My eyes, brain, and legs were quickly and carefully — and almost unconsciously — planning each step a split second before setting my feet, while simultaneously guiding my burro Laredo over this rugged terrain. We had made it to the summit of the 13,187-foot pass, neck and neck with George Zack and his burro Jack, and now with about 10 miles left in the 29-mile race it had come down to these two teams and the pace was picking up.
After rounding a sharp right switchback I drove Laredo ahead to take the lead, and suddenly I tripped on a rock and pitched forward toward the roadbed, flying, turning, tucking my head and landing on the back of my head and left shoulder. The rest of my body flowed and flipped with the momentum and landed with a whump — a complete somersault onto the rocky roadbed. I held tight to the lead rope and was dragged a short distance with my right elbow auguring into the road before finding the presence to spit out the word “whoa.”
Laredo stopped in his tracks.
George stopped too. He asked if I was OK and handed me my sunglasses, which had flown during the fall. I picked myself up, assessed the damage, and made my adrenaline-quavering legs start to work again. A short distance ahead was a checkpoint where I overheard spectators talking about moose and looked up to see two huge dark shapes wallowing in the willows, unaware of the human and equine drama unfolding on the road nearby. I was psychologically shaken and I wondered if I’d hit my head. Blood was oozing through my shirt from my shoulder. My legs now felt like they belonged to Gumby, and Laredo seemed more like Pokey than the burro that had taken the lead just a few moments ago. Over the course of the next few miles, I watched from behind as George and Jack gradually pulled away, and then disappeared out of sight. A couple hours later I finished a solid half-hour behind them in second place.
Just getting to the point where I’d taken that spectacular fall had required months of training and preparation, not to mention more than three hours of actual racing itself. In a split second it was over. I had won the race six times previously and at 52 years old felt as if my last chance to win another World Championship had just been literally dashed upon the rocks. I wondered how many races could possibly be left in me. Laredo, despite having won the race two times before, was also no longer at the top of his game. Besides, I had other major issues looming in my life, including a career in journalism that had become almost as big an anachronism as this crazy sport, and a son with autism. Back home awaited another year of scrabbling for a meager living, another year of struggling through each day of frustration, noise, tension and anxiety. And all the self-doubt and questioning that goes along with it.
• • •
The heart of this story began eight years before. Mary had all the signs of early menopause. Her mother had gone through the change early at 44, and so Mary thought this was it. Well, she was right about the change, but it was a change of a different type. While on a get-away to Taos, New Mexico, for our anniversary, Mary was very fatigued and spent a lot of time napping. After returning to our home in Colorado, a pregnancy test showed a pink plus sign. We braced ourselves, as Mary had suffered four previous miscarriages.
Mary and I met as students at University of Colorado in Boulder on a blind date arranged by our roommates. She was in the prenursing program and I was in journalism. On the date we realized we were actually in some classes together — psychology and sociology. We agreed to meet up for class. We quickly became friends, then lovers and embarked on an intense and sometimes stormy relationship that would follow us through our entire college experience, and on into young adulthood. We held hands while walking to class. I was mesmerized by her lithe figure and easy-going nature. I wrote poems to her. We did almost everything together and enjoyed many of the same activities. We ran. We hiked. We skied. We fished. Later Mary would also take up pack-burro racing and win many races herself. In 1986 after a horrific accident in which Mary was dragged down a trail by one of our burros I suggested we get married. It was not the romantic proposal that she’d dreamed of all her life, though I actually was kneeling before her as she soaked her wounds in bloody bathtub water.
Like any relationship, over the years the marriage had been pushed to the brink several times. I believe much of this was due to my unorthodox lifestyle and career choices, coupled with my aversion to having children. My own childhood experience had been somewhat less than ideal. I’d watched our friends and family who’d had children and I’d seen what the stress of raising kids had done to their lives, their relationships and their freedom. In my opinion the world was clearly not short on people, and in fact it was overpopulated. So what, really, was the point of having children anyway?
Mary, on the other hand, had experienced a wonderful childhood filled with family and friends. She came from a large family with four brothers and a sister. She had been raised as a Catholic and children were always a big part of her dreams. As time went by I could see that having a child was something Mary wanted and perhaps even an experience she needed for her life to feel complete. We became more lax with the birth control. Each miscarriage came with a grief beyond words. Yet for me each one also came with a guilty and shameful sense of relief. It was almost as if the Universe was trying to tell us something, and was validating my aversion to fatherhood. When I would feel this sense of relief it would make me feel perfectly awful, and spin me into the depths of confusion and depression.
This time Mary did not miscarry, and the transformation over the next seven months in both her and me was profound. This period was also tumultuous time in which we lost two friends, one to cancer and the other to suicide. My mother was undergoing chemotherapy. And my work situation was in a state of flux, a situation that had become to feel all too normal. I was adjusting to the idea of fatherhood, something I’d run from all my life. Still, there was the joy of seeing a belly grow more plump, breasts more full. We started to think about names. Friends held baby showers. We moved the bedroom upstairs and my office downstairs, and repainted both. Time seemed to simultaneously drag and fly.
We visited a doctor in Colorado Springs who specialized in very high-tech ultrasounds. It was during the first appointment that we learned the baby was a boy. On the second visit the doctor pointed out a ventricle of the brain that appeared a bit larger than normal. But he wasn’t sure whether this was just due to the positioning of the baby in the uterus at the time of ultrasound, and he also wasn’t sure whether this had any implications for the child’s development. Mary cried all the way home. For days she was distraught and insisted that something was wrong with the baby. She suggested that I should leave, that she would take care of the child. I reassured her that everything would be OK. That even the doctor did not seem certain or alarmed by what he saw, and that he also did not mention any possible problems if indeed the ventricle was enlarged.
I was much more apprehensive about the weather. The baby was due in mid-April, which really meant anytime between late March and late April. The previous year a storm that dropped 7 feet of snow had stranded us for five entire days here at our Wet Mountain homestead, which sits at an elevation of about 8,700 feet. I had actually enjoyed the solitude that storm provided, but now the idea of having to deliver my own child was daunting. I asked a couple of experts what I should do in that event and they both said “nothing.”
The gifts and baby gear began to arrive. Mary’s sister Janet visited to paint the bedroom, and while she transformed the walls to a pale orange faux pattern we discussed the importance to Mary of having a child. Janet conveyed to me the serious importance this was to her sister, that children were something they had been raised to expect, and that life could not be complete without.
Knowing that we were having a boy I began to think of all the things I’d missed out on as a child that I would make sure my son would experience. There were visions of teaching him about the natural world, taking him camping and fishing, and all the other things that fathers wish for their sons. Yet still there was the apprehension. At one point I remember lying on the floor of what was once my office and looking around at the newly painted room, the stuffed animals and books. The crib. I was 44 years old and I began to tremble out of fear and mourning for the independent life that I had known and would soon be leaving behind. Once again I felt that sense of shameful selfishness that somehow would not leave.
The due date came and went, and the weather turned beautiful. Birds began to arrive, including mallards, kestrels, mourning doves, robins, bluebirds and flickers, but no storks. Then on a sunny Monday morning came a sign, followed by slight contractions. We packed up our bags and headed to Pueblo, 50 miles east. A quick check at the clinic revealed that the baby was not arriving imminently, but the contractions continued. We went for lunch and then for a stroll on the Pueblo Riverwalk.
Another check that evening suggested that we should just head back to the ranch. I left the bags in the car and made dinner, a lovely poor-man’s chicken Marsala. While we were cleaning up the kitchen Mary doubled over with a contraction. We started counting and timing. Then later we decided to go back to Pueblo, where at about 12:30 a.m. we checked into the birthing room at St. Mary Corwin Hospital. Mary was actually born in this same hospital nearly 44 years prior, and fresh out of nursing school she had found her first job there in the nursery.
