By Nicola Bridges
In the late 1800s, on the narrow, rocky trails traversing the steep mountain terrain above what is now Sun Valley, Idaho, teams of 30 wagons with 7-foot-diameter wheels pulled by 200 mules and known as "The Big Hitch" made two-week round trips carrying ore from the Elkhorn Mine near Ketchum to the railroad in Kelton, Utah.
They continually covered 160 miles, returning with merchandise and freight for the Ketchum Fast Freight Line, founded by a young Horace Lewis, son of one of the founding fathers of the town and consisting of large warehouses and shops around the Union Pacific depot.
It was a precarious journey as they traveled 12 to 14 miles a day carrying as much as 18,000 pounds of ore on the often one-wagon-wide trails, with the sure-footed mules slipping and the wagons shaking on the loose stones along the rock face with sheer vertical drops. When Lewis built the first wagon road over Trail Creek Summit, known as the Ketchum-Challis Toll Road, his wagon teams traversed a 12-percent grade, navigating even more precarious curves and deadly hairpin bends.
Today it's hard to believe it was possible when you witness the awesome sight of the Big Hitch, now just six original wagons hitched together and pulled by 20 mules, with one driver at the reins swinging the entire wagon train around the 90-degree turn from Sun Valley Road onto Main Street, Ketchum — the grand finale of Sun Valley's Wagon Days Festival parade, marking the end of a Labor Day long-weekend immersion into the ways of the Old West.
Cowboy poets kick off four days of entertainment on Friday with a campfire storytelling at the museum. Meandering musicians roam the streets entertaining revelers by "playin' like it's payday." There's a Ketchum Art Gallery Walk hosted by the Sun Valley Gallery Association, a classic-car auction at the Sun Valley Resort, and arts, crafts and antique fairs happening around town and throughout the valley.
On Saturday morning, Big Hitch parade day, we load up with an all-you-can-eat Papoose Club pancake breakfast and head to Festival Meadows to watch the EhCapa Bareback Riders, who nimbly demonstrate Native American horse-riding and -jumping techniques with no saddles or bridles. Then everyone scurries, many with deck chairs in hand, to stake their sidewalk claim along the parade route, jostling for the best vantage point.
I'm spoiled, standing on a rooftop with a prime bird's-eye view of the parade, the guest of a real estate agent whose office is close to the corner of the block where the Big Hitch maneuvers its big turn. I've only just met her and a group of friends sitting on the grass with an ice cream, watching an impromptu free concert in the Town Square by Willie Nelson's son and his band, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, scheduled for a sold-out ticketed concert that evening at the Sun Valley Pavilion.
Feeling the warmth of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Idahoans and new friends — and lucky to have such a wonderful viewing spot — we cheer the parade of museum-quality stagecoaches, buggies, carriages, carts and other vintage wagons pulled by miniature ponies and donkeys, thoroughbreds and shire horses, all kitted out in their festival splendor, followed by cows, bulls and even camels.
As the last carriage rolls by, there's a lull of anticipation as the parade announcer asks the crowd to "please be quiet so as not to startle the mules," as the Big Hitch approaches the big bend.
We hold our breath as it comes into sight below us: the authentic 20-mule "jerkline" expertly pulling the six tall and narrow canvas-covered wagons with wheels taller than I am around the turn, hooves clopping on the asphalt and doing two-steps and sidesteps in intricate synchronicity.
Resisting hollers, whistles and clapping, we beam smiling, doing animated silent high-fives in respect for keeping the mules calm as they roll the wagons down Main Street and out of sight. It's impressive — and the memory of a lifetime.
This year will be the 61st Wagon Days since the Big Hitch first rolled through town as the main parade attraction in 1958, after the Lewis family donated the remaining working wagons to the city of Ketchum — on the condition that they be kept on public display — where they can be seen year-round at the Wagon Days Headquarters Ore Wagon Museum.
WHEN YOU GO
Wagon Days: www.wagondays.net
For Old World Swiss-chalet charm with modern amenities just blocks from the Town Square, check into the Knob Hill Inn, featuring The Grill at Knob Hill, a local sophisticated but casual favorite featuring Idaho specialties, including Ruby Red Rainbow Trout, lamb and wild game: www.knobhillinn.com.
Nicola Bridges is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.