June 2016 - Allegorical Asses

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

My college major was English. As I saw it, the choice was between majoring in English and getting to play baseball, bridge, and Beau Brummels records for four years, or majoring in something else and actually having to study. It wasn’t a decision I struggled with.1

I can remember the exact moment that became clear to me—the exact moment I became an English major. It was the instant I got back my first college history test with a “C+” on it. I had never before seen a “C+” but I had enough of a grasp of the rubrics of academia to be confident that C-pluses were not the stuff of brilliant college careers.

I can still remember thinking, “Well, that pretty much decides it: I’m an English major.” I walked across campus and changed my major on the spot.

Majoring in English was a lot like my high school summer job umpiring baseball games. I couldn’t believe I got paid for watching baseball games,2 and I couldn’t believe I’d get credit for English courses. I would have read those books for free.

Well ... some of them I would have read for free. You couldn’t pay me enough to read Chaucer or Emily Dickinson. And Joyce was a lot like The Doors: inebriated and interesting but incomprehensible.

Fortunately my tastes are catholic enough that there was plenty of good material from which to build a major. There wasn’t much I didn’t like.

Except allegories. I hated allegories.

Allegories were synonymous with work in my college lexicon. Anytime we had to read an allegory, I knew we’d be required to figure the damn thing out and explain it in 1,000 words or more. That seemed an inexplicable waste of words.3

You probably don’t even remember allegories if you majored in anything useful. Allegories are extended metaphors: Long, tediously overdrawn, and studiously clever tales presumably designed to convey a moral or meaning buried far beneath the surface of the fable.

If you didn’t like Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, you didn’t like allegories. A critic named Erich Auerbach earned my undying gratitude when he wrote—I still remember the quote—“every kind of serious realism was in danger of being choked to death by the vines of allegory.”

I was a “serious realism” guy. I took Jack London and Frank Norris and William Dean Howells every time. Mark Twain and Stephen Crane did not deal in allegory. Their work became my major.

I thought I was all done with allegories when I graduated, but they’ve come back to haunt me. While cleaning out the garage last week,4 I came across an old magazine article about the “Triple Crown of Burro Racing.” The garage project was immediately put on hold in favor of Intertube research on what those five words could mean.5

Well, it turns out there are people who race pack burros. Their racing is done under the auspices of the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation,6 and their three top events are run in Colorado. In Buena Vista, Fairplay, and Leadville.

Buena Vista, Fairplay, and Leadville. Obviously pack burro racing has not yet broken through to the mass appeal heights of ... say ... synchronized swimming or biathlon. Apparently, even ESPN 12 or whatever network number they’re up to now hasn’t been able to find a map on which they can locate Leadville, Fairplay, and Buena Vista.

So I began reading about these races with little preconception and with absolutely no apprehension the article might be allegorical. After all, description of contests in which a trophy is presented proclaiming someone the “Last Ass Over the Pass” does not lend itself to much in the way of literary device.

That’s probably why the similarity between burro racing—described as “a combination of a footrace and a wrestling match”—and the trial of a lawsuit eluded me at first. I just wasn’t looking for the parallel there—although if you look back at the quoted description, it kinda jumps out at you once you’ve wasted five minutes reading about allegories.

And since I didn’t immediately realize that burro racing is an allegory for lawsuits, the similarity between the description of one of the sport’s all-time greats, one Tom Sobal, as “a bike mechanic/ski technician who lives in a phoneless cabin at 9,860 feet, which he reaches on snowshoes,” and former Supreme Court Justice David Souter completely escaped me at first.

Then, however, I hit this sentence and knew without a doubt allegory had hunted me down again: “On a boulder-strewn course at altitudes above 10,000 feet, the human runner must lead and cajole a jackass carrying 33 pounds of mining gear up and down for as much as 30 miles.”

That is as clear a metaphor for a trial as I have ever seen. Read that sentence again replacing “human runner” and “jackass” with the appropriate unnamed trial roles, and tell me if it doesn’t sound like every case you’ve ever put on.

It gets better. According to the aforementioned burro cajoler extraordinaire Tom Sobal, “The hardest part of burro racing is keeping the animal motivated.” Does that, or does it not, sum up your relationship with the bench?

As someone who spent ten years carrying the thirty-three pounds of mining gear, but spent my first fifteen years in practice motivating them from ahead and the last nineteen cajoling them from behind, I can certainly identify—indeed, I can empathize with—the guy trying to keep the jackass moving up the mountain. No matter how stupid, obstinate, or confused the poor jackass gets, you’ve got to keep it moving.

You can’t shoot it or you’re disqualified.7

Meanwhile, the jackass is trying—to the extent its limited equine brain is capable of linear thought—to figure out why in hell you insist on going thirty miles over treacherous, high altitude roads to Leadville, Colorado, for crying out loud. The jackass has been to Leadville, knows better than ever to go again, and also knows that you’ve picked the wrong damned road, Stupid.

The jackass is also more than a little bemused by the fact it’s been loaded with thirty-three pounds of mining gear while you—the putative user of the mining gear—are clad in running shorts, tennis shoes, and a cute little singlet that says, “Jackpot Damages Race, 2016.”

The jackass told you when you showed up that most of that thirty-three pounds was never going into the mine. He also told you there was a flat, easy route you could settle for that would get you to towns like Georgetown and Idaho Springs—places almost as nice as Leadville—in half the time for half the price and without taking the chance of falling into a canyon and dying on your way up some God-forsaken mountain in the back of beyond.

And, as long as we’re speaking allegorically, let me give you a tip here. I read that, “High-tech burro racers feed their animals specially formulated race-horse grain mixture and electrolyte supplements.”

Trust me, folks, the burro knows. I can assure you that I have read many briefs I was readily able to identify as “specially formulated race-horse grain mixtures and electrolyte supplements.” And I knew immediately that at least one of the burro racers was going to try to lead me down the path to Leadville again.

So I guess I owe Dr. Carothers, my old college English mentor, still another apology. Turns out there was a reason for studying allegories other than the perpetration of Eighth Amendment violations upon unsuspecting college sophomores: They enabled me to understand lawsuits and pack burro racing.

Well ... they enabled me to understand pack burro racing.


  1. I suppose a paragraph in which you confess to being an English major should not include a sentence that ends with a preposition. Suffice it to say that English composition is riddled with conventions it would be well-advised to do away with.
  2. Indeed, it took me twenty years to find another job where I could get paid for watching the contest and occasionally yelling “safe” or “out.”
  3. A feeling you’re familiar with if you visit this space often.
  4. Who says majoring in English doesn’t prepare you for anything?
  5. Writing this column was meant to give me plausible denial against charges of irretrievable laziness. I’m not sure it worked.
  6. Yes, it’s hyphenated. Their motto is “Hauling Ass for 64 Years.” Sometimes this column just writes itself.
  7. This rule extends to the appellate courts as well.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.