For the past two years I've been on a very different path in regards to my approach to training and riding horses. It started with my desire to reach and retrain a great little horse, Pickle who had recently been plucked from a kill pen. I wanted to find a good path forward with this horse who showed some symptoms of miss-handling and abuse in his past. He lacked confidence and trust
I thought perhaps some work together in a round pen where he could be worked at liberty would help him find a way to be with me. To learn both respect and trust from me, which I might add I needed to learn in my own way from him as well. The round pen did prove a wonderful place to begin a better relationship between us and a place from which we have begun a growing foundation of understanding.
I had not previously used a round pen and am now a convert joining the masses who have known of their benefit for decades.
This however was not the biggest revelation I have experienced in my work with Pickle during these past two years. When I got Pickle I decided to read two books by some of the founding fathers of Natural Horsemanship (although neither called what they did with a horse this). The books were True Unity by Tom Dorrance, first published in 1987 and Think Harmony With Horses by Ray Hunt, first published in 1978. Ray Hunt was Tom's student. In both books they talk about the importance of timing, balance and “feel”. All three are critical to good horsemanship and are always elusive in the sense that arriving at perfection is always just a goal and not a point at which you ever fully arrive. Both Tom and Ray would say they were working towards good horsemanship even though all that saw them ride or had them work a horse would think that they had clearly arrived at or at least close to perfection.
Good timing requires the rider to understand and know exactly where the horse's feet are and accordingly to know exactly when to ask for a stop, a lead or a transition. It takes a lot of listening to the horse and time in the saddle to get good at knowing where the horse's feet are at any given time but with a lot of practice you can at least understand how to get better at it and even how it can be achieved.
Balance also comes along with practice. It is clear enough that sitting upright over the horse's center of gravity can help him balance as he turns and transitions from gait to gait to halts and back ups.
Perhaps the hardest thing to fully grasp though, is what “feel” is all about and how to develop a good feel with an individual horse. Feel is different with every horse and rider combination. Understanding feel is crucial to keeping or making a horse light and responsive and willing. If a good feel is achieved, a horse will be feather light in his response to your request. A glimpse of a good feel with a horse will make you sense you are operating that horse with your mind only. It's a completely different kind of riding than I have ever felt before when you start to get a ride from a horse based on a good feel.
To develop and achieve a good feel with a horse a rider must spend a lot of time on the ground teaching that horse where he can move his feet, forward, backward, side to side. The horse must develop a suppleness and lightness in his movements both side to side and up and down. The horse learns to respond to the lightest pressure. The only reward the horse needs is a release from that pressure and the acknowledgment by the rider (on the ground or in the saddle) of his slightest try at the moment he gives it. This requires very keen attention from the rider.
The amount of pressure with which we ask a horse to yield should be so little, think of being even lighter than touching a dandy lion gone to seed without destroying its form and ramp up from there only to the point of the slightest try or yield back from the horse.
Over time, from a consistent light touch and an immediate rewarding of the horse for every little try he makes, a great communication can develop between a horse and rider. A well developed partnership between a rider and a horse based on a good feel does not even require a bridal to obtain collection.
I hold an image of this beautiful soft feel kind of riding in my head, Buck Brannaman cantering one of his well made horses sideways across a field in full collection with as much elevation in that horse as if he were performing an upper level dressage test, yet there is so much float in the reins as to be able to throw a cowboy hat through them. His body is perfectly upright, balanced and quiet as this horse floats underneath him, no ringing tail, quiet eyes and with a relaxed expression.
To me this kind of riding is a revelation. To me this has become a whole new goal, a new type of riding to try to achieve. This kind of riding is completely free of force and restraints, like any kind of nose band that closes the mouth, or any bit more leveraged or aggressive than a simple snaffle bit. Every problem is solved by fixing the issues in the foundation through ground work and riding. And yes, it is possible to fix any fixable horse this way. With this kind of training there is no use for ramped up bits or mouth restraints.
Collection has never been about constant contact with the horse's mouth anyway, like I and so many others were taught. It is about established communication and partnership through feel, a feel so soft as to appear almost not there, one in which most of the time there is considerable float in the reins. It is a whisper of pressure and release.
I have been making steady progress with this approach for the past two years with Pickle. He can now break into a canter while being held on the buckle with out picking up too much pace. Stop on the cue of my weight dropping back and go into reverse from a canter halt with out touching the reins. There are still miles to go and a lot to work on but I am now so convinced that this is the right way to approach training any horse.
The other day a single photo caption in a book by Bill Dorrance (Tom Dorrance's brother and another founding father of natural horsemanship) upped my understanding of how light one's feel with a horse should be. In the photo a boy is stroking the face of his horse. The caption with the photo said that the boy was touching the horse with too much force as his hand was ridged and did not seem to be softly absorbing the feel of the horse. There should be no brace what so ever in one's touch, it should be fluid.