The labor continued all night and into the next day. Mary’s friend Wendy Raso, who is a certified nurse midwife, arrived in the morning and spent the entire day acting as a dula. Since Mary is a former employee of the hospital and knows a lot of people in the business of delivering babies, we had plenty of helping hands. By the time the moment arrived, we had Wendy, two medical doctors, a resident and two RNs in the room. Two more RNs, friends of Mary’s from work, waited outside the door. I felt confident that if I were to have a heart attack while Mary was in labor there were enough medical professionals to handle it all in stride.
Meanwhile, I alternated between manning a damp washcloth and two cameras, one film and one digital. I had already come to terms with the idea of being a dim moon orbiting a very bright planet. Finally the delivering doctor said, “next time is going to be it.” Sure enough, Mary pushed and a face appeared, much larger than I expected. There was a short delay and the shoulders squirmed out, followed by a shorter delay and then the rush of the child’s entire body greeting the air. I had the presence of mind to lift my right foot just before a gush of amniotic fluid shot across the room toward my shoe. One must always stay a step ahead. There was a sacred moment of silence followed by crying. It was 5:04 p.m., April 20, 2004. His name was Harrison.
Quickly the team of medical professionals toweled him off and I was summoned to a table and handed a pair of scissors to cut the already crimped umbilical. I couldn’t quite see through the maze of arms and hands, and frankly my hands were not all that steady, so it took two cuts to completely sever the cord.
Once the baby was in his mom’s arms and things had settled down some, I quietly left the room. I went downstairs and out the front doors, then took off running down the street. I ran past homes and stores, motels, past a park. I ran out of sheer terror. I ran until I realized I really should get back to the hospital. And then I ran back.
Mary and Harrison had to stay in the hospital for observation for a couple of days. Meanwhile I drove home late both nights and back to Pueblo each morning. On Thursday we were discharged and brought our baby home, only to be greeted by the blizzard I had been dreading for a month.
It arrived pouring down snow like a summer rainstorm, and it probably would not have been any problem at all if Harrison were not slightly jaundiced, if his mother’s milk had not stopped flowing due to engorgement, or if the electricity had not begun to flicker on and off. After living here a number of years I’ve learned that you can sometimes get the jump on a storm like this simply by moving vehicles from the house uphill to the gate. Late that night I went out into the storm and swept the snow off both the truck and the Subaru, and watched the lights of the house flicker through the driving sheets of snow. I marveled at how such a joyous occasion had suddenly taken on overtones of The Shining.
The power went out for real later that night. We resorted to formula, and Mary became an emotional wreck. I knew that we would have to leave in the morning. At first light I drove the Subaru the half-mile up our road to make sure we could get out to the main county road, then decided to “evacuate.”
At this point there was about 18 inches of snow and the main road had been plowed one lane’s width. It took a little while for us to get packed up and it just kept snowing harder. By the time we drove back up to the main road the plowed lane had a good deal more snow over it. The highway was still more than three miles away through open rangeland. The visibility and depth perception was poor, and on a big curve not far from the highway I hit a ridge of slush with the left wheel while driving a little close to the right edge. I was driving really slowly but we slipped off the shoulder and into a snow-filled ditch.
I tried digging with my hands and pushing but the car would not budge. Mary sat in the backseat with Harrison, who was resting calmly in his little baby carrier seat. I finally decided to start jogging through the snow to nearby Bear Basin Ranch for help. However, on the way there I ran into a neighbor in a truck. He had a tow strap and shovel and easily pulled us out and got us back on our way.
Next we found Highway 96 to be virtually unplowed. I had a very real pang of fear before descending Hardscrabble Canyon at 8 mph. It seemed to take forever to drive the 19 miles and 3,000 vertical feet to Wetmore, where the road conditions improved at about 6,000 feet, and where I chuckled when I saw a guy heading up the hill pulling a huge speedboat behind a truck. I breathed a very real sigh of relief as the first patches of black asphalt appeared through the slush.
The storm ended up dumping three feet of heavy wet snow and we camped at Mary’s parents’ house in Pueblo with Harrison on a photo-therapy blanket for his jaundice while neighbors braved the storm to feed our animals back home.
I decided to drive home Saturday morning to check on things and clean up. A few miles out from Pueblo I noticed a flock of seagulls circulating above the highway directly ahead of me, and also a minivan distant in the oncoming lane. I didn’t think much of it until I became aware that something was awry with one of the gulls. It was flapping oddly and tumbling toward earth.
The gull landed right on the highway between our approaching vehicles, just shy of the minivan’s side of the double-yellow line. The possibilities for omens were almost incomprehensible. I’d read of people who’d witnessed birds dying in mid-flight, but the timing in this case was a bit uncanny. I just wanted to get my child and his mother safely home.
The next day, Sunday evening, we came back home to settle in for real. The snow only took a couple of days to melt, and within a week winter had suddenly become spring. Mary’s milk began to flow quite freely and Harrison’s jaundice disappeared. The quiet realization that someone I loved more than anything now lived in my house began to sink in. One day, while cleaning the corrals, I heard a racket from the top of the big dead pine that stands sentinel over this place we call home. I looked up to see two kestrels mating upon one of the uppermost branches. Another omen from birds. I wondered if they knew what they were getting themselves into.
• • •
My odyssey into the world of pack-burro racing began with a phone call back when phones still had cords. The voice on the other end of the line was pack-burro racing legend Curtis Imrie, whom I’d met through a friend, asking me if I wanted to go for a training run with his burros on the upper stretch of the World Championship Pack-Burro Race course. I told him “no thanks,” but he said to call back if I changed my mind.
I hung up and thought it over for a few moments. Then I picked up the phone.
That quick and reckless change of heart changed everything in my life forever. In the years to come I would make major life decisions — things like careers and where to live — based on what was best for long-eared equines. Over these next three decades I’d train many burros, some of them wild. I’d win epic races on that course. More importantly, I’d establish a ranch-based lifestyle, cultivate some of my closest friendships and relationships, and learn more about myself, other people and animals than I could have ever imagined.
That first outing on the Fairplay course opened up an entirely new world to me. Most of the day would be spent with a burro named Moose above timberline, that line of demarcation where the high-altitude environment is simply too harsh for trees to exist. It was a day filled with clear blue skies, crisp thin air, sparkling reflections off snow banks that lingered right on through July, and clear cold snowmelt that poured over the rocks, seeking out the rushing streams. Bouquets of wildflowers sprang out of spongy turf that is green only a few weeks of the year. As we passed through that landscape marmots and picas — the small mammals that inhabit the alpine realms — made shrill noises. These sharp chirps echoed off the talus slopes that framed alpine views bigger than life itself.
And the burros! These wonderful animals. I loved how they moved through that high-mountain environment, smoothly and comfortably, confidently yet cautiously. It was as if they had been there before, or perhaps they could channel the collective consciousness of the hundreds of burros who had already passed this way before them with explorers, miners and, in more modern times, pack-burro racers.
This Colorado sport was conceived in 1949, just a little more than a decade before I arrived on the planet. With mining on the wane, promoters in the mining towns of Fairplay and Leadville saw a way to parlay local legend — in this case miners racing with their burros from the surrounding hillsides back to the courthouse to file a claim — into economic development. As a tourism attraction, they masterminded a race that was 23 miles from Leadville over 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass to Fairplay. Over this course, participants would race burros loaded with packsaddles that had to weigh 33 pounds and contain a pick, pan and shovel. The burros could be led or driven with a lead rope not to exceed 15 feet in length. No riding was allowed.
