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An adventure to remember

November 15, 2013

One hundred mules walking down Western Avenue in the San Fernando Valley on Nov. 11 at the conclusion of “100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct.” The procession crossed three counties and passed through 50 communities on its journey from the Owens Valley to Southern California. Photo by Osceola Refetoff

(Lauren Bon and The Metabolic Studio’s “100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct,” an art action to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the L.A. Aqueduct, departed the Owens Valley Friday, Oct. 18 for a 27-day, 240-mile journey to Los Angeles. Yesterday, the mules, their riders and trip organizers were welcomed back to the Owens Valley with a public meet-and-greet at the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop. Here, Chris Langley reflects on the historic trip, the conclusion of the journey in downtown L.A. and what’s to come next. – Ed.)

Suddenly down Western Avenue there were hundreds of fluttering American flags and mounted riders off in the distance. At first, thoughts of a color guard appropriate for a traditional Veterans Day parade came to mind. But there were so many animals and flags.
The parade was moving quickly across intersections: Glenoaks, Victory and on to Riverside. Then the mules, each with two American flags and proud riders astride waving to friends, and Eastern Sierra packers minding their strings, came into view – passing by in a speedy trot. The smell of mule briefly filled the air, covering the typical urban smell of exhaust. A street sweeper followed immediately and the city streets returned to normal.
“100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct,” the Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio “art action” commemorating the centenary of the L.A. Aqueduct, was completing the last leg of their 240-mile journey across three counties and touching 50 communities. In the background you could almost hear the Grateful Dead singing, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
The mules looked proud but dusty as they came over the concrete hill. The riders looked exhilarated and thrilled to see the small crowds along their route and finally the larger group awaiting them at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, their final destination.
Many months ago, Lone Pine resident Kathy Jefferson Bancroft had suggested the basic idea to Lauren Bon when Bon was creating an event that would do what artists do: make people think about themselves, their lives and their futures. In this case, Bon also wanted them to meditate on human interaction with our landscape and the lack of water in the West.
The 100 mules, the riders, the dreamers, the support people wearing white and blue “100 Mule” T-shirts, a crowd of enthusiasts and the curious all gathered to see the spectacle’s conclusion at the Equestrian Center. The mules paraded proudly, then went on the urban bridle path, and then to rest. They had to be as tired if not more so than the Eastern Sierra wranglers organized by Jennifer and Lee Roeser of 8 Mile Ranch north of Independence and the McGee Pack Station north of Bishop. The event brought an economic boon to the Eastern Sierra, providing steady work to the packers who usually are shutting up business for the winter at this point.
Also meeting the mules were an entourage of friends from Lone Pine and Independence who had been touched by the event as they passed south from the Aqueduct Intake nearly a month before. Some had ridden, some had worked on the project or other Metabolic Studio projects, and some just had fallen in love with the idea. The one thing that was certain: a larger community of disparate groups had formed around the 100 Mules.
The cavalcade had many adventures along the way. The second day out they were buzzed by eight horses that had been put out to graze for the winter. On the way through the Alabama Hills, one mule had decided to scratch its back on the sand, forgetting it had project manager Michelle Urton on its back. A large crowd met the group as it pulled into the Lone Pine Film Museum rodeo grounds, followed by a potluck at the IOU Garden and a movie and barbecue at the Film History Museum.
The group bivouacked at the PPG plant where the Metabolic Studio Optics Division used the giant camera obscura in the north silo to take a mural photograph of the assemblage by the Owens Lake. The mules were met by nearly 60 Agriculture/FFA students from Lone Pine High School wearing special Mule T-shirts near Jawbone Canyon, where they were touring an LADWP green energy project. The students offered them a special cheer. In Mojave at an airport hangar, Beverly Vanderwall, who with a team of Inyo quilters sewed the special “100” saddlebags for the mules, did some hasty repair work on them. At the Nigra ranch at Neenach west of Lancaster, the mules, wranglers, riders and Metabolic team camped for two days and met the public in scheduled visiting hours that many learned of on the special Facebook page.
A special event at Hanson Dam included a 20-mule team demonstration pulling historic pipe similar to that used in the building of the aqueduct. At Stetson Ranch, a private dinner was held for the riders and team one night, along with a public reception celebrating the roll-out of the magazine BOOM, which had a complete issue devoted to the effects of the aqueduct on Inyo and water issues still being passionately debated today.
A Plenary session is promised in March by Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio and a plan for the next 100 years will be presented. All of the plans and developments can be followed on Facebook and on the website
Radio station KCET is making a three-part documentary on Lauren Bon’s artistic practice in 30-minute sections. The first episode has already been broadcast and focused on the Optics Division and Bon’s work at Owens Lake. The second section will be on the 100 Mules and the third on the waterwheel project. A short documentary on the walk is being prepared by the channel after the stories on the art action won the popular vote in an Internet contest.
Bon and the Metabolic Studio team have been working for more than six years now in the county, supporting various projects with grants, developing and supporting the Master Gardener Program, an internship program at Lone Pine High School, a soil-making project, the IOU Garden in Lone Pine, community gardens and family garden across the valley, and much more.
It is difficult to take in all the projects that the Studio and the team have brought to Inyo, and all the community-building connections that have been made. Bon intended the 100 Mules to raise awareness about three things: the mule’s role in building the West; the building of the aqueduct and its major water impact on L.A. and Inyo County; and the future of water in the West. People aware of the project have to do the work of figuring out what residents of arid lands are going to do about the limited water resources and future challenges to their areas.
The “art action” is not finished by any means. The process switches into high gear again in March.
“‘Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct’ is a prelude to ‘Bending the Los Angeles River Back into the City,’ a work that will pierce the concrete jacket of the Los Angeles River and use a 72-foot waterwheel to reconnect the land to the river that originally supplied all the city’s water,” the Studio website states.
In the meantime, Bon and the Metabolic Studio’s work in the Eastern Sierra continues and awaits the local thoughtful response.

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