In fact you come to understand that pressure can be put on a horse without touching him, merely through movements into his space or a certain direct eye contact. This is important to note as sometimes with some horses you need to back off the pressure before you've even made contact with them. I have now come to understand the lightness of pressure needed at a deeper level than I did previously and have had the best rides so far as a result. This stuff when you begin to scratch the surface only starts to become more magical and full of possibility.
Below as a gift to all my riding friends who are curious and certainly with the benefit of their horses in mind, I have listed all the books and DVD's that have influenced this change in my riding and training choices. I hope some of you will give it a try if you are not doing so already. I'm wishing to share in this magic.
True Unity Tom Dorrance
Think Harmony With Horses Ray Hunt
True Horsemanship Through Feel Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond
7 Clinics With Buck Brannaman (DVD)
* There are a lot of different gurus of what has become known as natural horsemanship, but these four cowboys above have all come from the same branch of it, both Buck Brannaman and Ray Hunt were at one time students of the Dorrance brothers so there is a lot of continuity in their training methods.
All that is left of B's trip is to slowly absorb and relay the details and to unpack the ruck sacks. The animals have all been reunited and it feels so good to have them back. I am happy. So happy to have everyone home. Togetherness in my mind can not be over rated.
I get B back today. I've been waiting months for this day. I have been reflecting on B's extraordinary qualities, just thinking a lot about the uniqueness of the man my heart is firmly welded to. I love B's courage, his faith in humanity, his self confidence, his abundant warmth and his enormous energy. These are the strengths he has that allow him to take on what to most would seem overwhelming, solo adventures. One of B's adventures in a life would be more than enough for most people.
Not only did B just finish a seven month ride on his mules Brick and Cracker from our farm in Lenoir North Carolina to Hailey, Idaho. He then flew home picked up his 1992 Dodge truck and our rickety old two horse trailer and drove all the way back again to Hailey, Idaho, where he picked up the mules. Today he will finally arrive with them at our farm.
I was thinking of the many warm welcomes and offers of lodging, food, help, money, gifts and companionship that B received from Americans he encountered all along his route from North Carolina to Idaho. Not one night did he and the mules not find a good place to rest. B found a warm and friendly America in this time that most of us have been so worried about the fractured nature of this nation. B found overwhelming generosity in the people he met.
Perhaps B's journey is a promising bellwether. Perhaps there is still some hope that the good and hospitable individuals that make up this country can find enough common ground before we irrevocably tear this country apart. B's journey has offered proof that most Americans are more generous than they are self serving.
I believe that B did find good people every where he went but I also think that partly his warm receptions were due to the way that people were greeted by B. B has a broad smile and a warm heart. His greetings radiate kindness, vulnerability, time and trust. B's wide open and people are drawn to him for this reason. B's capacity for love is also broad and his judgements reserved.
B has so much faith in everything. In a world riddled with anxious people, where nothing feels safe, in defiance, here comes this man with two mules, no gun, a top hat, and a large grin riding down roads with speeding cars and cell phone crazed drivers. He has no plan where he will spend the night nor which roads he will go on to take him towards Idaho. He has faith that he will get there, that people will help, that his mules are the best, that a way will be found, that he can do it. How can you not just love a fellow like that? His positivity is a gift, a true gift. Everything responds well to openness and positivity.
Americans have been wonderful to B, the mules great, the trip a success. Thank you one and all for B's return to me.
I welcome B home with tremendous joy!
I thought I might share this email I wrote to a friend while in the Sandhills of Nebraska recently as it is a different experience than many of us are familiar with.
Having a great visit with B out here in the Sandhills of Ne. Weather has been very kind, slight breezes, blue sky, little rain. The mules and B look great, all in their element. B is well in to the beautiful part of his ride under the open sky.* The Sandhills are rich with grass though the cowboys say it's a "washy" grass and hard to make a horse fat on. I don't know, I wouldn't tell that to Brick and Cracker, they look fatter than when they left the farm and both are shiny.
B's not fat but he is shiny too and seems so happy with life under the sky and with the mules.
In some ways I think this kind of trip is conducive to resting the mind and finding a life in the present. An animal like mind with little concern other than daily survival, sleep, eat, walk, prepare to sleep... then repeat until arrival some point or destination in the future.
Now that he is off the fast moving roads of the East and out under this magnificent sky, I can honestly say I am jealous of him. We are already musing together about a massive tour of the West on horse and mule leaving from this area of Nebraska (some time in a Snookieless future, which I am certainly not wishing for but know is coming around a corner too soon.)
We watched saddle bronco riding last night. We were on the fence right next to where they released them from the gate. One jumped out of the high pen right next to us before the rider got on and almost landed on us. The headline that didn't happen. "Mule-man's 2000 plus mile journey comes to an abrupt end when bronco lands on him at county ranch rodeo."