And from that first race with those basic rules — and a $500 prize from the Rocky Mountain News — a sport was born, complete with its own culture and history. Today there are commonly as many as a half-dozen of these events in Colorado each summer, including a Triple Crown, which comprises a 29-mile World Championship course in Fairplay, and a 20-mile course in Leadville, both of which reach the summit of Mosquito Pass; plus a 16-mile course in Buena Vista. Each of these courses offers up high-altitude scenery with healthy helpings of True West adventure. Over the years, I’ve run through heavy rain, summer snowstorms, blazing heat and I’ve been pelted by hail and awed by many lightning storms. I’ve experienced the many extremes and vagaries of equine nature. The rugged and rocky terrain is unforgiving, and I’ve been fortunate enough to survive some tremendous spills without serious injury, though I’ve witnessed entrants being taken to the hospital after falling, being caught in ropes and dragged, and even kicked. The natural elements also can get your attention. Once Curtis and I were training above timberline on the Fairplay course. A thunderstorm rolled in over the top of the Mosquito Range and we crouched on the balls of our feet to watch it pass. A bolt of lightning shot down from the black clouds then branched into several forks and illuminated the entire area with a purple glow. We looked at each other in wonder and disbelief, knowing no marmot, pika or ptarmigan could have possibly survived.
When I first started racing in 1980 an aging hardrock miner named Joe Glavinick was still among the top competitors. I’ve now been running in pack-burro races for about half of the sport’s existence and have been witness to a transcendence of sorts. While the sport was fairly esoteric in those early years, a resurgence in its popularity has been sparked by articles in the mainstream media, a documentary film on the sport called Haulin’ Ass, in which I am listed as “starring” as one of the three main characters, and the recent designation by the Colorado Legislature as the state’s official Summer Heritage Sport. Today’s shotgun starts are perhaps some of the most Western — wild and woolly — in my personal experience with twice as many entrants, many of them neophytes who are reinventing the sport with their own experiences and adventures.
• • •
Perhaps my trepidation about having children was rooted in my own early childhood or the lack of it. And maybe it was also partly about the desire to recreate a childhood as an adult since I had not had much of one as a kid. My biological father was prone to drunkenness and abusive behavior. I remember way too much about him, and along with the blur of birthday parties and Easter egg hunts, many of my earliest childhood memories are quite unpleasant. . . . My father arriving home drunk in the morning, with the family car wrecked and spewing steam from the radiator. Suspicious wounds from bar fights. He once handed me a loaded revolver and I luckily escaped with my hand intact though burned black by a gunpowder blast. There was a cross-country move that I later learned may have been more about fleeing jurisdictions than it was about new jobs and a fresh start. He was abusive to my mom.
Once, on a hot and sunny day while my mom was at work, he left my sister Shelby and me in the car with the convertible top down while he went inside a bar and drank the afternoon away. When it was time to pick my mom up from work he emerged from the bar and proceeded to drive to her office. He was so drunk that he swerved through the traffic. While making a lefthand turn at a stoplight onto a river bridge, he drove up onto the sidewalk and crashed into the bridge railing. He simply and catatonically backed up and then continued on his way, at last arriving at the office and coasting very slowly downhill into the parking lot. That’s when he decided to puke. He opened the door of the car as it coasted along and leaned out. My mom, seeing this unfold as she was walking down the steps of the building where she worked, dropped everything and began to run. The car bounced to a stop at a cement parking stop and he was hanging halfway out the door, his head lolling over a pool of his own vomit. Shelby and I were sunburned but otherwise uninjured.
I was afraid of my father and couldn’t stand the way he treated my mom. One day he came home drunk again, and things started to go downhill as I had witnessed happening before. I was 7 years old and my memory is dim. Perhaps it’s been recast by time and the inner workings of my mind. As I remember, I tried to intervene. Perhaps I landed a few punches before he picked me up, laughing drunkenly. I think he was actually amused in a way that I had the cojones to try to take him on. And it sort of threw him off. I kept struggling, and he eventually lost his grip and dropped me. I landed on a coffee table and it smashed under my weight.
And that was it. If this was my first fight I didn’t win it. But I had won a war. My mom picked me up, and grabbed my sister on the way out the front door. Over the next few days my father would pack up his belongings and leave.
In the next few months Shelby and I would receive birthday gifts through the mail, addressed to us from our dad — ceramic Disney character figures, Cinderella and Pluto, with accompanying wristwatches. They were packaged in clear plastic cylinders with the watches strapped to the round bases that fit inside. I don’t know what became of the watch but for so long I remember keeping among my treasures this ceramic figurine of Pluto that I believed to be a gift from my father.
The term “single mom” had not really been coined yet but my mother heroically assumed this role. We were broke quite often as she struggled to pay the rent, purchase a car, and put groceries on the table. I remember one morning in particular watching my mom take a hammer to a glass piggy bank. Then from this, her actual life savings, she doled out some coins and sent me off on my bike to the store for milk. I left the grocery with the half-gallon of milk in a paper sack, and rolled the top of the brown bag around the right grip of my handlebars. On the first curve momentum swung the milk carton to the right and the bottom of the paper bag ripped open. The carton hit the curb with a splash. I got off my bike and sat there on the curb with my head in my hands, and watched the milk trickle away in the gutter.
We later learned the Disney watches were not sent by our father but rather on his behalf by some concerned relative of his. In fact I never heard from him again. I cruised along until I was 44, never fully realizing the meaning of his departure from my life and the damage he had done. And then Harrison came along. It wasn’t until I had my own son that I realized how truly screwed up it is to leave your child behind this way. To not have any contact at all. To never know or even wonder how it all turned out.
A few years afterward my mom remarried to Dave, who took over the duties of fatherhood, and adopted both Shelby and me. He provided an important male influence, a more secure home life, and encouraged us to pursue educations. A range manager for the Bureau of Land Management, he sometimes took me along on his Saturday field duties near Las Vegas, Nevada, to places like Devil’s Hole, where the endangered Devil’s Hole Pupfish made their home. He also taught me the finer points of fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor activities. We moved across the country with Dave’s job twice, once from Las Vegas to Northern Virginia when he took a position with the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., and then back out West to Craig, Colorado, the summer before my senior year in high school. After graduating from Moffat County High in 1978, I headed off to University of Colorado at Boulder where I enrolled in the journalism program.
• • •
In those first pack-burro races I was just happy to finish. In fact, in my first race with Moose in 1980, I finished dead last, earning the “Last Ass Over The Pass” trophy. I had run a marathon and several shorter running races. But the burro courses are so rugged and so long, and the challenge of training both myself and a large animal to finish was immense.
Those early days training with Moose and hanging out at Curtis’ Little Menokin Ranch near Buena Vista will always stand out as a period in my life when the world seemed wide open. That’s what pack-burro racing represented to me then when I was out with Moose on the roads and trails around Curtis’ place at the base of Mount Harvard, the third-highest mountain in Colorado at 14,423 feet. Curtis was in his racing prime, a serious contender, and on his way to winning three World Championships. I was taking it all in and learning as much as I could about training both myself and the burros.
Back at Curtis’ ranch there often were interesting people hanging around. Curtis is an independent filmmaker and actor by trade, and some of the friends helping him with his productions had well-known names. Steven Peck, son of actor Gregory Peck, was appearing in and helping with filming Curtis’ productions. Musician Norton Buffalo often was around — a harmonica player, who was so quiet, observant and soft-spoken you’d never guess he played with the likes of the Steve Miller Band, Bonnie Raitt and The Doobie Brothers. In addition to Norton’s actual presence, Curtis always had tapes of Norton’s solo harmonica music in his car and home boombox. Once Curtis arranged a concert in the local bar, The Lariat, in Buena Vista and I got to see Norton play in front of a rowdy crowd. His trademark harmonica riffs will always remind me of that time in my life. Norton died of cancer in 2008, and although I didn’t know him all that well, news of his death and the resulting reconnection with his music brought me back to a time and place when everything good in life seemed to be laid out before me.
