When the American West was the Earth’s last frontier, mules pulled thousands of wagons across it, mostly to the gold discoveries in California. Their wagon trains usually left in May, from points along the Missouri River, after the snow had melted throughout the prairie and sufficient grass had grown up along the route to feed them. Unlike plodding oxen, used by the farm families during their trudge west over the Oregon Trail, mules move at a decent pace. That made them the obvious choice of the 49ers: the adventurous gold seekers whose goal was to beat the competition and the clock – or the calendar, as the case may be. Still, the trip west took the better part of a summer. As happenstance would have, last May two way-distant relatives of those mules left for California in a stock trailer.
Towed behind a pickup driven by Cindy Powell, they were headed for Mule Days in Bishop – the 34th annual. Four days later, Cindy and her mules, Maralyn and Rilla, arrived here from Virginia in time to get acclimated before the busy Memorial Day weekend event. “It’s a long drive, especially alone, but worth it. This is a prestigious show,” Cindy says. I was to watch Cindy, who is 38, compete in several events here at the fairgrounds. She always wins a ribbon. Bishop is a tidy, tourist town, halfway up the eastern edge of California. It lives off the southern quarter of the state – Los Angeles and San Diego, primarily. At an elevation of 4,150 feet, between the state’s two highest mountain ranges, it is in the
center of a vast recreation and resort area and is a key outfitting point for pack trips. Need I name the pack animal of choice? I suspect there are more working mules here than in any town in California, maybe the country.
I soon discovered that mules aren’t just for getting man and his stuff safely over a mountaintop. Wednesday through Sunday, I watched competition that ran the gamut from rodeo events to chariot races. The quick-witted show announcers, all professionals off the rodeo circuit, were as much the show as the mules in the arena. One, after telling competing mule-wagon drivers to circle the arena counter-clockwise, said: “OK, all you kids with digital watches, pay attention. You are about to learn what counter-clockwise means.” The No. 1 crowd pleaser was a daily free-for-all, when eight or so pack teams are turned loose in the arena. The mules rump, roll in the dirt, kick up their heels and get mixed up like kids at recess.
The starter fires a gun, elevating the confusion to a frenzy. Then the wranglers plunge into the thick of things in pursuit of their mules. (The mules all looked alike to me.) Finally they get them collected, loaded and hitched together and off they go. The first pack train around the track wins. On the third day, I set out to get a thoroughly prejudiced assessment of mule versus horse. Opinions were not hard to find. I met Diane Willoughby, who was all smiles coming out of the arena where her 5-year-old Asstroid had taken second place in a class the program called “Mammoth Jacks.” She is from Norco, in highly urbanized Orange County in Southern California, where she claims there are more horses and mules thanpeople. Her husband trains racehorses. “My mules are like my dogs – always happy to see me. Once a mule knows you and trusts you, he will do anything for you.
I have to laugh at their reaction to my husband, who they don’t know that well, cuz he’s away all day. When he getswith my mules, they say, ‘Wait a minute, who are you? Why should I trust you?’ It is so obvious to me, it’s funny.” Philip Amaral, a barber for 34 years from Fresno, California, was unhitching Kate and Kathy, his draft mules, who had just taken third place in a Teams event. “At home we have cattle, six mules and four horses. So I’ve lived with both ofthem,” he said, hanging up bridles in the mule’s trailer. “Working cattle, you can’t beat a horse. They have natural cow savvy – an inborn desire to chase a cow and control it. The best cow mule can’t compete with even a mediocre ranch horse. “Pound for pound, however, a mule will out pull a horse every time.
They won’t over eat or drink like a horse will. They seem to know. And a mule is more sure-footed. They won’t get into trouble with junk that might turn up in a pasture or get tangled in a fence. On a trail in rough country, you want a mule. They seem to reason things out, always picking the safest way to go. In the high Sierra on a pack trip, I put my 9-year-old granddaughter on a mule. The mule is as safe as a babysitter, maybe safer. “They each have a unique personality and are more fun to be around. A horse is a loner, which has advantages, of course.
Mules fall in love with each other and like to be together.” Phil pulled a couple cold drinks from a cooler and handed me one. “I’ve been coming here for eight years.” He looked out beyond the fairgrounds toward the busy highway. “There is too much ugly in the world. This is an escape from all that. Everyone’s here simply to show off his or her mules and have a good time. Even my competition cheers for me.”
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]