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Mule Days a festival like no other

Yee haw. Yee haw.

Clippity clop, clippity clop.

I went to sleep hearing those sounds one weekend every year for four years. I smelled the results of those sounds for days afterwards. It was Mule Days in Benson, N.C., scheduled for Sept. 26-29 this year.

There are mules, lots of mules. There are horses, lots of horses. I remember horseshoeing contests, tobacco spitting contests, mule pulling and racing, and Miss Mule Days and Little Miss Mule Days contests. I took a photo every year of the Miss Mule Days winner kissing the Grand Champion Mule. It was hard to tell who enjoyed the kiss more.

There are rodeos and dances every night. And cowboys and cowgirls by the thousands, from all over the country.

A highlight is the Saturday morning parade, complete with professional floats and college and high school marching bands and the Shriners, those crazy, fun-loving Shriners. One of those Shrine parade buses was based in Benson, and a tour of the inside of that bus made it clear why the Shriners had so much fun.

People on horseback would be lined up one after another at McDonald’s. There were traffic jams, with few vehicles in sight. There was a hitching post at the ABC Store.

The parade allowed anyone on horseback to ride at the end. I never saw the parade of horses end. They just kept coming, and coming …

It was a great time, but I was no cowboy. I had never even ridden a horse, much less been around the animals, but I learned quickly how to distinguish a horse from a mule from a donkey. So imagine my surprise covering my first Mule Days when Sen. Bob Warren rode in on a majestic horse, dismounted and handed me the rope in front of a thousand people or more. I took the rope, pretending I knew what I was doing. I made it to the fence with the horse (Luckily, the horse knew what to do), made up a story about having to go make a photograph so a kind cowboy on the outside would take care of the horse for me. He did. Whew.

It was my first job out of college, and I still relish the memories. It must have been fate that led me to Benson. If it hadn’t happened that way, I would likely still be roaming the mountains of East Tennessee.

I was finishing my mass communications studies at East Tennessee State University, working a required internship at the Johnson City Press Chronicle newspaper. The internship was winding down, so I started applying for jobs. I applied for the job as editor of the Benson Review, and Ralph Delano hired me without even an interview. I had never been to Benson.

When I was saying my goodbyes at the Press Chronicle, my editor seemed surprised. He said we thought you were going to stay here and work. I would have, but never ever asked. He thought someone else had asked me to stay. Since I had already made the commitment to Mr. Delano, off to Benson I went.

If I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure that to this day I still wouldn’t be a card-carrying proud member of the Mule Writer’s Association of America.

And you probably thought I am just a small-town hack journalist.

– Mike Barnhardt