Also often a fixture at Curtis’ ranch was his mother, Mary. She and Curtis’ father, Walter, had bought the place with the dream of making it a summer retreat in the Rockies for their family. However, after Curtis’ brother drowned in the nearby Arkansas River, Walter rarely visited the place. Mary would spend a few weeks there in the summer but they had largely abandoned it to Curtis. A strict Christian Scientist, Mary often quoted from the Bible and eschewed all modern medicine. She was a great woman and I learned from her the importance of having a sense of order to things, something she believed to be a plan of God, but something I seemed to adopt as common sense, and take to compulsive levels. To this day I still generally plan almost all daily, weekly, monthly, even yearly activities by an order. This always comes before that. I must get one thing done before I can move on to the next. That sort of thing. And I attribute it all to spending that short time spent with Curtis’ mom.
There was an order to learning the ropes of pack-burro racing, too. The races traditionally paid prize money to 8th place, and eventually I found myself finishing in the money. From that perspective I could see the winner’s circle, but it was 18 years, several burros — Moose, Jumpin’ Jack, Clyde, Hannibal and Spike — and a multitude of hardships, before I put together a championship run.
• • •
From the earliest beginnings it seems clear I was not cut out for the urban or suburban lifestyle. For the better part of 30 years, Custer County, Colorado, has been home, with 23 of those years in the Bear Basin Ranch area, about 15 miles from the small town of Westcliffe, and about 50 miles from the nearest sizable municipality of Pueblo.
Despite a development surge in the late 1990s, this area of the Wet Mountains remains relatively wild and open. Rolling hills of ponderosa pine, spruce, and aspen are offset by south-facing slopes where high desert flora such as yucca and cactus dot the landscape. Open parks, or meadows, stand between. On a regular basis I see herds of elk and deer, coyotes, bobcats, bears, the occasional mountain lion, and countless hawks, eagles, ancient ravens, and all manner of other small animals, birds, and reptiles. Some of the earliest of recollections here struck me with such awe that they are forever etched in my memory. That first summer early one evening I watched with my hands in soapy dishwater as a cow elk crossed the open meadow to the west to drink at the spring in the draw below the house. As the elk returned to the trees, where I guessed it must have had a calf hidden, it paused and let loose a huge spray of urine, sparkling in the low sunlight. One winter while out running on a cold blustery day I saw a missile-like object streak across the sky and followed it to where a golden eagle slammed into a raven sitting on a snowbank. The resulting impact sent a cloud of white in all directions. On a spring day I was jogging downhill on a trail when a strange brown critter ran across my path directly in front of me. The only thing I could think of was wolverine until it hit the trunk of a nearby ponderosa pine at a dead run and started climbing. I backed out carefully as I realized momma bear was probably watching.
Such recollections of life here blend into a collage of encounters with the natural world. A kestrel on a fencepost pulling at the breast of a fresh-killed horned lark during a spring snowstorm. Thunderstorms turning my pasture into a raging river. Pairs of mallard ducks arriving on a spring breeze shortly after the ice melts off the stock ponds. A herd of 150 elk splashing through sparkling snow crystals in the below-zero winter air. A bolt of lightning arcing overhead as a curtain of gun-metal gray fell across the landscape. A red-tailed hawk spread out against a blue sky at sunset with a waxing gibbous moon in the background. The buzz of a rattlesnake alongside the trail. A seven-foot snowstorm. A bobcat hunting rabbits in a pile of rocks near the house. Idyllic autumns that seem to last forever. Bears crossing open ground. Curious deer with their big eyes looking right into the living room windows. Countless neon sunsets that defy description.
In addition to its closeness to the natural world, I also liked this location partly because it seemed to be a place where little economic development could ever take place. By my way of thinking these places always turn out to be more livable and healthier environments. What I didn’t bank on was so many other people adopting this same philosophy and trying to make a go of it here. The price of real estate was very low when we bought this property, and we could not even begin to think about living here at current prices, though we now pay in other ways like gasoline, heating fuels, time and social isolation. Still, all roads seemed to lead to this place.
I graduated from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism in the spring of 1982. The previous summer I’d been an intern at The Pueblo Star Journal and Chieftain. The powers that be there at the time were so impressed with my work ethic and skills that they proposed I move right into a job opening in the sports department, and finish my degree there in Pueblo at what was then University of Southern Colorado.
But I only had one year left at CU, and I was also at that point considering a double-degree in journalism and environmental conservation. My friends and family urged me to finish my degree at CU, where the sheepskin would theoretically be more valuable than one from a smaller school. So I went back to Boulder, where I found out I would actually need a fifth year’s worth of credit hours to get the double degree. I opted to stick with journalism, and four days after graduation I was back in Pueblo, working on The Pueblo Chieftain’s night copy desk. I actually had to drive back to Boulder on my first days off to move the rest of my belongings.
Pueblo had some interesting aspects, but it was really hot there in the summer and pack-burro racing had given me a glimpse of life in the high country. After my first year I quit and moved to Frisco to start a newspaper with my journalism mentor Miles F. Porter IV. The plan was for me to live in the basement of a house that Miles and his partner Mary Staby were renting. The arrangement didn’t work out, mostly because of a ridiculous quarrel over a dog I had found on the highway while moving. I ended up calling The Chieftain, where managers were busy looking to fill my position, and asking for my job back. And then I moved all my stuff back to Pueblo, taking up residence in an apartment in a house in the West Park area on the western outskirts of town.
From my new home in Pueblo I could catch the trail along the Arkansas River and access other trails near the Pueblo Reservoir. By now I had adopted a burro named Jumpin’ Jack Flash and I could keep him there. And though this still wasn’t the mountains I could at least see them from this side of the city. After less than a year in that apartment a friend at work offered a house for rent in tiny Wetmore, 26 miles away at the foot of the Wet Mountains. I happily picked up my stuff, much of it still packed from the Frisco adventure, and moved again. It was February 1984, and I was officially a resident of Custer County.
I ended up purchasing that house in Wetmore through a program that helped low-income people buy homes. It worked out fairly well as a base of operations for many activities I enjoyed. I was training for marathons back then, running burros, trail running, and cross-country skiing. And I could get to work at The Chieftain in an easy no-traffic half hour. When Mary and I married in 1986 we both were working evening shifts — she at St Mary-Corwin Hospital — and we could carpool.
My relationship with The Chieftain took many strange turns over the years and I quit there once again in 1988 over a disagreement with the managing editor. My plan then was to make a living as a graphic designer and writer. This worked out fine for the first few months but then times got lean and I began looking for work elsewhere. There was a stint as a lumberjack on a trail crew at Devil’s Thumb Ranch near Fraser where I traveled to work and camped while Mary stayed back in Wetmore. Then I signed on as editor and general manager of the Leadville Herald-Democrat, and we both moved to Leadville for 10 months, renting the house in Wetmore to a family who said they wished to buy it. I was able to board my burros in Leadville, but it was not nearly as convenient as having them right where I lived.
While in Leadville, I spent much of my free time driving around Lake County looking for a place to set up home with my burros. I never found that place and when word came that our renters had vacated the Wetmore house and left it in serious disrepair, I knew I could not afford rent in Leadville and a house payment in Wetmore. So I quit my job with the newspaper and we moved back.
As luck would have it, I found myself back at The Chieftain part time, and then a temporary opening for a full-time adjunct professor at The University of Southern Colorado soon appeared, and I still had some freelance work. We cleaned up the house and did some remodeling. And began to look for a place with more land. I was determined to not move again unless I had a place both for us and our animals.
