On a brisk but sunny morning in Idaho Springs, Colorado, Bill Lee nudges two reindeer cows across his driveway. It’s a few days before Christmas at Lee’s 44-acre Laughing Valley Ranch, which is perched above town on a steep dirt road that requires tire chains if it snows. Lee, one of trail running’s pacesetters, historically speaking, and an icon in the subculture that is burro racing is leading Dasher and Dancer into a trailer for tonight’s nativity scene in Denver. He’s dressed in jeans, a red Carhartt jacket, red plaid trapper hat, and black rubber boots almost up to his knees.
Donkeys bray, dogs bark, a steer moos: it sounds like the set of an old Western. Thanks to his fluffy white beard and soft blue eyes, Lee usually earns a third of his annual income playing Santa and displaying his animals during the holidays. But this year, due to the pandemic, his gigs were cut from 90 to 30, and the manner of his visits changed. Instead of posing with kids on his lap, he stood in an inflatable snow globe last week in Silverthorne, then drove around Frisco in a Jeep, unannounced, waving to families from afar lest a crowd form on the curb. “I miss the hugs,” he says when asked how his holiday business is going. “That’s one of the hardest things about not being able to visit with kids this year. You transfer a little love when you give somebody a hug.”
Lee laments the old days before reindeer got hot. “It’s kind of like the lama market when owning a lama was first a fad,” he sniffs, eyeing his reindeer. “These two girls right here: $10,000 apiece. And they only live about a dozen years.” Both animals were born in April and are working their first holiday season, mostly as stationary models for a rate of $500 an hour. “They’re too young to fly,” Lee says, his eyes twinkling.
In total at Laughing Valley, Lee has 16 burros, six reindeer, one lama, five alpacas, three sheep, eight goats, four cows, and five dogs—as well as seven sleighs in his barn. To the uninitiated, Lee’s characters (he plays Red Tail the Mountain Man in summer, telling stories about Colorado’s frontier days) might seem more interesting than their actor. But don’t be fooled.
For a man who has been running off-road since the mid-1960s and quietly made a name for himself in Colorado’s trail community, you need know only this to appreciate Lee’s staying power: He has run every World Championship burro race since the late eighties. That’s 29 miles on an out-and-back course that crests 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass above Fairplay, Colorado—while tethered, lest anyone forget, to a 500-pound donkey that may or may not be interested in the objective. Lee finished the most recent edition at age 71.