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Riding Along the Aqueduct with '100 Mules'

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Lauren Bon waves to people watching in the Alabama Hills | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct began bringing water to the city. 100 years later, KCET is looking at what has happened, what it means, and more across its website. See more stories here.

It's 4 a.m. when I am awakened by the sound of laughing, joking and joshing. The voices are happy, mostly male and ready to have another good day of fun, riding and wrangling.

These voices belong to the wranglers who, under the direction of Lee and Jennifer Roeser of 8 Mile Ranch in the Owens Valley, are taking 100 mules to walk along the Los Angeles Aqueduct to commemorate the centenary of this structure.

There is a full moon overhead, and my friend and collaborator Osceola Refetoff and I have been sleeping on a mountain of hay bales ten bales high. Osceola is a photographer who lives in Los Angeles' Chinatown on Chung King Road, and I live in Lone Pine. We are working on a project whose working title is "High & Dry: Dispatches from the Land of Little Rain." In a few hours we will be riding two mules through the scenic Alabama Hills to Lone Pine as part of the Day Three ride of Lauren Bon's latest project with the Metabolic studio.

A cold ghost wind has tried to sneak into my bedding. Osceola (Os) sits up to pull on his down jacket. He has selflessly given me the winter bag and he has taken his summer bag. It is very dark still and we both fall back asleep. The night before we made the pledge to capture the light hitting the snow glazed ridges of the Sierra here on Zack's (Smith) field north of Manzanar. We can hear the 100 mules just to our right, snorting, and dreaming mule dreams, getting ready for the 18 mile ride ahead of us today.

I have worked off and on with Lauren on several of her projects here in the Owens Valley and at the Veteran's Hospital in Los Angeles.

The experience has been a wonderful one for me, bathed in the positive creative energy of Lauren and her team. I have nicknamed them the Metaboliques. They have created Worlds of Wonder for and with me. These projects have included learning to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the glass harp in the north silo at the Pittsburg Plate Glass factory south of Lone Pine. Then we moved into Food, Fuel and Film, a tri-part project that involved addressing the Owens Dry Lake bed with sound, but also creating a sustainable farming economy through a soil project. The team has been working with the surface of the lake in several formats, and even making and developing film from the lake material.

We spent a Saturday and Sunday in the "Weekend Shoot-out" recording our voices reciting a section from "Waiting for Godot" with Becket authority and director Walter Asmus while others created film, exposed in using pinhole cameras and developed it using the chemicals from the lake. Then six of us from Lone Pine became Master Gardeners in the first class sponsored by the UC program in Inyo County. That was followed by the creation of the Optic Division of the Metabolic Studio, which in turn led to a three day retreat in Lone Pine with such notables as writer William Fox, CLUI director Matt Coolidge and the Tree People leader Andy Lipkis.

With Lauren, all things connect.

Eventually she came up with the "One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct" to commemorate the centenary. I was very honored and excited when she asked me to ride and if I had ideas for guests to ride along with me. I picked Osceola Refetoff (who actually lives only a few blocks from the Studio along the L.A. River) and Kevin Mazzu, local businessman who has worked very long and hard with and for our Alabama Hills Stewardship Group on that geographically beautiful area. We were going to ride through those magnificent rocks for more than eight hours.

All of a sudden, it was near seven and the light on the eastern ridge of the Inyo Mountains was quickly growing and the twenty-mile shadows remarked by writer Mary Austin were dropping as the dawn glow hit the Sierra escarpment. Osceola and I jumped out of bed, pulling on clothes against the morning chill and started photographing. The photographs of the scene that spread out below us seemed perfect for a cover of American Cowboy or Cowboys and Indians magazines. By now the wranglers were hard at work saddling the mules, preparing lines connecting the very best mules of the area into groups of ten with a wrangler riding at the head of each line. We had missed breakfast but the cook wagon got granola, milk and fruit and yoghurt together for us. We grabbed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some granola bars and raced over to where our carry-ons would be evaluated for weight and appropriateness.

When I had agreed to be part of this event, I didn't really think about the fact that I had only ridden a horse twice in my 69 years and never a mule. In fact, I had ridden camels more than horses, having been in the Peace Corp in Iran for two years.

We met Tessann our wrangler, who spoke strongly with us about various safety measures and strategies for riding mules. Carrie and Kate would also be riding with us with additional riding mules for the folks who would join us halfway through the day after their work was done on preparations.

Tessann was wonderful and she assured us if she shouted directions or corrected our posture or riding style, she was not angry. She was insistent only because of our own safety and comfort. We needed to make changes immediately in something we were doing, or not doing properly.

I realized I had better take a crash course in riding to be ready for the challenge. A few days before I had gone to Julee Fought at Delacour Ranch. She had given me pointers and a little experience riding. More than anything however, she had built up my confidence that I could do this.

