LONE PINE, Calif. — It was billed as a mobile art project designed to enhance appreciation for the Los Angeles Aqueduct on its 100th birthday and for the equine forces that helped build it: On Friday, 100 mules set out on a 240-mile plod from the eastern Sierra to the City of Angels.
But in a region that is famous for offering pack mule excursions into the alpine wilderness, many residents and merchants in the Owens Valley communities straddling U.S. 395 viewed the parade as little more than a curiosity.
"I never did get the point," Kathleen New, president of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, said of the mule train expected to amble through her town Sunday. "I'm not excited about seeing mules — I've seen millions of mules around here."
"Maybe it'll attract more attention when it gets down to the Los Angeles area," she said.
This is a place, after all, that has been steeped in acrimony over the aqueduct since the early 1900s, when Los Angeles had agents pose as farmers and ranchers to buy up land and water rights in the Owens Valley. The aqueduct system — constructed to slake the thirst of the growing metropolis 200 miles to the south — dried up Owens Lake and drained natural springs that fed fish hatcheries and farmland.
Titled "100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct," the project is the brainchild of artist Lauren Bon, granddaughter of the late publishing magnate and philanthropist Walter Annenberg.
Sitting tall in the saddle on a mule named Emma, Bon led the parade of pack animals, wranglers and a handful of guest riders as it set out on the first leg of a monthlong journey.
"Yeah," she said with a smile, "I'm riding all the way to L.A."
The trek began with brays and cheers at the aqueduct's main diversion dam, about 10 miles north of the community of Independence, where more than 100 people gathered to take in the spectacle. Most were associated with Bon's Metabolic Studio or nonprofits that have received donations from the Annenberg Foundation, where Bon is a trustee.
Also on hand were officials from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which granted permission for the mule train to walk alongside the aqueduct system, and a few locals who wanted to see what all the commotion was about.
Wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, a straw hat and long gray scarves curling in the breeze behind her, Bon raised eyebrows as she posed for photographers.
"Who … is she supposed to be?" one woman asked.
"Lauren of Arabia," mused a man standing nearby.
A steady pace is essential to ensure that the procession — scheduled to traverse vast sage plains and dozens of cities — reaches its final destination, the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Griffith Park, on Nov. 11.
Jennifer Roeser, co-owner of the McGee Creek Pack Station in Mammoth Lakes, nodded toward the animals and smiled. "All these mules come with lots of experience in rough and tough country, and are also accustomed to city streets and automobile traffic horns."
Bon has described the mule train as a prelude to another high-profile project: winning permission to build a 70-foot wheel that would draw water out of the Los Angeles River to create a shady retreat for the public north of Chinatown.