Tag Archives: Hells Canyon Mule Days

Mule soup: long-eared vindication on a lazy afternoon

Twenty mule team cargo racing through the desert. Courtesy wpclipart.com

Ah, the workhorses — nay, work-MULES — of the West: A twenty-mule-team outfit rambles through the desert. Photo: wpclipart.com

Sometimes we pioneers in the barren wilderness of the blogosphere think it might all be a lost cause. We throw seeds into the wind and they blow away onto rocky ground, never to flower into the loveliness of a response. So it was with this little country ramble that Art Scatter took way back on Sept. 14, when he spent a summer afternoon at Hells Canyon Mule Days in far northeast Oregon and shot a bloggish missive into silence.

Until — o joy — this warm and funny response arrived from mule gal Eva Willingham, whose comment is so filled with peckish good humor that we hope she writes again:

It cracks me up that you have gotten such a good handle on mules in such a short time. It’s taken some people years to figure them out, which is that you can’t figure them out. On the other hand, once you have ridden a mule, it’s really hard to go back to a horse. I do as much trail riding as possible. Packing, as well. I can ride a mule all day and never feel fatigued. I ride my horse for a few hours and know I’ve been on a horse. Because of the way they are built, they ride like Chevies instead of Fords. Hope you’re not a Ford person. This very weekend at 2:00 in Newberg at Devenwood you can observe a mule competing against some very pricy warmbloods and kicking butt. You want to see a mule at its finest, go watch.

Of course I’m flattered to have my powers of mulish perspicacity recognized by someone who actually knows what she’s talking about.

bluepintoAnd I like thinking about a mule as a Chevy and a horse as a Ford, although the only time that most of America really focuses on horses — Kentucky Derby weekend — the proper vehicular analog might by the Maserati: It goes really fast, and it’s always breaking down. City slicker that I am, I’m afraid I’m currently pretty much a Honda and Toyota man, although I did once own a Ford Pinto — most uncomfortable car ever created, and let’s not even think about those exploding fuel tanks.

I’m sorry to be missing the spectacle in Newberg, which I’m sure is a fine and lovely thing. But my weekend’s been pretty busy, what with all this writing stuff (some of it for actual money; you don’t get to see the paying pieces on Art Scatter) and gadding about town. Friday night was Portland Opera’s feisty, funny, gorgeously sung La Boheme. Saturday night I spent at Clackamas Repertory Theatre watching a warm production of Alfred Uhry’s play The Last Night of Ballyhoo; a review is supposed to pop up in The Oregonian on Monday morning. Tonight our friend Michele Mariana, who did some voice work and sang a song in the movie version of Neil Gaiman‘s novel Coraline, is dropping over for dinner and bringing a DVD of the movie, which we’ll watch.

img00034In the meantime, Mrs. Scatter has whomped up a tasty-smelling veggie chili for dinner tonight. And as she’s  scampered off with the smaller Large Smelly Boy to some sort of mallish destination in search of pants that actually fit him — update, via Blackerry: “I’m in hell. Stores: 4. Pants: O. Next up: Refreshments. Then more stores. You OK getting Michele? I’ll aim for being home at 5.” — it is my solemn task to monitor, stir, and maybe even subtly alter the soup on the stove.

The soup has sweet onions, garlic, red sweet peppers, Santa Fe chili powder from our friend Penelope, some leftover enchilada sauce, zucchini, soft tomatoes, corn, a nifty soy sausage called Soyrizo that has the spicing and texture of a Spanish chorizo, and a few dashes of Covey Run 2005 cabernet sauvignon, an excellent cooking wine from the Columbia Valley in Washington state that you can get for about five bucks a bottle. Some of the ingredients come from the gardens of our friends Susan and Bonnie.

The chili’s coming along quite well. So’s the Covey Run cab. Wish I could say the same for Mrs. Scatter and the smaller Large Smelly Boy’s pants. Now I really should clean up the house a bit. Company’s coming.