There were some properties in the Wetmore area, but after living in Leadville, none of them appealed to our montane expectations, including a 10-acre lot right outside town and a 35-acre mountaintop with a view of Pikes Peak. Both lacked houses and would require building. We traveled back up the Arkansas Valley, looking at real estate in Buena Vista and Salida. But prices had risen faster than wages, and there was the question, as always, of where I would work. As a registered nurse, Mary always had options. But for me the opportunities were scarce.
We began to look at properties closer to home. In the Westcliffe area there seemed to be a bigger selection of newer homes on acreage, and, though a longer commute, these were still within driving range of Pueblo. We had actually begun working on a contract on an A-frame log house near the old mining town of Rosita when a friend who was also looking at real estate suggested we look at a property he’d visited on larger acreage. It was a small house with a barn, garage and 35 fenced acres located near Bear Basin Ranch for $91,000. We posted a For Sale sign in front of the Wetmore house and four days later sold it to the pastor of the church. We moved into the place near Bear Basin in May 1991.
At first this seemed like living right on the edge of the wild. The house was four miles of dirt road from the nearest pavement. The surrounding ranch land was Open Range, so we had to keep our gate shut to keep the Bear Basin horses out. But there was a tradeoff — the ranch had miles and miles of trails and we were welcomed by our new neighbors Gary Ziegler and Amy Finger. There were few other homes in the area, and we were at the end of a cul-de-sac road where there was just one other house. To the north was a large virtually untracked cattle ranch. Over the years that ranch was subdivided. Homes were built. We suddenly had neighbors. But the landscape in its unforgiving way remained much the same, wild and wide open.
• • •
The realization that something is very different about your child sinks in slowly, even more so for fathers. At first there are subtle signs. Sensory issues. Sleep disturbances. Screaming fits that seem to last forever. Fascinations with things that spin. Lining up toys. The failure to meet major developmental milestones. Walking delays. Language delays. Issues with spatial awareness. “Echolalia” — repeating words or sentences like a parrot. “Darting” — running away with no referencing or regard for surroundings. Problems with “transitions” from one place or activity to another. “Stimming” — repetitive activities such as spinning toys, opening and closing doors, or making sounds like throat clearing. You tell yourself this is just typical for some kids, and that he’ll grow out of it, and when others close to you point out these peculiarities it only steels your belief that time and the child himself will prove them all wrong. Then one day you suddenly notice the stark differences between him and other kids his age, like these differences had been invisible to you all along. The realization is not unlike the feeling you might be drowning.
Then other repetitious behaviors kick in, fascinations with things like patterns in floor tiles and carpeting, stairs and elevators, and opening and closing doors. Toilet training went on into Harrison’s fourth year with many accidents before he finally learned to go to the bathroom when he needed to. Many times this happened in less-than-convenient locations — like at the school playground after the doors were locked leaving no access to the restrooms.
Typically moms notice developmental delays first. Mary, being a nurse and very aware of developmental stages, began to suspect issues early on. Fathers on the other hand tend to deny this, or argue that it’s not what’s happening, their notions further supported by reassurances from some friends and relatives who point to a kid who didn’t walk until a certain age and turned out to be just fine, or tell stories about how they didn’t speak until age 5 but still turned out to be a surgeon, or would eat only white bread and peas but turned out to be a film actress.
Autistic kids are famous for having eating issues. Temple Grandin for example mentions her problems with certain foods when she was young. Harrison also had eating issues. He would gag on foods with certain textures and was lazy at chewing and swallowing. Twice when he was little he choked on food and I had to quickly remember the baby Heimlich Maneuver from First Aid classes I’d taken years ago. I’d thought I’d never need to know this procedure, but when your child is choking and can’t breathe, instinct and memory kick in quickly. I recalled the instructors saying that with small children there was a certain force that’s just enough to get the food loose but not hard enough to crack a rib. Both times it seemed an automatic response when I realized Harrison could not breathe. Now I have images of chunks of food popping loose and flying several feet onto the carpet — and the adrenaline rush that followed — to accompany my First Aid training.
There were other sensory issues as well. Early on when Harrison began to walk, if he stumbled and put his hands out to the ground he often reacted as if he’d just touched an electric fence. It could be soft grass, dirt, gravel or even snow, but the reaction was always the same, a look of shock upon his face followed by loud screaming. When he was young he would not wear gloves of any type. A loose string in a sock could cost you an entire morning with screaming and tantrums.
The possible role of vaccinations in autism is a huge and emotionally charged controversy with scientific studies linking and then refuting the link. I can only speak from my own experience, and I do believe certain vaccinations may have played some part in Harrison’s autism. Harrison had been meeting all developmental milestones until shortly after receiving shots around his first birthday. A few days following the vaccinations, a combination which included the MMR vaccine, he spiked a high fever during a vacation trip to Taos, New Mexico, and Mary began to notice some developmental issues afterwards. I am no medical professional, but my feeling is that in these children there’s a “perfect storm” of multiple vaccinations, genetics and environmental factors that lead to autism. The fact is nobody really knows for sure, and the clear cause of autism may forever remain a mystery.
Mary is a courageous mom who realized early on that something was not typical with Harrison, and, despite my protests, sought out assistance. What seemed like an endless parade of therapists were invited into our home through a local agency. We were visited by a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and physical therapist. A young woman who is an occupational therapy technician began showing up at our house regularly to help with things like teaching Harrison to eat on his own and to “use his words.” Often after these sessions Mary would become despondent and at night I would wake up to her sobbing.
Once a psychologist arrived to administer a battery of tests and while doing so started using the term “autistic-like.” This behavior is “autistic-like.” That behavior is “autistic-like.” Harrison walked past him and the psychologist said, “See that. He walked by me like I was just a piece of furniture — that is an autistic-like behavior.” Mary was struggling to hold it together during this session and I finally interrupted the guy and asked him to lighten up with his use of “autistic-like.” Still, he continued on. He sat Harrison at the end of the kitchen counter in the high-chair, placed a plastic bunny out of his reach and handed him a pencil. Of course Harrison was supposed to use the pencil as a tool to reach for the toy but he did not — he just sat there in his high seat looking at the bunny. This also was “autistic-like.” However, I’d already seen Harrison use spoons as tools to retrieve things that were out of his reach so while the psychologist was making notes I told him this. He finished with his note-taking then looked up at me and asked me to not interrupt because it was interfering with his testing. I felt angry at being scolded like this in my own house and in front of my family. It wasn’t until thinking back on this many years later that I understood this anger was also fueled by my slowly dawning realization of the cards that we’d been dealt. Right then my inner cowboy just wanted to toss the psychologist out the front door.
• • •
The word burro means “donkey” in Spanish. Donkeys, like horses and zebras, are members of the equine family of animals. The male donkey is called a “jack” and the female is a “jenny.” Many people confuse donkeys with mules, which are the resulting hybrid when a donkey is crossed with a horse.
The first burros were brought to the New World by the Spanish, who used them to freight gear during colonization of Central and South American, and later expansion into North America. In fact, the Spanish outpost of Taos, New Mexico, was established, likely with the help of burros, in about 1615 — five years before the Pilgrims landed with their three ships at Plymouth Rock. Later in our history King George of Spain gave as a gift to U.S. President George Washington two large breeding jacks. These donkeys were the foundation stock used to produce draft mules that furthered the development of the new country and its expansion westward.
