PENDLETON — A nostalgic event at its core, the Pendleton Round-Up is governed by traditions.
Traditions determine what the rodeo looks like, how the parades operate, and who occupies Main Street during Round-Up week.
But not all traditions are so ingrained, and some have developed much later in the event’s 109-year history.
Take the case of teamsters Lynda Claypool and Larry White.
The couple arrived at the Round-Up Grounds late Thursday afternoon, parking a box truck filled with mules parallel to the wagon shop.
As Claypool hopped out of the truck, she began to worry that her unofficial volunteer assistants wouldn’t show up to help her offload her live cargo. The mules’ arrival time had been moved back an hour, and she had heard that they might be attending a powwow instead.
Almost as soon as Claypool resigned herself to go without her young assistants, they suddenly appeared: about a half-dozen children from the adjacent Indian Village.
She gawked at how much some of them had grown since she’d seen them last and introduced herself to some of the new help, but the assistants quickly turned their focus to the mules.
Claypool collected their water bottles and sports drinks as they led mules to their pens, sometimes providing words of encouragement to the weary animals.
Almost as soon as the mules were safely housed in their pens, they disappeared again, but Claypool said they would be back to help whenever she needed it.
This mule-tending pact between the teamsters and a handful of children from the Indian Village is unwritten and mostly unspoken, but it happens like clockwork every time the mules arrive.
Unlike her young volunteers, Claypool had come to the world of wagons and mules later in life.
Claypool met White on the Round-Up Wagon Train, a five-day wagon trip through the Blue Mountains. She worked as a paramedic while he drove a wagon.
He soon involved her in his hobby of building wagons and training horses and mules to pull them as they settled into a farm in Yamhill.
“I was a middle-aged version of a horse-crazy girl who had never gone anywhere with it,” she said.
A more than 40-year volunteer at the Round-Up, White brought Claypool to her first Pendleton rodeo in 2008, where she quickly ingratiated herself in the community and Westward Ho!, Round-Up’s fully non-motorized parade.
When she and White returned in 2011, a small group of children from the Indian Village asked if they could help out with the mules.
“I like to share my toys, so I kept saying yes,” she said.
The relationship became a new tradition in ensuing years, one that Claypool doesn’t need to make a large effort to maintain.
Claypool said she doesn’t stay in touch with the children outside of Round-Up week, but they continue to come help nonetheless.
Asked why they continued to lend a hand year after year, some of the assistants who had helped out for a few years gave nonchalant responses.
“Just for the heck of it,” Nelson Onepennee said.
As she swung from one of the pen’s entryways, Jolela Onepennee, Nelson’s second cousin, said she just liked mules because they’re “clever,” “smart,” and “cool.”
Regardless of their motivation, the time they spend during Round-Up feeding and watering the mules plays an important role in the Westward Ho! Parade.
This year, four mules pulled White’s stagecoach while two mules individually operated buggies. One of those buggies was carrying Ellen Rosenblum, the Oregon attorney general.
For Claypool, it’s one of the things that makes their annual trip to Round-Up so special.
“They make my Pendleton for me,” she said.