One hundred mules traveling from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles to raise awareness about where the city’s water comes from is more than just a spectacle for Owens Valley residents.
Ask those involved in helping to send the mules on their way, the dozens who gathered last week to give the procession a proper send-off or the hundreds of locals who have been tracking the mule trip via social media, and they’ll tell you it has deeper meaning in a landscape impacted by the export of local water.
Contrary to a front-page article in the Saturday, Oct. 20 edition of the L.A. Times that stated local residents view it as “little more than a curiosity,” the “100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct” living art project drew widespread attention and support this past weekend from locals who want the world to know where L.A.’s water comes from.
Inyo County residents turned out in droves Friday, Oct. 18 through Sunday, Oct. 20, to watch as the 100 mules and a contingent of riders (many simply taking part to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience) set out on a 240-mile, 27-day journey from the L.A. Aqueduct Intake outside of Independence to Los Angeles.
The Metabolic Studio is hosting the living art project as a way to raise awareness about the L.A. Aqueduct and the fact that much of Southern California’s water is fed into the area from outside sources. Having 100 mules make the trip from Inyo County to Los Angeles – following the aqueduct as they go – is a way to tie in the Owens Valley’s rural heritage and the mule’s role in constructing the aqueduct.
Throughout the weekend, more than 100 residents lined the mules’ route or gathered at pit stops and camps to take photos, shoot video footage or just watch the procession.
According to Inyo County Museum Director Jon Klusmire, who hosted a Metabolic Studio-sponsored talk titled “Eden Interrupted” in Independence on Saturday, between 80 and 100 residents attended the send-off of the mules on Friday; 65 attended the talk in Independence on Saturday; about 80 people (90 percent of whom were Inyo residents) attended a potluck dinner on Saturday; and the Lone Pine Film History Museum Wild West Theater was filled to capacity for a screening of “Watershed” on Sunday. “There might have been 200 people just in Lone Pine watching them come in,” Klusmire said. “Everyone has just said that it was pretty spectacular.”
According to Lone Pine resident Chris Langley, who was invited to ride with the 100 mules from Manzanar to Lone Pine on Sunday, between 50 and 80 local residents met at the Lone Pine Rodeo Grounds that afternoon alone. “It was unbelievable,” Langley said. “There were a lot of people out there, mostly local people, but not all locals. As a rider, you really feel like you’ve done something.”
Langley said many were taken with the spectacle and historical significance of the 100 mules traveling the aqueduct, as the Owens Valley has historical ties to the packing industry and mules themselves were instrumental in the construction of the 240-plus-mile canal.
But “the point of all this is to raise people’s curiosity about the whole issue of water and that there isn’t enough water in the West,” Langley said, adding that representatives from the Los Angels mayor’s office took part in one leg of the ride this past weekend, showing that “we’re all in this together.”
For his part, Langley said that the ride was a “once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience” with educational discussions about water, the Owens Valley, sustainable gardening and, as they traveled through the Alabama Hills, about filming in local communities.
Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathleen New was quoted in the Times piece as saying, “I never did get the point … I’m not excited about seeing mules – I’ve seen millions of mules around here.” New added that “maybe it’ll attract more attention when it gets down to the Los Angeles area.”
On Monday, she said that she wasn’t exactly sure what the whole “100 Mules Walking” program was about before Sunday, but after attending the welcoming ceremony at the Lone Pine Rodeo Grounds, she is beginning to understand the significance of the event.
Before the mules hit the road, “The question was ‘why are we celebrating the aqueduct?’” New said. “I don’t think people really understood what it was about. They’re bringing awareness about where water comes from and I think they will have a profound effect when they get into Glendale or downtown” L.A.
New said that Sunday’s welcome party was a great experience. “It was very fun to watch,” she said. “Now that it’s on the road, people are starting to hear about it ahead of it and they’re starting to ask questions. It was beautiful. I think when it gets to L.A., there’ll be a lot of awareness. That will be exciting.”
The impact from the traveling mules reaches beyond raising awareness or providing an historic moment for residents to be a part of. According to Klusmire, there is an economic impact that has been widely overlooked.
Jennifer Roeser of McGee Creek Pack Station recently went before the Inyo County Board of Supervisors to discuss the 100 Mules Walking exhibit, saying that virtually every pack station in the Eastern Sierra is participating by renting mules and wranglers to Metabolic Studio for the event.
Roeser said that the 12 local wranglers, 100 mules, feed water and support crews, come at a cost of about $750,000 divided among the local pack stations.
Typically, the local packers close up shop for the winter sometime in September, so the opportunity to extend the season, even if the work is a little different than what the mules and wranglers are used to, is a boon to the pack industry.