Donkeys are sturdy and hardy beasts of burden, known for their abilities to endure hard work, and do so on less feed and water than a horse. They have tough feet and can traverse rugged, rocky country and maneuver in tight spaces where horses and mules have more difficulties. When gold and silver were discovered in the West, prospectors chose these animals as companions to carry their gear into the deserts and high mountains where they hoped to find their fortunes. Some prospectors struck it rich but far more did not. When the mining booms went bust many of these miners simply turned their burros out to fend for themselves. Some of these animals simply hung around the mining camps looking for handouts from those who had stayed behind. In the deserts of the Southwest, burros reverted to feral, forming wild herds in the open lands of California and Arizona. Today these wild herds are protected by federal law and are routinely subjected to roundups in order to reduce their numbers and prevent overgrazing and other damage to these fragile desert rangelands. Many of the burros in burro racing today are adopted former wild burros, or are descendants from burros that were captured from the wild and domesticated.
• • •
On a windy April day we went for a walk. Harrison’s fourth birthday was in a few days. We walked out the driveway and down the road to a gate into the neighbors’ property where I have permission to hike. When we turned around the wind was now in our faces and it seemed even stronger, peppering us with dust and sand. Harrison began to object loudly and to throw a tantrum. I picked him up and carried him on my shoulders for a short distance which calmed him down somewhat. Then my ball cap flew off my head. I had to set Harrison down in order to chase down the cap which was still rolling along the ground. Once I had retrieved it I walked back to Harrison and lifted the shrieking child onto my shoulders once more, only to have the cap blow off my head again and have to repeat the same drill. This time I tightened the fit before placing the cap back on my head. For nearly four decades I had been free, within reason of course, to curse out loud, and so with a screaming child on my shoulders when the cap flew a third time I went through considerable vocal contortions trying to keep “goddammit” from leaving my lips. Unfortunately I only managed to keep it just under my breath. I felt badly for this slip-up but hoped Harrison was more concerned with the wind than my language. Since he was prone to echolalia and did not repeat it right away, I figured it was probably OK.
The birthday presents had arrived and so when April 20th rolled around we got out the video camera and set the gifts out on the floor for Harrison to open. He went about opening the packages with gusto, ripping the paper and smiling at each one. I especially wanted to get a video of him opening the gift from my parents, and so when he started on that package I zoomed in. As the paper peeled away to reveal a big yellow tractor, he beamed with joy, looked up at the camera with a huge smile, and happily exclaimed in his own precious little voice: “Goddammit!”
• • •
Over the years I have trained and known many burros, like myself some more and some less employable. The first burro I actually owned, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, was wild off the range and when he was finally trained to the point at which the unpredictable wildness was out of him, I missed that spirit more than I appreciated his newfound tractability. Next I had Clyde, born in captivity of wild parents. I ran all my fastest times on the pack-burro courses with Clyde, and won my first race with him. But he never had a World Championship in him despite finishing second a number of times. I trained another wild burro named Hannibal. There was a tame burro named Virgil given to me by a rancher friend. Then along came Spike, who finally won for me a World Championship, and then three more titles. I bought two burros, Billy Sundae and Ace, from breeders in New Mexico, a jack named Redbo from Curtis, and another jack named Laredo, with whom I won two more World Championships.
There were others as well and all of these burros had their own unique personalities. Some were runners out of pure joy and some were not. Some had a work ethic and others didn’t. Some reached down deep in their hearts when the going got tough and others simply gave up. There really is no stereotype with burros just as there is no stereotype with people. As I worked with more and more burros I began to appreciate their individual qualities, and to realize that we’re all here for a purpose. We’re all on our own separate journeys, and in my journey I’ve found parallels between working with burros and parenting an autistic child. 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.” Likewise, no autistic kid gets up in the morning and thinks, “I think I’ll conform with societal norms today.” The real key to success with either burros or autistic children is extreme patience and allowing them to find their own way. Each are unique individuals and one cannot exert command over them with good results. Only when they believe something was their own idea do they truly excel.
In this regard the sport itself has become a metaphor for life for me. Success at burro racing is both preparation and then literally dealing with what the world and an unpredictable critter throws at you on race day. Rarely does everything go perfectly. Sometimes things even go quite badly. It’s how you handle what happens and go with the flow that determines success, whether that means winning or merely finishing some days. That’s how life works, too.
• • •
Once Harrison’s developmental delays had been identified, we were encouraged to seek out as many varied therapies as possible, and also to enroll him into preschool early to help develop more social-interaction skills. We began to hear phrases like “on the autism spectrum,” and “Relationship Development Intervention” (RDI) and “Applied Behavioral Analysis” (ABA). Mary bought books on the subject and signed up Harrison for everything she could find in the area.
We took him to RDI in nearby Cañon City for a few sessions. During one session the dysfunctional interaction between Harrison and the therapist was so painful for me to watch that I felt like it was almost abusive for us to subject our child to it any further. The therapist sat with him on a bean bag chair, and attempted to play a game in which she handed him a ball and then he was supposed to hand it back to her. He simply refused to participate and screamed. It seemed to go on for an eternity and I wanted to just say “stop it now” and take him away. I felt frustrated that we were spending our time on this. Finally the therapist simply gave up. Ultimately we decided to bail on that program.
Before Harrison was even 3 years old we enrolled him in early preschool in Westcliffe, where teachers Charlotte Havey and Terry Eiland welcomed him into the program along with his paraprofessional, Karen Gourley, who we called “Mrs. G.”
It’s a 15-mile trip to the preschool. There were days when I would drive Harrison there in the morning, then drive back home to do my work and get in some training. Then I would drive back to the school in the early afternoon to pick him up and drive him to Pueblo for speech therapy at Children’s Hospital where Speech Therapist Jaclyn Mutz helped Harrison to make great strides by incorporating speech therapy with social skills lessons. By now we’d had some difficulties with Harrison striking out and also darting was becoming more common. Jaclyn was masterful with incorporating into her speech lessons “social stories” about why he shouldn’t hit people or run away, and she often would make a little book with pictures and the story written out. When the session was over, we would drive back home, 145 miles of driving in all.
Once during the preschool years Harrison disappeared right out the front door of the school. The preschool was a big open room with lots of toys, equipment and activities going on. There was a hallway from the front door to the kitchen and two doors in the main room. Mrs. G simply thought Harrison had gone one direction when he had actually slipped out the front door. While she searched frantically for him inside the preschool, he crossed a side street and walked over to the salon where he usually got his hair cut. His hairstylist, Karalee, found him knocking at her door asking for a haircut and stickers. She was leading him back to the preschool as the general alarm sounded. For days afterward Karen apologized over and over, but I told her not to beat herself up over it. I knew exactly how easily this could happen. Harrison was quick and he really didn’t know or understand anything about danger. We’d already had several close calls with him. Twice I remember catching him just before he ran out in front of moving vehicles. And once he disappeared from the house while Mary was vacuuming and I was out running. I was returning from the workout when I encountered her a half-mile up the road where she had caught up to him with her car.
All the while I continued to battle with the use of the label “autism.” After all, no medical doctor or professional had ever told us that Harrison had autism. And in fact two medical professionals had told us they didn’t think he was autistic. Finally a trip to Denver’s Children’s Hospital made it official.
• • •
It was one of those early spring mornings when the gray clouds hang low like fog and the snow falls softly only to melt upon the roadways. A trip to Children’s Hospital is a sobering experience. The place is quite large and busy — almost like a small city unto itself — and you will see kids bald from chemo treatments, others in Radio Flyer wagons trailing feeding tubes carried by their parents, moms and dads sitting in waiting rooms while their kids undergo heart surgery, small children with forearm crutches, burn victims, kids with Down Syndrome, other kids with autism both more and less severe than Harrison’s, and kids with health problems you can’t even see . . . hundreds of kids and none of them are there for the glass elevator, the artwork, the toys in the waiting areas or the aquariums with brightly colored fish. You think you have big problems but the truth is a lot of other people do too, and many of them have worse problems.
