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This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Trail Runner magazine.
Red zephyrs of dust whirred from the feet of nervous racers as they anticipated the start of the Collegiate Peaks 25-Mile Trail Run. It was a May morning in the early 2000s, in Buena Vista, Colorado.
A truck pulled up towing a trailer painted with the slogan, “Donkeys, Drama and Democracy.” A rugged man stepped down from the cab. A high-mountain combination of Warren Beatty and Jeff Bridges, he wore a loose, white button-up shirt, American-flag shorts and running shoes. He led a donkey to the registration table and purchased two entries: one for him and one for the donkey. Says his friend and fellow burrow racer, Richard Emond, “There were some races Curtis wasn’t invited back to.”
Perhaps better known as the “dean of pack-burro racing,” Walter Curtis Imrie Jr, of Buena Vista, Colorado, had bred and raced burros since 1974, when he was 28 years old. He had also competed in every single Colorado burro race since then. Imrie passed away in January 2017 at the age of 70.
“Curtis was a one-of-a-kind mountain man,” says writer and runner Brian Metzler. “He had an enormous sense of wonder and a heart of gold.”
Imrie grew up, the eldest of three brothers, in Georgia. Raised by parents who valued “the well-rounded individual,” the brothers were exposed to literature, religion, public service and the outdoors. Summers spent at a vacation home in Colorado seeded what would become a life-long interest in the West.
Too small for the football team, Imrie took to wrestling, tennis and cross country in high school. Long runs in the Georgia forests soothed his free spirit, remembers his brother Gordon Imrie.
He went on to Northwestern University, where he excelled at his high-school sports and developed a taste for film, theater and literature. By the time he graduated in 1968, he had soaked up the language of Edward Abbey and Jack Kerouac, acted in several theater productions and begun making his own films.
After graduation, he evaded the Vietnam draft, bought a motorcycle, joined a commune in San Francisco and pursued his dreams of being an actor and producer. He “landed the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, juggled cans of soda from a barn-loft window in a Coca-Cola commercial and fished a rushing river in a Pontiac advertisement,” writes Hal Walter, a friend, fellow pack-burro racer and writer. “He modeled clothes on the cover of The North Face catalog […] and performed in the theater in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.”
When Imrie’s brother John tragically drowned near the family cabin in 1969, Imrie took over ownership and moved to Buena Vista, Colorado.
It was there, while out for a jog, that he first learned about burro racing. A rancher, Oscar Chapa, pulled up alongside him, rolled down his window and announced, “Boy, you got the legs; I got the ass!”
A few months later, Imrie toed the line of the 1974 Fairplay Pack-Burro Race, tied to one of Chapa’s asses. Right
away he knew the sport suited him: it was a strenuous activity steeped in western culture, and every event was a theatrical comedy of errors.
Pack-burro racing harkens back to 19th-century silver-mining days, and has been a niche of High Rockies culture for decades. The premise is simple: runner and burro are tethered and must run the entirety of the race and cross the finish line together. It’s an idiosyncratic sport with a tough, arguably crazy community.
“Packburroracingitis,” says burro racer David TenEyck, “is a non-curable disease. You learn to live with it and change your lifestyle to accommodate life with burros.”
Soon, Imrie learned he was something of a burro whisperer. “[I] understood their temperaments,” he says in the documentary Chasing Tail. He bred and raised his own burros with enormous success—his particular breed is now a national-class herd.
Imrie became a local legend almost immediately. He could be found wearing his straw hat, burro in hand, nearly anywhere—whether at a traffic light or a 13,000-foot mountain pass.
“He’d find a way, donkey racing, to get ’er done,” says Emond, President of the Western Pack Burro Association (WPBA). “He pissed a lot of people off because they could beat him in a foot race but never in a donkey race.”
But winning wasn’t his priority. He wanted nothing more than to bring spirit to the community. “If you were chatting with Curtis, you’d have 15 feet of lead rope in your hand before you knew it, about to take off on a 29-mile adventure with a burro in sync,” says TenEyck.
Imrie was unapologetically himself in every venture of his life, including politics. Amongst a sea of conservative ranchers, he championed the environment, women’s rights and animal rights. The donkey was more than just a racing partner for Imrie; it was symbolic as well. “A donkey, as misunderstood as a democrat,” he said, “is a pretty special animal with its patience and its long suffering.”
He valued argumentation and the democratic process, and tended to “get into it” with friends. TenEyck recalls not seeing Imrie for a “long while” after an argument, and Emond remembers going an entire year without talking. Yet, says TenEyck, “He would always figure out a way to come and say he was sorry.”
Imrie ran for public office six times, often writing himself in as a candidate. Twice he ran for the state house of representatives against Leadville 100 race founder Ken Chlouber. He never won.
As with burro racing, though, it wasn’t the winning he was after. As he says in Chasing Tail, “The winning stuff you forget in about 10 minutes. The real lessons are in trying to get there.”
“Whether we were competing on foot or politically,” says Chlouber, “we always had a lot of respect.” When, in 2010, Chlouber’s donkey of 27 years passed away, Imrie showed up at his doorstep with one of his own burros as a gift.
Despite his magnanimous public persona, Imrie was deeply philosophical by nature and held his cards close. He continued his studies of the beat poets and even hosted a weekly radio show called “Poetry and Stories.” Emond admits, “I still don’t know what Curtis did for work, and I’ve known him since 1996.”
Neither Imrie’s time nor his legacy was governed by a single thing: according to his friends, he was a lover of literature, an enduring athlete, a loyal friend, a shepherd, a politician, a showman, an activist, a poet and a true lover of life. His creative efforts and tireless commitment to the people and spirit of burro racing were what defined him.
On the way back from the New Mexico Bataan Death March Marathon in 2012, Imrie was chatting with his friend Brad Wann, media-relations coordinator of the WPBA. Wann remembers Imrie leaning over and saying, “It doesn’t matter how you’re born, or how you die; it’s the stuff you do in between that matters.”