The long ears

Nuggets from the Past

May 13, 2010 

What do you know about mules? In Following the Bells, Traveling High Sierra Wilderness Trails, a book by Johnny Jones, as told to Dwight Barnes, Jones reveals his love of the animal and tells of its ability to outdo horses.

"...Johnny, who sometimes was called 'Jackass Johnny' in school, became widely known as one of the leading High Sierra guides and packers, a respected mule judge and breeder of world champion performance and racing mules." During the years Ronald Reagan was governor, Johnny took Ron and Nancy on a pack trip in the high country. They became fast friends. Letters that Reagan wrote to Johnny may be seen at the Coarsegold Historic Museum.

"People used to say that I wasn't interested in anything that didn't have two long ears and a tail. That's not quite true. I do like horses, but I must say that mules get under your skin. A good mule is a friend, a good faithful friend.

"A mule can wear a horse out so fast. In his life span, a mule will wear out three or four horses. A mule I sold to the Curry Company...was still working at 35 years old, hauling linens in to the High Sierra Camps.

"Mules are a little hardier, a little tougher than horses because they have that half jackass in them. They are better keepers, don't eat so much. It doesn't make any difference if it's a mule or a hinny, it's still half jackass. The hinny's momma is a jackass. It's daddy is a horse.

"Mules are much more sure-footed on the trail and won't get you into trouble or hurt you or themselves. If you overload them they will just lie down on you. You can push a horse across dangerous ground, but you have a time getting a mule to go where he shouldn't. They sense everything, a fracture, a bad place, a cave-in. They just won't go. They'll vapor lock on you.

"I started working with mules when I was only 5 or 6 driving a hay rake on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. I also remember those big old mules my neighbor had to pull grain wagons and the old threshers, with 20 to 24 head on a team. When I was 16 I bought my first jack.... Once you are around them, they'll get to you. I don't know what there is about them, but they've got you.

"It was the pack string from Yosemite National Park that in the early years really put Bishop Mule Days on the map. When they came down the parade line in those first years, the crowd went wild. They always packed something special. One year they had the Liberty Bell, a bell so big it almost dragged on the ground. Another time it was a great big barrel and another a privy on a 'crapper packer.' Other packers began to follow, one with a clothes line with all the laundry including lingerie hanging out, another mule carried a bathtub with someone in it. You talk about cameras flying -- zoop, zoop, zoop."

Following the Bells is available at the Coarsegold Historic Museum and Fresno Flats Museum.

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