It was a beautiful day for a track meet in the small mountain town of Fairplay, Colorado, which sits at nearly ten thousand feet. The high altitude and thin air didn’t bother twelve-year-old Harrison Walter. He often hikes and rides his multi-speed Diamondback mountain bike on the steep roads and trails around his home in the neighboring town of Westcliffe. He sometimes has to carry his bike while his dad bushwhacks a trail for them in the woods.
But as he approached the race’s second curve, Harrison veered off to the right. Then, he stopped. He ran in place. Then he backpedaled in front of the bleachers, nearly knocking down the two boys who had by then lapped him and were in first and second place.
Stopped in front of the spectators sitting in the stands, he was confused and upset. His father sprinted over and crouched next to him.
“Harrison, do you want to stop or finish?” asked Hal Walter. He reached to hug his son, who took a swing at him. Hal wasn’t fazed. He kept encouraging him until Harrison decided to keep running, jogging slowly into his second lap with his father running in the turf beside him.
As he made his way down the straightaway, kids from the opposing team jumped off the bleachers and joined him on the track. Harrison pulled his shirt up over his head, but he kept going, as even more kids, their coaches, and Harrison’s dad were joined by his Westcliffe teammates. The group stayed with him through the finish line, mobbing him all the way to the perimeter fence. Harrison covered his ears.
Harrison Walter isn’t your typical 800-meter racer. He is autistic, or as his parents prefer to call it, “neurodiverse.” Many of the kids in the neighboring mountain towns – from his hometown of Westcliffe to Salida to Cotapaxi – have known Harrison his entire life. They see him and his parents at the feed store, at the Main Street bakery, and at the library. He is in their classroom – not in a separate class for special needs students – and they have witnessed his meltdowns and his hard-won accomplishments, know that he is so adept at numbers and directions that he can map obscure mountain roads on Google Earth. He knows the intricacies and release dates of Minecraft. He is one of them, and his triumph was their victory too.
“Harrison can be as wild as he is calm,” Hal Walter says the following month, an unseasonably warm June, as Harrison sits on the couch at their home, enthusiastically playing Minecraft on his Kindle, still wearing his helmet from an earlier bike ride. Harrison can be just like other boys, but he has also been sent home from school for hitting teachers and blocking doorways as they attempt to leave.
“It’s weird to have that level of physicality in your life on a daily basis,” says Hal. “He’s used his head to butt me so hard that I’ve passed out for a few seconds.”
It’s time for lunch, but Harrison doesn’t want to eat. He protests, loudly.
“You need to eat before we go out on a bike ride,” Hal tells his son, who gets up and runs over to him, pushing his head into his father’s chest.
“No! No! I don’t want to.”
Hal is firm but reassuring, putting an arm around his son and repeating quietly that he has to eat something before they go.
“It’s all about patience, humility and endurance – big time,” says Hal, as he tries to convince his son to eat.
Harrison agrees to eat a few bites of the peanut butter sandwich his dad makes for him. But it could have just as easily been a blowout tantrum, Hal says.
There was the time that Harrison refused to put down something he wanted at a Lowe’s store during a busy Christmas shopping day in the nearby city of Pueblo. “He got so upset and wouldn’t calm down that I had no choice but to pick him up right there and carry him out to the car,” Hal says. “It was like carrying a hay bale that’s kicking and screaming. When I put him in the car, you could see it shaking up and down from his tantrum.”
In Hal Walter’s world, any calm moment can be shattered in an instant, but he was preparing for life with his unpredictable son for nearly 25 years before Harrison was born – ever since he raced his first burro. Equus asinus is more commonly known as an ass or donkey, but Walter and other participants in pack-burro racing use the term “burro,” borrowed from Spanish.
Only a few weeks earlier Hal, like his son, was standing at the starting line of a race. But this one was on a small narrow street in Georgetown, Colorado, an old mining town where the racecourse gives way to narrow rocky trails and unsure footing. It’s a fast, high-altitude climb where lightning storms are common.
“You hope you make it back in one piece,” Hal says.