We stood by as they brought out the mules for us. I met Blackie and Os met Hillbilly and Kevin met Jake. Os and I would learn soon enough that Blackie would take umbrage every time Os wanted to pass me on the trail because she didn't seem to like Hillbilly just one bit. There appears to be a strict pecking order in the mule world. I noticed a few scars on the flanks of several mules as we rode along. With some help from Tessann, I got up in the saddle and we were ready to go. Our great adventure of riding the mules as they walked the aqueduct had finally begun.


Things look different from the back of a mule.

First, the landscape looks different from a somewhat higher perspective. The rocking movement is not soothing but rhythmic enough that it disappears at least for a while until our hips and backsides get sore. As Os and I followed. along, the lines of mules wound in front of us. Two lines followed. I found it difficult to look behind me without slipping and sliding and risking rubbing my nose in the sand and rocks. Tessann reminded me I needed to keep my attention focused on Blackie, looking where I wanted her to go. The mule was fixed on following the mule in front. When Os indicated he was growing tired of watching her from the back, he asked if he could pass. I said "of course," but he should have asked Blackie, for she took an immediate dislike to Hillbilly and reached over to bite the other mule.

As we rode along I looked to my right and left and saw things I had never seen before as we traveled slow and steady. There was the foundation of a rock house not far from Shepherd's Creek. There were cement structures that were gates that could be used to direct the flow of water, or perhaps in the plan of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) force the water to obey their intentions of exporting it south. The trees and bushes were beginning to show Fall colors that were brilliant in the sharp blue sky.

The dazzling but slanting autumn light illuminated the land as noon approached with a "clip clop" speed.

Lauren had told me that the project was a meditation on water, on the aqueduct and on mules. The mules built much of the West and had become necessary in the building of the aqueduct when the machinery failed to meet the task at hand. I have thought much about water in our area. As a forty year resident of the Owens Valley, I have seen the dropping of the water tables, the drying of springs and the white poison of alkali spreading across the land. In a conversation (the Studio has sponsored 100 "conversations about water" in the area) entitled "Eden Interrupted" the day before, we had learned about the effect of the aqueduct on the sustainable agriculture of the area, and the people and communities dependent on it.

In the Alabama Hills | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.
In the Alabama Hills | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

As we rode by Manzanar, first an agricultural community, then a World War II Japanese Internment camp and now a national historic landmark, I remembered the marvelous pictures of how the interned had grown fields of cabbages and other crops, when given water by the DWP, and photographed by Ansel Adams and intern Toyo Miyatake. Lauren wanted this project to awaken the creative curiosity of the participants and the crowd of viewers. She hoped people would begin to think about and explore the role of mules in the history of the west, the building and functioning of the aqueduct and the challenges of water use and shortages that lay ahead for us all.

Many have stated they don't "get it" about the "100 Mules."

The Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce Director was quoted in the L.A. Times about not "getting it" and wondering why "celebrate" the aqueduct centenary at all. Many locals whether they agreed with her or were violently opposed to her seeming obliviousness to what the travelling art installation was all about were angered by her off hand comment on such a national stage as if speaking for them. Lauren's work is never easy. You must approach the work with curiosity and determination to understand the history and subtext of "the work" to fully understand it. Many people today seem to lack the willingness to work to understand much of any complex issue. Perhaps television too often has offered predigested knowledge in small doses to people too lazy to work to achieve wisdom in the encounter with something like "100 Mules." It is all there for those willing to think, meditate on the ideas and risk engaging in the creative process.

Os and I have thought and discussed much about the nature of the desert and human endeavor there. As we rode along the evidence of that and its effect of the desert was all about us. We were all free to talk about it when we didn't have to pull the kerchiefs before our nose for all the dust the mules raised passing through the very dry land.

Knowing the questions is a start, then comes the challenge of building understanding and finally finding workable answers to the future.

In the Alabama Hills | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.
In the Alabama Hills | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

I had skipped my morning coffee, realizing that the mules did not come with bathroom facilities. Os told me he was surprised I hadn't fallen asleep and thus fallen off. Now ahead we could see the support vehicles, water truck and water for the mules. There had at one time been a scheduled lunch stop, but we had to get to Whitney Portal Road during the period it was scheduled to be closed for us, and the wranglers were pushing hard. So we were going to eat our sandwich on mule back. By this time the rocking of the animals' gait was pressing on my bladder. Soon all I could think about was the water I had been drinking along the way to avoid dehydration in the dry warm air.

We had been told to not allow the mules to eat along the way, but Blackie was always trying to reach out and grab brush. When we paused midstream in Hogback Creek to let them drink, she wasn't so much interested in drinking the clear cold water, as grabbing long leaves of lush grass that grew along the bank.