The assessment required a full morning of tests and evaluations. I remember in one of those tests the doctor blew up a balloon and then released it into the air, watching as Harrison tracked the balloon with his eyes and then walked over to pick it up. My eyes met the doctor’s and she knew exactly what I was thinking, that his reaction to the balloon was typical.
“A typical child would bring the balloon back to me,” she said, looking right through my doubt.
After it was all said and done, we were called to her office where the doctor, whom I am sure had faced other skeptical fathers before, looked right at me and said: “It is autism.”
What I have come to learn is that the word means so many different things to so many different people, and the symptoms are so variable and come in so many different degrees. Though I had originally bucked the use of the word “spectrum” it actually is more on-target.
Once, early on, when I explained to a young woman that my son has autism, she asked, “And what does that mean, exactly?” Having been so close to the subject my initial reaction was one of shock. After all, hadn’t she heard of autism? It’s in the news all the time, and movies ranging from Rain Man to Temple Grandin have approached the subject. Yet when I really thought about it, her question was actually one of the most intelligent I’ve been asked on the subject. I still have no simple or definitive answer. While autism is a medical diagnosis, doctors don’t really know what it is or what exactly causes it. There is no concrete medical test such as a blood test, chromosome analysis or brain scan to determine if a person has it. And unlike most other conditions, autism has a wide variety of symptoms and a wide range of severity in all people it effects. There are many stereotypes that are supported in popular books and movies, but not all people with autism have all of these traits.
Despite resisting the label for so long, I found a certain comfort in it. It provides a one-word explanation for how Harrison is different from other children his age, and gives us something to pin it on when he behaves oddly in public. Beyond that, the label is really meaningless. Just a one-word “explanation” for a person who has speech and communication issues, behavioral problems, is prone to being loud and screaming, and tends to fixate on repetitive behaviors.
• • •
In perhaps what is my own form of repetitive behavior, over the years I’ve traveled to the Mosquito Pass summit countless times — at least 70 times in races and many more in various training runs, sometimes twice in one day. This high pass, the highest drivable route in North America, received literary description in Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose. In the early frontier days it was the main route between the mining camps of Leadville and Fairplay. Father Dyer, the “snowshoe preacher,” traveled the pass with God’s word and the mail.
As often as I’ve run up and down this pass, there’s been something different and yet something the same about each trip. In races on this pass I’ve found the finish line with eight different burros. I’ve finished last. I’ve finished first a few times, too. In some ways I think my fascination and captivation with the sport was my response to the absurdity that life itself has always seemed to me. But over the years the thing that has impressed me most about my trips up and down Mosquito Pass is that they have provided a stunning backdrop for a life filled with wonder, magic, change, and difficult challenges that seem to come from out of the blue.
If anything, these trips up this pass have served to cement lessons in winning and losing, triumph and tragedy, despair and hope, and even life and death. And for much of this journey I could not have known that this sport and these animals were in fact teaching me the arts of patience and perseverance that I would need later in life as the parent of a special needs child.
• • •
“Graduation” ceremony for Harrison’s preschool will always be remembered as a day of infamy. The kids rehearsed a couple of days before the event and made little graduation mortarboard hats as a craft activity. Before we knew it, the big day had arrived.
Early in the ceremony I could already see that Harrison was having a difficult time sitting still. But Karen, his paraprofessional, was managing to keep him in his seat. When the other children sang a song, he sang along with them — and without them — and also embarrassingly broke into other songs altogether.
Then the children filed out for the procession. As they shuffled back to their seats with their hats, it was clear that Harrison had somehow broken the mortarboard part away from the band and Karen was trying to put it back together. I was still hopeful and turned on my camera for the big moment. Certainly Karen would have to accompany him to the podium to get his “diploma” but I was ready to get the momentous photo. But Harrison began to get more unruly and loud. We laughed nervously but it made us uncomfortable. I wondered how many of the other parents were even more uncomfortable than we were.
Finally he slipped away from Karen and headed for the audience looking for his mom. Mary held him for a while but his outbursts became more disruptive and so she finally carried him outside.
I sat. I didn’t want to cause more disruption, and I was hoping that perhaps Mary would at some point bring him back inside. I learned early in life that when your last name begins with “W” you always get to bring up the rear of things, and of course his name was the last to be called. The teachers looked around the room and then at me. The other parents were silent. All I wanted to do was take a picture, like the other parents did, of my kid getting his preschool diploma. But now I had to speak out to a quiet room full of people.
“He was being disruptive so she took him outside” was the only thing that came to mind. I turned my camera off and sat quietly as the ceremony ended.
Meanwhile, outside, there was a very upset little boy who really didn’t understand why he had been removed from the ceremony, and an even more upset mom trying to come to terms with why her child sometimes behaves like this.
The day-to-day challenges posed by autism are invisible to most people, though sometimes the public gets a glimpse like this. For parents, there’s only acceptance that often things don’t turn out like you think they will. You learn to live with that fact. You move on and hope for a better day.
• • •
Living where we live it’s difficult to not take in some wonder nearly every day, like the chance sighting of a bald eagle, a badger or a wild turkey. Early on as Harrison grew bigger, more mobile and more aware, we began taking nature walks on our property. Each spring the pasque flowers, which are wild crocuses, are the first to brave the cold. On those early hikes Harrison would walk through the pasture, bending down and touching each lavender pasque flower he saw and announcing, “flarrer, flarrer.” The ponderosa pines, small and large, he touched lightly and said “tee, it’s atee.”
I remember kneeling beside an ant pile with him and watching the tiny red insects do their work. It took some effort to get Harrison to recognize the ants moving in and out of their entrance, but once he took notice he stood and watched intently as the ants went to and fro on their business. It was a tiny world he had never considered.
And then he was off, running through the brush, falling down, picking himself up, and taking off again. He cannot be caged. Not then. Not now. No kid large or small should be.
Long before I learned Harrison has autism I had the dream that he would share my passion for working with burros. I imagined him riding, exhibiting animals in shows, and going on backcountry pack trips. For me this was my vision for blending fatherhood with the lifestyle I’d known so long. It seemed only natural I would want to share that with my son, and it would also help provide a vehicle to the backcountry where I reconnect with my inner soul.
In the beginning I merely set Harrison on the burros bareback, then in a saddle for very short periods of time. Then we let the burro walk for a few short steps with me leading the burro and Mary spotting Harrison in case he might fall. Then we went a little farther each ride. Eventually we began taking rides from our home out onto the trails on neighboring Bear Basin Ranch.
During all this I read Rupert Isaacson’s The Horse Boy. In this story, Isaacson finds a connection between his autistic son, Rowan, and horses, and the calming effect of horseback riding. So he took him to a place where both are still an integral part of life — the backcountry of Mongolia. The resulting story is compelling on many levels. For starters, the story is an epic real-life adventure. However, what struck home for me was Isaacson’s familiar description of his son’s speech habits, peculiarities of behavior, screaming, and tantrums. Most valuable was the manner in which this father openly discusses his very personal feelings about his son’s condition, and the impact it has had on every part of his life, including his own physical and mental well-being, his work, lifestyle, and relationships. It seemed the only place anything could go right for Rowan was on the back of a horse, though Isaacson also describes some scary experiences that seem to come with the territory when dealing with equines. Isaacson ultimately takes his son Rowan on a epic backcountry horseback journey to visit a shaman in Mongolia in hopes of healing his son.
While I knew the idea of a horse trek into the Mongolian backcountry was likely not in our cards, it occurred to me we could replicate the concept right here. Harrison already was riding our donkeys and we have access to some of the most amazing mountainous backcountry on Earth. Perhaps one piece to this autism puzzle had been right here under my nose all along.