But more than the weather, Hal had to worry about his partner, a nine-hundred-pound burro named Teddy, who was attached to him with a rope, and would accompany him on every step of the trail. Burro racing is a mash-up of horseracing and ultra running, a combination of speed, agility, and strength as man and burro race over rocky trails and high-mountain passes. Any misstep can land you on your head – or tangled up with your nearly half-ton partner.
Even though he had been working with him for months, Teddy was a new racer, unlike Full-Tilt Boogie, with whom Hal won his most recent world championship in 2013, when Hal was 53.
Where once only fifteen or twenty teams waited to start on the main drag of this mining town for a pack-burro race to begin, now there were over sixty burro teams crammed on to Georgetown’s saloon-and gift-shop lined street. A small crowd had gathered to see the racers off.
The stampede of racers and burros squeezed through the narrow street and, uncharacteristically for a burro race, headed out under a major interstate on this busy summer weekend.
The burro teams began a steep climb above Georgetown, to nearly ten thousand feet. The traffic zooming by on I-70 looked like matchbox cars. The distraction and chaos of so many entrants and the narrow trail made passing difficult and dangerous, Hal said of his twelfth-place finish.
“The burro started stampeding at about nine miles, going faster than I could go,” he says. “So I had to wrap the rope around my hips and go into a full-body run to stop him.”
Pack-burro racing originated in nineteenth-century Colorado mining towns when miners used burros to carry their mining tools through the mountains as they prospected for silver and gold. Since the burros, who were known for their sure footing on rocky trails, were packed with heavy loads, the miners walked by their side, leading them with a rope. The first recognized burro race, in 1949, was hatched to bring tourists and money to the once-booming mining towns of Fairplay and Leadville. In the years that followed, a dedicated group of outdoorsmen from across the Rocky Mountains – marathoners, ultra runners and mountaineers – came together to create a sport that is as uniquely steeped in mining lore as it is a punishing challenge.
“You buy the ticket, you take the ride – or slide. This ain’t no disco,” says Curtis Imrie, one of the sport’s founders.
Hal, a legend in pack burro racing, who has won the world championship seven times, has written a book, Full Tilt Boogie, about how racing in such a challenging sport doubled as preparation for the adventure of fatherhood. (Hal’s wife and Harrison’s mother, Mary, is a former pack-burro racer herself.)
“You need the same qualities as a parent that you do as a burro racer,” he says. “You really need to have endurance. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a burro lose a race because he balked or run off to the side. So you’ve thought you were winning and then out of the blue you end up losing by a nose. You’ve covered thirty miles and lose by half an inch. You’ve got to just keep going.”
Twenty-four years before the birth of his son, Hal Walter raced his first burro, Moose, in Leadville, Colorado. He was twenty, and the 23-mile course took him over rough terrain to the 13,000-foot summit of Mosquito Pass.
“At first, I thought I was doing pretty well,” Hal says. “But then we sort of lost it and came in dead last, the ‘last ass over the pass.’ But what was so great was that as we came back into town, everyone spilled out into the main street – which is Harrison [Harrison Avenue, for which Hal would later name his son] – and those who had been drinking at the Silver Dollar Saloon, the guys at the Elks Club, they all were there cheering me on at the finish. It was the same sense of a community coming together through sports – the same as with Harrison now.”
Hal sees parallels between how he learned to guide a burro, and how he teaches his son. Children, like burros, Hal says, are genetically hardwired to stay in a safe place. “Whether it’s a burro on a busy street in Georgetown or an overload of meaningless homework in Harrison’s brain, they both want to get away from sensory overload. There’s a strong sense of self-preservation that runs deep in the animal. I think the same is true of a lot of the behavior of autistic kids.”
“When I was younger, I was more the cowboy type. Now I let the burro figure things out on his own. It’s the same thing with Harrison. I try to give him a little independence. Both of them do better if they think something is their own idea – it’s more rock solid. If Harrison wants to run cross-country and track and likes riding his bike, that’s great. But I don’t push him to do anything. It has to be his own deal.”
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Jill Rothenberg is a Colorado-based writer and editor. Her works has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, Runners World, CNN, Narratively, and others. Follow her on Twitter @ejillrothenberg.