Bishop Mule Days Packs the House

By June 25, 2012
Driver with two-mule cart team.

From driving to jumping, Bishop Mule Days has something for everyone. (Photo by Chris Lord)

The Bishop Mule Days Celebration stampeded into Bishop, CA, over the Memorial Day Weekend like it has for the past 43 years.  Despite the high cost of fuel and a struggling economy, the loyalists and fans came out in droves, as they do year after year. But that could be expected; Mule Days has grown into something far greater than a mule show – it has become a phenomenon that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

As legend has it, Mule Days was started by the packers who would celebrate the melting of the snow pack and the upcoming packing season. Today it is as important to the economy of Bishop as the packing season — typically May through August, when people do their horseback camping in the Western Sierras. Possibly even more so.

It is always difficult to describe Bishop Mule Days to someone that has never experienced the event―there are cattle classes, a huge non-motorized parade, English classes, chariot races, driving events and “fun” classes.
Some classes border on the absurd, like “The Dolly Parton Race,” where contestants stuff water balloons into a bra and race to the finish line. And while world champions are made at Bishop, the event is really more for the spectators than the contestants.
Journey to Bishop

Vintage image of 20-mule team pulling wagons in the California desert.

A 20-mule team moves through California for the Harmony Borax Works at the turn of the century.

I always enjoy arriving at the town of Mojave as I make my way from Los Angeles to Bishop, CA. Symbolically, Mojave represents the exit from Los Angeles and the pathway to some great areas of California—the Tehachapi Mountains, Death Valley and the Eastern Sierras. It marks the transition from a stressful metropolis to vast open space, thundering mountain ranges, abundant wildlife and magnificent views.

The town of Mojave was settled in 1876 as a construction camp on the Southern Pacific Railroad.  It was probably the same hellhole then as it is now—a sparsely populated desert town that no one wants to live in. Significantly, however, the town was the western terminus of the 165-mile, 20-mule team Borax wagon route that originated at the Harmony Borax Works—a commercial outfit originated in 1881 to mine borate, a lakebed mineral with antiseptic properties and the agent in Borax bleach―in Death Valley.

For the past several years, Bobby Tanner of the Red’s Meadow Pack Station has put together a 20-mule team with the original Borax wagons as an exhibition at Bishop Mule Days.

As I merged my rig from the US 14 onto the US 395, I noticed the green medicinal cross that marks a marijuana dispensary. It seemed strange to find a marijuana dispensary out in the middle of the desert. Despite the fact that it violates federal law to cultivate and distribute marijuana, the California voters enacted the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. That law allows for doctors to “recommend” (not prescribe) the use of marijuana to their patients for a variety of ailments, including things such as back pain and anxiety.
I would not need to stop here because I knew how to find Dr. Bob and his traveling pain clinic in parking lot “C” at the Bishop Fairgrounds.

Two women on mules, one holding a dog.

Amateur High Point-winner Amy McLean and her dog astride Wild Bill. (Photo by Lori Barnett)

The Big Winners

Tim Phillips and Tuff Stuff won the High Point World Champion Mule for the 16th consecutive time. They were also world champion English mule, western mule, and reserve world champion single driving mule.

American Mule Association Board Member Amy McLean and her mule Wild Bill won the Amateur World Championship. Wild Bill was also the Reserve World Champion Western Performance winner. Wild Bill was third for the Overall High Point World Champion Mule.

He also won the ride and drive, amateur working hunter (second year in a row), warm up hunter, amateur reining (2nd year in a row) and amateur western pleasure (2nd year in a row). Amy and Wild Bill showed in 28 classes and placed in 25 of them. Tucker and Mary Lou Slender’s mule Donk-a-lena was inducted into the Mule Days Hall of Fame.

Obligatory Chariot Wreck

It seems that every mule show with driving events has to have an obligatory chariot wreck. This year it was Ralph Atkinson and his team Gyp & Jude that would not let us down. Ralph had left his team with his swamper to receive an award. As he approached the stage, some of the other teams started leaving the arena. Not wanting to be left behind, Gyp & Jude took off and began to run down the race track. Eventually the team came to a rest after running into a chain link fence. Luckily, only Ralph’s “Fear This” chariot was damaged, but after hours of repair, it was good to go.

Bishop is all about unique events, some of them categorized under the heading “Fun Classes.”There is plenty of competition that you won’t see at other shows. Perhaps the most ridiculous event is “Chariot Steer Stopping.” Each chariot has a driver and a person on the back to rope the cattle. A herd of cattle is let loose in the arena and, predictably, mayhem ensues.

Woman 'coon jumping' a white mule.

Debra Kennedy 'coon jumping' her mule, Sweet Adeline. (Photo by Lori Barnett)

The Fun Classes at Bishop are always entertaining. They include the Musical Tires, Run Ride and Lead and the Bed Roll Race. The theme for the custom class this year was “1980’s Disco” and people spent hours outfitting their mules appropriately for what is arguably the most disturbing era in American musical history. Bryce Hathaway did a tribute to the Jackson 5,  whereby he and four other people climbed aboard his mule White Trash and got funky.

Watch The Weather

The weather at Bishop can be extreme. In the years that I have attended the event, the temps have ranged from above 90 degrees to below freezing. This year, the beginning of the week was hot―around 95 degrees. Because of this, my traveling companions connected a tarp between our two trailers for shade. This worked out nicely until Thursday night.

I warned the girls that the weather forecast called for 70 mile-per-hour winds and pleaded with them to take it down, but they refused, chiding, “Don’t be ridiculous! It’s totally calm.”  Things changed for the worst at 2:13 a.m. I know the exact time because that is when the first gust of wind swooped under the tarp and nearly knocked my trailer over. This went on for several hours. When the morning finally arrived, I felt like I had spent the night tossed in a cement mixer.

The Joy of Team Sports

As Bishop continues to grow in size and popularity, it runs the risk of becoming just another show, where winning is more important than having fun. I had never entered a cattle event but thought it would be a lark. The problem was many of the weekend warriors took themselves way too seriously; you would in fact think they were competing at the PRCA’s National Finals Rodeo and hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake.

Pack of mules race headlong down a dirt track.

Pack races are fast-moving. (Photo by Chris Lord)

Not being able to find someone that wanted me on their sorting team, I formed my own while having a few drinks at Rusty’s Saloon. I told Bishop local Loni Langdon that I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana and that my mule Jesse had been around cattle his whole life. I explained that if we could get Tucker Slender on our team we had a real chance of winning the event.

I am not sure if Loni believed a word I said, but she reluctantly agreed to join the team. Loni cut four cattle out of the herd while Tucker and I held the line. We finished sixth, beating at least one of the contestants that did not want me on his team! Not bad for my first go-around. A can-do attitude counts for a lot at Mule Days.

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