The positive therapeutic effects of riding for people with brain disorders are well known. There is a difference between therapeutic recreational riding and actual “hippotherapy,” which is done under the guidance of a licensed therapist (speech, occupational, physical, psychologist, etc.). But we don’t need no stinking badges — as Harrison rides we often sing, recite books, and point out the different types of trees, wildflowers, and animals that we see along the way.
Donkeys seem well suited to this task since their movement is virtually the same as a horse, yet their generally calmer nature makes them less scary. They are less explosive and less likely to run away. And most are shorter than horses, so if there were an accident it would be less distance to fall.
We noticed right away that on the days when Harrison rode, and even on days following a ride, there was marked improvement in his disposition and behavior, and fewer tantrums. The activity was also therapeutic for us as parents — actively engaging our child in an enjoyable activity while freeing ourselves to hike and enjoy the outdoors. We led the donkey from the ground and kept a watchful eye out for any safety issues, such as wildlife, horses, or our dog crashing out of the brush.
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In the years B.C. (before child) we always made a point of getting out for a pack trip with our burros at least once each summer. Usually we chose the cloudless days of late August or September to avoid the monsoon season when severe thunderstorms could wreak havoc on a backcountry trip with downpours and lightning.
Harrison’s arrival in 2004 put pack trips on hold, but the summer after he turned 3 Mary and I thought perhaps it was time to get out again. Then we thought about it some more. What we really needed was a solid kick in the butt. Some friends were planning a three-day trip into the backcountry in late August so we rudely invited ourselves — and our 3-year-old boy — along for the adventure.
Even with the big mountains in plain sight, it can be a daunting project to actually pack into them for an overnight stay. For years I kept all the gear packed — just add food and we were basically ready to go, with tent, sleeping bags, cooking kit, and all the other necessities. However, it must be noted that when you have burros to carry the freight, the term “necessity” can take on an expanded definition to include such items as folding camp chairs, thick foam mattresses, full-size pillows, ice chests stuffed with real food, a bottle of red wine, etc.
As we began to gear up for this trip, however, it was clear we would have to pare back. We’d only be able to take two burros because we’d need the flexibility to manage Harrison. We planned to have Harrison ride one of our animals some of the way, and also carry him in a child backpack over some of the rougher and steeper sections of trail. This meant we’d have only one packer to carry all our food and equipment.
We chose Spike as Harrison’s riding burro because he’s generally unflappable on the trail, and because he has the lowest center of gravity. We bought Harrison a helmet and began practicing, taking him on rides from the house out to the trail. Truly it was more challenging to keep the helmet on Harrison than it was to keep Harrison on Spike. For the most part he seemed to enjoy riding and quickly gained an uncanny sense of balance in the saddle.
For the packer, I chose our biggest and strongest burro, Redbo. I knew he could carry a good deal of weight and he needed the work anyway. Plus, if I wanted to go riding from camp once we got there, he was large enough for me to ride. Once the animal situation had been decided it was just a matter of gear. Years of disparate use had left much of our equipment widely scattered. The sleeping bags were stowed away all over the house, having been used for couch-camping during many sleep-deprived nights when Harrison was a fussy baby. Other gear, like the tent, was lost somewhere in the shed, where the packsaddles and panniers also were hanging covered in a fine layer of dust. One day I hauled all of this gear outside, spread it on the lawn, hosed it off and left it to dry in the sunshine.
We had decided upon the Upper Sand Creek Basin, now part of the Great Sand Dunes Upper Preserve, as our destination. It’s one of my favorite places, and the best camping is at lower elevation in that valley making for warmer nights and mornings. We’d avoid the crowded Upper and Lower Sand Creek lakes and instead head down the creek to make camp. From there we could do a day trip either up or down the trail.
I spent almost the entire afternoon prior to the trip packing and getting ready, and the next day we were at the trailhead well before the rest of the group, and actually had our burros saddled and loaded when our friends pulled up with their trucks and trailers.
Joining us for this trip were Amy Finger and partner Gary Ziegler from Bear Basin Ranch, neighbors Pete and Nancy Hedberg, and Carl Batson and Lorie Merfeld-Batson. All would be riding horses and each couple also had a packhorse. Since we’d be traveling slower managing the two burros and Harrison, we decided to get a head start on the procession and headed on up Music Pass with Harrison riding, myself leading the burros and Mary “spotting” Harrison. I had my eye on the gathering storm clouds.
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On this day Spike’s work ethic left something to be desired. He was slow and caused us a few problems as we tried to keep the two animals moving while also spotting Harrison from alongside. Harrison rode a good deal of the way up, but we carried him over the steeper sections, finally arriving at the Music Pass summit, 11,395 feet elevation. We stopped to admire the view of Tijeras Peak, and I recalled a backcountry ski trip to the top of this pass with Mary’s brother Alan many years before. We took photos then began our descent into the Sand Creek Basin. When the trail grew less steep, with less of a sidehill, we put Harrison back on Spike and made good time downhill to the lefthand fork in the trail that heads down the valley. While surveying one potential camp, and noticing the scarcity of firewood and level ground, we looked up the mountainside to see the rest of our party crossing Music Pass, appearing like ants topping out on the summit in the distance. We decided that since we had some lead-time we’d scout farther down the trail for a better camp. At one point a spring was pouring shallowly over the trail and as Mary led Spike through this wet section of trail Spike decided to jump over the water. Harrison bounced out of the saddle, onto Spike’s rump, and then luckily right into my arms. We acted like it was no big deal and then went right back to looking for a camp.
But we didn’t find one and turned around in time to meet the group just below the first campsite. It was by now early evening, and the camp took shape in short order. Quickly the tents were pitched, a kitchen tarp was raised over the campfire area, firewood was gathered, and horses and burros were put out to graze. Though the clouds were still building, there was nary a sprinkle.
Harrison found all of this quite amusing, especially the tent, where he enjoyed rolling around in the sleeping bags, and playing with the door and window zippers for quite some time. Then it was out to the campfire, where he ran around in circles, spilling people’s drinks, getting in the way of the cooks, and in general having a grand time. By the time we turned in for the night he was truly zonked out, snuggled between his mom and dad in the best goose-down sleeping bag we own.
I awoke about 3 a.m. to the rumble of thunder. It was a good distance off but as I lay there listening as the thunder grew nearer. I unzipped the door and stuck my head outside, watching as the flashing thunderstorm marched quickly north to south along the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, just behind an unnamed peak to our west. I zipped the door back up and started to drift off to the sound of the creek as the storm drifted off in the direction of the Great Sand Dunes on the other side of the range.
Moments later I was awakened by more thunder. A new storm cell seemed to be headed our way. Soon the thunder grew close and the tent was lighting up like a lantern with each strike. The rain pelted the nylon then became a steady roar. The seconds between the booms and the flashes told me the storm was not directly overhead, but the light show was nevertheless unnerving. All through the storm I lay awake thinking about how a little lightning display like this never used to shake me up terribly. I thought about Harrison bouncing out of the saddle earlier that day. Suddenly I had the realization that I had brought my 3-year-old son over an 11,000-foot pass deep into the wilderness, far from the “safety” of civilization. If anything bad were to happen I would never be able to forgive myself. I had sworn I would not allow fatherhood to change who I am, but somehow it had done so when I had least expected it.
Meanwhile Harrison slept soundly through the thunder.
The next morning we gathered around the smoky campfire to compare notes. The only person who’d gotten much sleep was Harrison. Pete and Nancy’s tent had leaked and some of their gear was wet. While we were drinking cowboy coffee and eating pancakes, sausage, and eggs, the thunderheads were regrouping, and I learned later that I was not the only one thinking about bailing.
To be continued . . .
Be sure to check back regularly for the next installment of Full Tilt Boogie.