Although Memorial Day is celebrated in a variety of ways across the country, the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop marks this traditional beginning of summer with Mule Days (muledays.org). This annual event, which promotes the heritage, legacy and talents of mules, draws mule teams and spectators from across the west, and offers a weekend filled with fun, festivities and good old fashioned western entertainment.
Everybody Loves a Parade
Mule Days kicks of with the Saturday morning parade down Main Street. Billed as the largest non-motorized parade in America, this festive event features mule teams, horses, wagons, bands and lots of mules with costumed riders. You never know quite what you’ll see — as the popular costume contest has a different theme every year — but it’s always entertaining.
Accessible parking for the parade is available in front of the Bishop Dog Park, but it’s best to ask the officer at the Main Street road block to direct you to other accessible parking areas. The good news is that the town is level, so it’s easy to navigate in a wheelchair. The not so good news is that the parade draws a huge crowd, so accessible parking can be difficult to find. The best plan of action is to arrive early for first crack at the accessible parking spots, then have a leisurely breakfast and stake out a place to watch the parade. It’s an extremely popular event, and many locals even save their spots as early as Friday afternoon.
It’s Rodeo Time!
The bulk of the other events take place at the Tri-County Fairgrounds over the next two days. Accessible parking is available in the fairgrounds parking lot, and a paved level pathway leads from the parking area, around the mule barns to the grandstand. Accessible seating for up to two people is available in Box 1 in the grandstand, and for groups of three or more in the first rows of Sections A and E. It’s best to call (760) 872-4263 and order your tickets as far in advance as possible. Additionally, it’s extremely important to specify that you need accessible seating when you place your order.
The arena events resemble something akin to a mule rodeo, where the packers show off their skills. The whole event is steeped in tradition, as mule packers are a fixture in the Sierras for back country camping, hunting and rescue operations. There are no money prizes for the winners at Mule Days, but the bragging rights are huge. A variety of different competitions are held in the arena, but here’s a sampling of some of the events you can expect to see.
Timed Packers Choice
Packers lead their mule strings over and around their choice of obstacles in this timed event. Obstacles include bridges, gates, water hazards and logs. Packers earn one point for each obstacle they successfully navigate. Just think of it as an obstacle course with a twist.
In this event, handlers encourage their mules to jump over a bar from a standstill. The bar is raised until there is one mule left. The contest takes its name from the practice of jumping mules over fences during coon hunts. There’s always a laugh or two during this event as some mules are hesitant to jump, and the handlers have creative ways to encourage them.
A variety of objects, including ice chests, washtubs, pots and pans are laid out on the ground. Packers then pack everything on their two mules, cover the load with a tarp, and attempt to race to the finish line without losing anything.
Run, Ride and Lead
In this fast-paced event packers run to their mules, which are located on the opposite side of the arena. Next they ride their mules back to the start, then lead the animals back across the arena. In the end, more than one packer usually ends up on the ground.
Team Pack Scramble
One of the highlights of the arena events is the Team Pack Scramble. Packers lead their mule strings into the arena, then unpack and unharness the animals. Cowboys then fire blank shots into the air to disperse the animals. Packers must round up their animals, repack them, assemble their strings, then lead them by horseback out of the arena for a lap around the parking lot. This crowd pleaser is always good for a laugh, and as the announcer pointed out, “There’s just no way to practice for this.”
Although distinctly different from a traditional rodeo, Mule Days is a fun, family-friendly way to celebrate Memorial Day. Morning, afternoon and evening arena events are held from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, and you can purchase a single ticket or a buy an all-event pass. Get your tickets early though, as this popular event sells out quickly. Who’d of ever thought that mules could be so entertaining?