Vail Daily travel: This is in honor of the burro | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily travel: This is in honor of the burro

Rick Spitzer
Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado

Special to the Daily/Rick Spitzer

Editor’s note: Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: The States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.

From the top of Red Hill Pass, you can look west for a spectacular view of the Mosquito Range. Located on U.S. 285 between Grant and Fairplay, this pass is named for the red sandstone that it cuts through. This rock has been quarried to provide building materials for many structures in Fairplay, about 6 miles southwest of the pass.

Red Hill Pass is located on the railroad grade of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad. As you look down from the pass into the large open valley of South Park, you can make out the railroad grades on the valley floor. The dirt roads across the valley follow those grades in some areas. You can almost imagine what it was like to look out over this valley in the early 1900s, when the only signs of human encroachment were the railroad tracks and the occasional plumes of smoke from the locomotives.

For 19th-century miners, a burro provided important labor as well as companionship. Miners working in the rugged high country of the Colorado Rockies especially valued these small, strong, sure-footed animals. Burros were responsible for carrying millions of dollars worth of ore and supplies along rough, narrow mountain trails. Because of their emotional and material value to the miners, the burros became the subject of songs and legends.

Two monuments in the town of Fairplay honor these animals. One monument, located on Front Street, honors a burro named Prunes who worked in the mines around Fairplay. When Prunes died in 1930, at the age of 63, his owner built a monument in his honor on Front Street and requested that he be buried with his burro. When he passed away the following year, the town placed his ashes in the monument alongside Prunes.

The second monument honors a blind burro named Shorty. The story is that a local dog, named Bum, became Shorty’s friend and would often follow him around town. When a car hit and killed Shorty, the town buried him on the courthouse lawn. Bum stayed near the grave until he died. He was buried next to Shorty, and the town placed a stone marker over the grave of the two best friends.

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Even though miners in the Rockies no longer use burros, the animals still play an important role in the town of Fairplay. Every year, a few dozen runners and their burros race 30 miles to the summit of Mosquito Pass and back. Winners complete the course in about four hours – quite a feat when you consider that the starting point is at 9,953 feet, the top of Mosquito Pass is at 13,186 feet and the burros are not always willing runners. The race has a 55-year tradition and brings around 10,000 to 15,000 visitors into the community of Fairplay, making it South Park’s largest event.

There are race rules. Each animal must carry a pack with a pick, shovel and gold pan for a minimum load of 35 pounds. Competitors often add rocks to their load to meet the weight requirement. The burro’s lead rope can be no longer than 15 feet, and the runner cannot lose control of the animal at any time during the race. There are now five burro races in Colorado, one in New Mexico and one in Arizona. Fairplay bills its race as the planet’s “highest, longest, roughest and toughest.” Prizes range from $1,000 to $5,000.