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.
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!
This 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.