I am the Inyo Film Commissioner, and the film historian for the Lone Pine Film History Museum. Along the way I got to point out where "King of the Khyber Rifles," "The Adventures of Hajji Baba," "The Violent Men" and "Comanche Station" filmed as well as where I oversaw the filming of a Pepsi commercial based on Spartacus. Tessann encouraged me to narrate this part of the trip. I couldn't help but think that it was "art imitating art imitating life" as we passed by where Gene Autry and Pat Buttram made "Mule Train," with the title song running through my mind. Kevin wanted to sing cowboy songs and did a fair show of it without my help.

We stopped where John Wayne made his last appearance before the cameras. I knew I had to get off. Tessann cleared the way for the stop. I wondered if my legs would work as I skidded off. They did but not well. Slowly my thigh and calf muscles relaxed and I hobbled over to the backside of a rock. Never loved an Alabama Hills rock so much before.

This time Blackie drank the water that had become scarcer since the opening of the aqueduct. She took Mulholland's advise at the opening a the pipe at the Cascades of "There it is. Take it."

I got back on and the aches were definitely still there. We passed through a narrow cut in the rocks. Suddenly I felt like a real cowboy, but one no more real as those other reel cowboys, the movie heroes of my youth. In this case it was Hopalong Cassidy who filmed several picture right there in the area. Then we paralleled the set for "Rawhide" starring Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward, turning into Lone Ranger Canyon, where Quentin Tarantino had filmed some iconic scenes for his picture "Django Unchained" with Jamie Foxx and Christof Waltz thus attracting two Oscars.

We finally joined Whitney Portal Road and Tessann and Jennifer warned us to keep our attention focused on the animals but let the mules do the work on the asphalt. The road crossing of the L. A. Aqueduct came into view and we saw lots of towns people excitedly waiting for us. They cheered us on and suddenly through the fatigue I felt again that it was all worth it. Os and Kevin and I were riding with Lauren. We changed places as we neared the rodeo grounds behind the Museum. My friends, and some visitors who we had passed several times as they followed our path were there. It felt so great. The emotion of the moment made me realize how thrilled I was to have made the whole 18.5 mile ride. Tessann had challenged us to do the whole thing, "and not wimp out." She had laughed and I had said, "Oh, yeah it would be pretty hard to wimp out now that she had put it that way."

My wife was waiting and remarked I actually looked like a cowboy as I came riding into to the corral. She mentioned I also walked like one, bow-legged. If I did, I could only thank Blackie and the wranglers, and Lauren all of whom had made it possible. The three of us drove up to pick up Osceola's car at Zack's field. Back home I drew a very hot bath with Epson salts for Os (the least I could do is give him the first bath after he gave me the winter sleeping bag.) Later we went to the IOU Garden on Main Street for pizza and all our friends from the Studio, the Soil Project, and the Farmer's Market were there. The pizza was baked in the Owens Lake oven that is made from bricks of the material from the lake itself. The strength of community was present. Os and I felt like heroes. How often does art make you feel so good? We were high on the adventure. We kept complimenting each other that we made it, that the experience was a "once-in-a-lifetime" thing we would never forget.

The next day we spent the afternoon at the PPG plant, talking with everyone, photographing, and trying to walk normally. I have to say the predicted pain was much less than I expected. The Optics Division was there. Josh and Tristan and later Rich invited us in to be photographed with the camera obscura that they had made of the silo. The digital picture (they often made giant prints too) was wonderful. The image of Osceola and I appeared with the upside down image of mules and the lake behind us, and our shadows appeared embedded in the lake scape.

Camping at Zack's Field, the view from the hay bales. | Photo by Osceola Refetoff
Camping at Zack's Field, the view from the hay bales. | Photo by Osceola Refetoff

We climbed up the stairs to the top of the 100 foot silo and superstructure of the plant. Osceola coached me through using my new camera. We have matching Fujifilm xpro 1 cameras. He is giving me a master class in photography. Another opportunity of a lifetime, I now think I am up to the challenge.

I set a goal that was beyond what I had ever done before and thought I could do. With the vision of Lauren Bon and the opportunity, the encouragement and support of my friend, and the help of many other friends and my community, I made it. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, the history of mules in the building of the West, and water in all its roles in the land about me, are etched into my imagination and memory. I will always have them fully engaging me in thought and searching for solutions. Anything less, and our lives in the West are doomed to failure. What a wonderful and brand new kind of art Lauren Bon and the Metaboliques are giving us. She works from the heart rather than with mass marketing in mind. Her love that is contained in each day's art actions change lives of those who are open to the experience, that are serious about understanding more, and are filled with the positive energy that Lauren exhibits and shares so selflessly. As the mules wind their way to Los Angeles, many others who encounter the mules can open themselves us to the wonder, the stimulation and the inspiration of this cross-county art action.

AgH20 is a 240-mile work that aims at reconnecting Los Angeles with the elements that made it viable historically: silver and water, both mined from the mountains of the Owens Valley.

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