Each Saturday during Memorial Day weekend, people set up lawn chairs on the sidewalks of Bishop along Highway 395. It’s a small California mountain town on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, about halfway between Reno and Bakersfield. The bars open early for morning cocktails and at 10 a.m. the parade begins, which includes as many as 700 mules.
Called “Mule Days,” it’s the largest mule-based celebration in the country going on 51 years. And these mules mean money for businesses near and far.
But this year, there will be no mules, no people and no revenue for those who rely on the event as a significant portion of their livelihood.
Tyler O’Ferrall usually sets up a booth to advertise his business, which makes saddles. There are typically 30,000 potential customers during the event, which lasts for a total of six days.
His saddles go for as much as $2,500 a pop, and his expertise with leatherwork began a decade ago. “I had started packing mules back in my early 20s up in the mountains and I built myself my gear for that,” O’Ferrall said.
That leatherwork expanded to saddles. He now owns O’Ferrall Saddlery and Tack in Ione. This time of year, he’d be busy prepping for Mule Days.
“I’m usually making inventory for that,” he said. “But that’s been canceled, so I’m just filling whatever orders I have.”
He’s also trying to figure how to expand a horseshoeing business he just started. And he’s hopeful people with extra time on their hands will turn to him to get their horses’ hooves ready for some riding.
After Mule Days, he normally spends the summer months working 30 miles outside of Bishop at the McGee Creek Pack Station, where mules are needed to take people and gear to places in the Sierra Nevada that vehicles can’t go.
Jen Roeser has owned the station for more than 30 years and is one of the Mule Days organizers. She gets a lot of her summer bookings during those six days.
“We help people find locations. We accommodate their trip to the dates that they want,” she explained. “Prices are based on the number of people in the group, where they go, how many pack mules they use. So, it’s like a train service.”
Each year about 1,000 people each pay $300 to $500.
The pack station is part of the family income. Her family’s ranch will survive, but she worries others.
“It will be problematic for tourism-based economies and tourism-based businesses. There’s only so much government glitter money that can bail you out of that kind of problem,” she said.
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