I first spotted the 100 Mules in person as they walked along a ridge high above The Cascades during the centennial ceremony on Tuesday.
But I'd been following their progress since they first left the Los Angeles Aqueduct intake in Bishop, CA nearly three weeks before. I'd monitored their passage through Manzanar and Lone Pine, out of the Owens Valley and into the Mojave, through Jawbone Canyon, sometimes alongside the aqueduct uncovered, sometimes on top of a buried, covered section of the aqueduct. They were walking the whole way (taking prescribed rests of course) to memorialize and commemorate the original 52 mules that helped build the LA Aqueduct 100 years ago, now one mule for every year of the century since its opening.
Those first mules hauled supplies and materials, sometimes even sections of the aqueduct itself, often outperforming the new-fangled machinery (like Caterpillar tractors) that were heavy and had a hard time making it through soft, loose desert earth, more easily navigated by mule hooves. Now, these mules have been accompanied by human wranglers, trailers, and trucks hauling water and feed for them. They haven't had to do much work this time. They've just had to walk.
I kept looking for them down the hill with all of the rest of the festivities, but we heard rumors that they'd gotten spooked or turned around or simply were rerouted to their temporary resting place now that they'd completed their aqueduct walk (once arriving at The Cascades, the terminus of the LA Aqueduct). So we went to go see them at Stetson Ranch.
We were warned that the mules were tired - they'd just arrived and were all still tied to their posts as their lightweight denim signs (each bearing a "100") and packs were removed, chilling out and settling down for the day.
We were told to stay 10-15 feet away from the mules to let them relax, but our group of 50 visitors had piqued their interest, and many of the mules were happy to pose for photos, whinnying and blowing dust out of their noses.
Plenty of wranglers were on hand to talk affectionately about their journey with the mules...
...tipping their weathered hats, kicking their boots into the dirt, their vests all bearing the same "100" that the mules wear on their backs.
But the main attraction - at least, for me, anyway - was the mules.
They seemed as curious about us as we were about them.
"Hi babies..." I called out to them softly, getting a little closer than I was supposed to, reaching out my hand until one wrangler called out, "Please don't touch the mules."
That is, until they brought Josephine out.
Josephine is kind of a mascot for the mules, a gentle beast that they bring out to meet those who have come for a visit at their various stopover locations.
"You can pet her..." her wrangler said, after one woman had fed her some baby carrots and grape tomatoes.
She presented her forehead for petting.
She looked into my eyes, and then into the lens of my camera.
She sniffed my hand, nibbling at its empty palm.
She responded to her name. She knows she is Josephine.
And she is a star.
The mules - all with their own personalities and dispositions - have some more ceremonial acts to perform over the rest of this week and the coming weekend, including a reenactment of the building of the aqueduct at Hansen Dam on Saturday, and the Veteran's Day parade in Glendale on Monday.
I hope to see them one last time before they have to return up north, back to their regular lives as pack mules. But for now, they've got just a few more days of stardom.
After all, we Californians relish our processions of animals and statues and space shuttles and giant boulders. We celebrate them!
Celebrating the LA Aqueduct Centennial at The Cascades
Photo Essay: Visiting the Largest Borax Mine in the World
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