Joker the donkeyJoker and Les Vilda
JOKER the Donkey  (1984)Les Vilda and Joker  (2005)


            Joker was born in 1980 in Kansas and died in 2007 on a farm near Milford, NE.  He lived to be 27 years of age – owned by Santa Fe Trail Ambassador Les Vilda, of Wilber, NE, for the past 23 of those years.

            He grew up to weigh 600-650 pounds.  He was a light brown color with a white face, belly, and legs and had the black stripe down his back and across his shoulders.  He was a very docile donkey that really enjoyed being around people.

            He lived the first four years of his life in Kansas.  He was purchased from Mr. (?) Beattie of Lyndon, KS (an auctioneer at the Overbrook, KS Livestock Barn in 1984) by Les Vilda in 1984.  This was the year that Les and his 3 traveling companions (Valerie Havorka and David and Denise Fikar) walked the Santa Fe Trail from Ft. Osage (near Sibley, MO) to Santa Fe, NM.  Les’s feet had given out on him during the trail walk – he couldn’t support the extra 40+ pounds that his backpack held, so he bought Joker to carry his backpack.  The purchase was made just West of Overbrook, KS

            Joker received a lot of attention during the trail walk.  When the travelers camped in a town, it would be only a few minutes after their arrival that the area was swamped with people (young and old) who wanted to pet and/or feed the donkey.

            As the travelers made their way to Dodge City, KS, they were passed on the highway by the Budweiser Clydesdale Team.  A few days later the travelers learned that the people caring for and operating the Budweiser team were considering Joker as their new “lead horse”.

            When the travelers arrived near Wagon Mound, NM, Joker found himself the subject of a photograph that made him part of a Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibit of the Santa Fe Trail.  The same photo became part of the book “ALONG THE SANTA FE TRAIL”  - Photography by Joan Myers and Essay by Marc Simmons.  The same photo was used yet again in the March 12, 1987 edition of “The New York Review of Books” as part of the review for “Along The Santa Fe Trail”.  Joker has now gone International!!!

            Joker was quite an asset to the travelers.  He was able to carry extra food and water into areas of the trail where there were none.  He proved to be quite the ‘watch dog’ – braying at intruders (2 and 4 legged) trying to get into camp during the middle of the night.  Intelligent?…It didn’t take him long to figure out that if he pulled the short end of the rope that tied him to fence posts, he could walk away.  (Les needed to find a new knot to tie.)

            When Joker arrived in Santa Fe, the question came up:  ‘Was Joker the first donkey to walk the Santa Fe Trail since the railroad first arrived in Santa Fe?’

            When the travelers arrived in Santa Fe, Dr. Marc Simmons took them to see the La Fonda Hotel.  Upon their return to the Plaza, the donkey was gone.  A while later, the travelers found him tied to the tree in the courtyard of the Palace of the Governors.  When was the last time a donkey was allowed to do THAT??  But, naturally, no camera!

            Joker spent the next 2 years in Wilber, Nebraska on the farm of Donald and Violet Vilda (parents of Les).  During that time he visited several schools and museums including 2 visits to the Omaha Children’s Museum in Omaha, NE.  Joker would go on weekend camping trips with Les and would sometimes pull Les around in a small 4-wheeled wagon.  Several trips were made with the wagon from the farm to Wilber (about a 4 mile trip taking nearly 1.5 hours one way) as a novelty way to pick up groceries.  The town’s people always seemed to enjoy seeing him come into town.

            April of 1987 found Les on the Santa Fe Trail again.  Joker started the journey with him.  They started this trip from New Franklin, MO.  Near Lexington, MO, Joker threw a shoe.  The guy that put the shoe back on ran the shoe nails too high into Jokers hoof and by the time the team had made it to Buckner, MO, Joker had developed a very bad limp.  Joker was given a ride back to Nebraska and Les finished his journey with a horse and wagon.

            In 1992, Joker pulled a wagon filled with food, water, and equipment for Les Vilda and Terri Tuxbury as they traveled about 170 miles of the Nebraska City Cut-Off of the Oregon Trail.

            Joker lived nearly the rest of his life on the Vilda farm.  As the years went by and organizations became more ‘liability conscious’, Joker did fewer and fewer school, museum, and community events.  By the early 1990’s, Joker was pretty much retired.

            Donald and Violet Vilda retired from farming in 2001 and moved off the farm.  At this time, Les moved Joker to the farm of Don and Donna Strinz – canvas tent and tipi makers near Milford, NE.  Here, Joker had a new playmate – a horse.  (Prior to this, Jokers only playmates were cattle.)   Strinz’s grandchildren loved coming on the farm for a donkey ride – it was easier to get onto his back than the Tennessee Walker horse.

            Joker was noticed missing on Valentine’s Day (February 14) 2007.  He was in the pasture on Monday, but not there on Wednesday.  After an extensive search of nearly 2 months, his body was discovered on Saturday April 28, 2007.  Cause of death is unknown.

            Joker was very photogenic!  His photo has appeared in numerous newspaper articles all along the Santa Fe Trail and the Nebraska City Cut-Off of the Oregon Trail.

            Photos of Joker were used in 2 of Les’s publications:  Rabi’s Mountain Man Guide To: Making Fire With Flint and Steel (1996), and Rabi’s Mountain Man Guide To:  Making Rope (1999).  Joker’s photo can also be found on Les’s postcard:  Get Off My Ass!”.  A pen and ink illustration was done of Joker by Dave Marchant for The Santa Fe Trail Calendar-1991 (cover and insert)(The calendar was produced for 4 consecutive years (1990-1993) as a group project of Les Vilda, Dave Marchant, and Sharon Mosher.).

            Joker was also the inspiration for the title of Les Vilda’s business:  Have Donkey Will Travel.  The business logo (the donkey chess piece – found on the home page of this website) was drawn by Barb McBride from a photo of Joker.

            Joker will be greatly missed by friends and family - and practically anyone who ever met him.  It would be nice to think that Joker, like the Santa Fe Trail, will continue to “Live On”!


Copyright  2007. Have Donkey Will Travel. All Rights Reserved.
Site last revised: 6/14/2007