Since 1999, I have spent Memorial Day weekends in the unspoiled Eastern Sierras near Bishop, California.
I'm drawn not only to the clean mountain air, the hiking trails and the streams and lakes but also to Mule Days, one of the best times to be had in the Golden State.
Mule Days, which started in 1969 by the Eastern High Sierra Packers to "kick-off" the summer packing season, has grown from crowds of 200 people to more than 30,000 fans.
As far as mule people are concerned, mules can do anything a horse can do only better. And at Mule Days, events from trail riding to show classes give mules an opportunity to show off their skill and grace.
For the cowboys who ride the mules, they will have an opportunity to prove their roping and penning skills on some of the best working mules in the United States.
There are lots of reasons to attend Mule Days but the best two are to mingle with the mules and the people who are crazy about them.
Mules are the sterile hybrid animal produced when a male ass (Jack) is crossed with a female horse. Mules are male and female but cannot reproduce.
From the donkey side of the mule, the animal gets his long ears, narrow body and small hooves. And from the horse, the mule inherits its size, speed and muscle.
Contrary to popular opinion, mules are not stubborn. What may appear to be a stubborn streak in a mule is just the animal's way of telling his owner that things aren't right. Unlike a horse, which can be worked until it drops, a mule will not put itself or its rider in danger. But it will always give 100% for the rider when treated with patience and encouragement.
As for the mule lovers, I stand in admiration of their dedication to their animals and the life styles they have chosen.
Writing in the May 2004 issue of Western Mule Magazine, Carolyn Nichols gave her insights into what life in the country with her mules is like:
"There are no holidays off or weekends if you have animals. Their needs must be tended to seven days a week. No malls or grocery stores are close by. One of the first questions women ask when they arrive at our place is where is the nearest Wal-Mart? It is 30 miles to Wal-Mart. In fact, it is 30 miles to the nearest grocery store."
"This is the lifestyle we desired for our children. No smog, no killings, no rapes. People in the city don't know their neighbors or speak to strangers. They can't take the chance. We wanted our children to be aware of where food comes from (not from a grocery store), of what fresh eggs really taste like."
In conclusion, Nichols wrote:
"This evening while I sat on my porch with Lucy Dog's head in my lap and the pups curled up at my feet, I listened to the night sounds, watched the fire flies, and looked up at the sky radiant with its stars. The city lights lose a lot of their luster. I wouldn't want to change a thing."
The Mule Day's highlight is the Saturday morning parade. Billed as the longest non-motorized parade in America, the mules ride down Bishop's Main Street while the crowd—wearing the paper mule ears handed out by the local coffee shop— claps and whistles.
Bishop is probably quite a drive from wherever you may be reading this column.
But if you want a few days away from it all—as noted by Nichols, not a Wal-Mart in sight—I recommend Bishop Mule Days.