Or, the question going through your mind might be, “Why in the heck is Curt asking this question when his post is on Death Valley?”
Well, it started when I was doing research on Death Valley’s well-know, historic 20 Mule Team. Given that I am featuring the 20 Mule Canyon on my post today, I wanted to provide some background information, which I will. But the first thing I learned (or relearned) was that it wasn’t a 20 mule team that was used to haul borax out of Death Valley from 1893-96. It actually consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses. All of the animals had very specific tasks. Some required more intelligence than others.
Luckily for me, the town just up the road from where we camped near Bryce Canyon (Tropic) had a Mules Days event going on and there was a horse corral just across the road from us in Cannonville. I was able to persuade a mule and a horse to pose for me.
There is a ton of information on the twenty mule teams. This may seem like a lot until you take into consideration that the 18 mules and 2 horses were actually hauling close to 9 tons of Borax at a time out of Death Valley in temperatures that sometimes exceeded a 100 degrees F. (Operations were halted over the hot summer months.) They started their epic journey from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek and traveled for 165 miles over primitive roads to the railhead near Mohave. As you might imagine, it was quite the challenge. It required close to a heroic effort on the part of the mules, the horses and the muleskinners. Millions of dollars could be made if the venture was successful, however, and it was. Borax has lots of uses.
Still, all of this would be a mere note in the history books except for a couple of factors. One, Borax Soap featured the mules in a very extensive advertising campaign. The second was the radio and TV program, Death Valley Days. For those of you who are old enough to remember the 50s and 60s TV show, you may also remember that Ronald Reagan hosted the show in the mid 60s just before he jumped into his campaign for California Governor.
I found a rather amusing, imaginary discussion with a muleskinner on the Death Valley National Park site. The greatest challenge he noted was in getting around corners. He used a diagram to describe the operation. An 80 foot chain connects the lead mules to the wagon.
Here’s what he had to say about the process: “Now I’ll tell you just how smart my mules is: it’s one thing drivin’ along a straight road; it’s a whole nother thing turnin’ corners on a mountain pass. My 2 lead mules, both mares, are about 80 feet ahead of me–so far away I can’t even begin to use my 9-foot long whip on ‘em. I’ve been known to throw pebbles at ‘em to get their attention. Aim’s good too. Back to gettin’ around corners. The next 5 pairs of mules are my “swing teams”, they ain’t real smart, they just know their names and what ‘pull’ and ‘stop’ means. Now the next 3 sets of mules behind the swings are my “pointers”. These mules are trained special to jump over that 80-foot chain and side-step away from the curve to keep that chain tight and my wagons goin’ ‘round that corner right. Next comes the 2 big horses. They’re strong enough to start my wagons rollin’, but that’s all they’re good for. A dumb mule (and I ain’t seen one yet) is a whole lot smarter than a smart horse.”
So, there you have it— which animal is smarter. At least from the perspective of a muleskinner. I’ll allow that a horse lover might have a different point of view. Grin. And now, it’s time to get away from all of the words and take you through 20 Mule Canyon in photos. The canyon starts no more than a mile above Zabriskie Point. And even though the road is dirt, cars with two wheel drive seem to handle it easily.
To bring you up to date, Peggy and I have now spent a week in Zion Canyon National Park and a week in Bryce. We are now in the small, but fun community of Kanab, perched on the border between Utah and Arizona. Here’s a photo we took last week to give you a view of things to come.