Top inset photo: The infamous Ford Pinto. Mine was pumpkin-yellow. This one’s blue. Either way, I’d rather ride a mule. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Lower inset photo: Mrs. Scatter’s delicious vegetarian chili, bubbling on the stove. Photo: The wielder of the cell phone gizmo declines to take credit for the photographic result.

Or would you rather swing on a star? Taming the ornery mule in Oregon high country

The Wallowa Mountains in summer as seen from the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area/Wikimedia Commons

Muleskinner Blue Skies: The Wallowas in summer as seen from the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Wikimedia Commons.

While all you young buckaroos are heading into cowboy country for the 99th annual Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Pageant starting Wednesday, Mr. Scatter will be stuck inside of Portland with the Round-Up Blues again. I’ll be missing the roping, the trick riding, the bronc busting, the prodigious after-hours cheap bourbon guzzling, and all those other enduring arts of the untamed West.

So last weekend, on a trip to Enterprise in the Wallowa Mountains — 100-odd miles east of Pendleton, which put me really into ranch country — I compensated by heading for the Wallowa County Fairgrounds and the 29th annual Hells Canyon Mule Days.

2002 Grand Marshall Merl Hawkins, wife Carol and daughter Jenny. Larry Waters driving his mules Bert & Ernie Yes, Mule Days. As in Harry S Truman. As in Francis the Talking. As in 20 Mule Team Borax. As in stubborn as a. As in Bing Cosby’s tune about “an animal with long funny ears” whose “back is brawny and his brain is weak” — a gross misrepresentation of this hardworking beast, which is indeed brawny but is anything but weak-minded: It’s much too smart to give in to a mere human being without a fight.

Sitting in the grandstands and watching the curious backward dance of one unhappily saddled pack animal, I got the very strong feeling that mules are not meant for racing. And I reached the inescapable conclusion that, whatever else the mule’s multiple virtues, there is something inescapably comic — Sisyphean, even — about trying to coax it into performing the sort of rodeo tricks that seem like catnip to a horse.

This particular beast was a stocky, handsome, muscular white specimen of the species, and I have no doubt that when called upon it can haul its weight in moonshine over tricky terrain. But when its rider tried to coax it to the white chalk starting line for the pole bending competition, the mule instead shied from the bit and stepped back, back, backward, arching its neck and tossing its head in protest, until it rammed its rump into the rail that separates the field from the track. Minding its so-called “master” was not on its agenda on this Sunday afternoon.

Oddly, I admired the beast.

Mule Days here in Enterprise,  in the gorgeous high country of far northeastern Oregon that is still rightly lamented by the Nez Perce Indians who were run off their land 130 years ago by the U.S. Cavalry, offer a lot of other attractions. A Dutch oven cooking competition. A quilt exhibition. Cowboy poets. Hand-tooled saddles and other western gear for sale. Unending country music over the loudspeakers. All the fairground snacks your stomach can handle.

But people, keep your eyes on the main event here: galloping mules!

A team of beauties at Hells Canyon Mule DaysThis is not the Sport of Kings, with sleek beauties like Secretariat to give an aesthetic gloss to the gambling and occasional gore. This is mules, the sterile offspring of male donkeys and female horses, who are strong and capable but also awkward and funny-looking, with heads too big for their bodies and ears too long for their heads.

And from what I saw on Sunday, you don’t coax a mule. It more or less decides on its own whether it feels like playing the game on any given day. Understand, I speak from base ignorance. Mrs. Scatter and OED, our Older Educated Daughter, have seen me in the saddle, and after 20 years they still snicker at the memory. There are intricacies and even basic principles about these animals that I simply do not understand. So, muleskinners and other animal handlers, please forgive my misinterpretations of the muling life. And bear in mind that of the many skills tested during Hells Canyon Mule Days, pole bending is the only competition that I witnessed: For all I know, when it comes to the full-tilt boogie the mule is more beautiful than an Arabian, more skillful than a quarterhorse. But this is what I saw.

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