About 20 years ago, I saw a group of wild burros in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas, Nev. It was a huge thrill for me to see descendants of the donkeys originally brought to the West by the old gold prospectors of the 1800s. They were living history, and I was honored to be able to get so close to them.
This past weekend, I hoped to recreate this exciting moment during a trip to Death Valley National Park. Wild burros roam free in the park, as they have done since the mid-1800s, when gold was first discovered in the area. Burros that are found on the Bureau of Land Management land are often rounded up and placed for adoption, along with wild horses that are captured. I have long dreamed of adopting a wild burro someday, when I have time to dedicate to gentling a wild creature.
It’s not hard to see these living bits of history if you go to a BLM adoption center, but to find them in the wild is another story. They are fairly tame in Red Rock Canyon and will come up to your car looking for a handout. But here in Death Valley, they are as wild as the terrain.
The friends I camped with in the backcountry of Death Valley this weekend are horsepeople. Two of them are very experienced explorers of the National Park, but my friend, Michelle, and I had never seen the park quite in this way. We tooled around on rocky dirt roads that double for washes during the rainy season and are treacherous enough that most people wouldn’t even attempt to tackle them, even with a four-wheel drive.
Everywhere we went this weekend, we saw what we casually referred to as “burro poop.” Donkey dung was everywhere: on the road we upon which we drove, on the trails we hiked, and even outside the cabin where we stayed, despite the fact that the area was fenced to keep the wild burros out. It seems they like to get close to the cabins in the park and destroy whatever manmade objects they can. Do they hate people, and this is their way of saying so? Or are they just mischievous like my own horses, who will trash anything they can get their teeth on? I think the latter.
As we drove and hiked through the valley all weekend, Michelle and I constantly scanned the horizon. We searched for wild burros high and low, but to no avail. Their poop taunted us, as if they were saying “See, we were here, but now we’re not. You are just not smart enough to find us.” Our desert denizen companions felt compelled to regale us with stories of all the many times they have seen burros while in the valley, and after a while, it almost felt like they were rubbing it in.
On Sunday afternoon, as we drove out of the National Park, I knew my chance of seeing a burro on that trip was gone. But I will not accept defeat. Instead, I’m already thinking about how I can get back to Death Valley so I can try it again.