Man though, some powerful beasts those horses were, cowboys sent a flying. Those horses were big and they were powerful and perhaps they were even furious about the flank strap. You never saw so many cowboys drinking so much beer in a hurry. Oh and I don't think I saw more than one rider who was over thirty. Maybe sometime in a cowboy's life around that age, he realizes that bones break rather easily and mend more slowly than he'd like. Jobs depend on these limbs best to try to avoid snapping them. Ranch work trumps rodeo.
But the mind set? How the hell does anyone even the young, make themselves get on one of those snorting, steroidal beasts when everything in their head is screaming " not a good idea"? That's a crazy kind of balls! It's respectable but perhaps not admirable... although you really can't help yourself.
Eyes staring straight ahead, mind in their own world, like in a trance, the cowboys climb one by one over the fence when their number is called. With determination they, straddle the animal, put their feet in the stirrups and secure their grip. “Let her rip!” The flag man lowers the flag he is holding over his head. The gate is drawn open by men in cowboy hats wearing concerns on their faces. The animal is released into the arena, twisting and snorting so loudly.
You hear not only the horse grunting with effort from where I sit but his muscles working. There is so much effort, fear, and exertion present. It even seems to enter the spectators bodies and fill the arena. The crowd is so still, so quiet, we are all mentally with the cowboy until the moment he is flung off, or jumps aboard the pick up horse and his ride is over. When the cowboy hits the dirt, the crowd is quiet until he gets back to his feet, then they cheer. If he makes a successful ride and dismounts from the back of the pick up horse, the crowd roars. The cowboy goes back to drinking beer and the horse is caught by the out riders. The flank strap is released and the bronc is lead back to the corral holding the other broncs who have already been unsaddled. It's a crazy fast 30 seconds or so, which takes much longer to process when it is all over.
Glad saddle bronc riding has not so far caught B's interest. Maybe B, no-longer a young buck, he no longer requires that kind of an adrenaline rush. Maybe he got it out of his system in his steeplechasing days. Plus I know he's not into the philosophy behind it. There's ways to gentle horses these days without riding out the bucks, far better and far safer methods that last and make for better horses that seek out a partnership with their riders. That's what we are looking for after all, a good horse or mule that will go the extra mile for you not because he is forced into it but because he is willing to.
This all was going on at the Hyannis, Nebraska ranch rodeo while we were there. I did not know what a “ranch rodeo” was until I attended this one. It's a rodeo for cowboys from the various ranches to show off and test their ranching skills against ranch hands from other ranches. The ranches enter as teams and compete against each other. All events show off their talents for roping, working cattle and using their horses.
The cowboy must use the same horse for every event accept the bronc riding where the broncos are supplied by an outfitter. All the events show off practical skills except maybe the bronc riding, which takes the necessary skill of being able to sit a buck to an unnecessary extreme, however thrilling. A more practical skill to show these days would be the ability to gentle a horse, garnering its trust and respect in a round pen(for more on round penning go to my old post, consideringanimals.com/saddle-under-the-stars/the-round-pen-dance) but this simply would not be in the same fast moving vain of the ranch rodeo.
Hope all is well with you guys and on the home front. I leave B tomorrow afternoon and start back for Rapid City then fly out from there early Tuesday morning. Lots of love from me and from B too.
Note: B has also posted on this ranch rodeo to read his post go to riverearth.com/ranch-rodeo-saturday-night
* For those of you who are new to my blog, B (Bernie) is my husband. He set out from our farm in Western, NC early in April of this year and has been riding a mule, packing one and sleeping under the stars. He is on his way to Hailey, Idaho. I had just visited with him in the Sandhills of Nebraska when I wrote this post. We had not seen each other in four months. To learn more about Bernie Harberts and his adventures, including the current one go to riverearth.com.
We can’t quite know our future. People try. They plan everything. Well, it sure seems like a lot of people try to plan for a lot of things. We are caught by surprises less and less often these days. For example, most people, when on holiday, know where they’ll sleep each night. This sometimes wisely prevents a certain amount of panic and frustration as one looks for a place to lay their head for the night as darkness closes in around them.
But what this constant control over our lives through planning everything out ahead of time does is prevent us from the growth of serendipity, stumbling in to opportunities and experiences we could not have planned if we had wanted to because we had simply not a priori ever known they existed or were possible.
I believe that by planning a little less, increasing our faith that things will work out, and finding our pluck, our lives will become greatly enriched. The more something is controlled the less you learn about yourself or the world around you.
My husband Bernie (B) has lived this philosophy for much of his life as he has traveled solo around the world in a small boat, crossed countries by bike and mule wagon and traipsed 3 times across this country on mule backs, almost never knowing his plan for the night ahead of time. I am newer to this philosophy, though I have traveled some distance on mules with Bernie spending the night wherever we were loosing the light and am eager to do much more.
Bernie has now been gone for 4 months from our farm. Four months ago when he was set to leave from our gate with mules Brick and Cracker was the last time I had seen him until 2 days ago. We are now reunited in the Sand Hills of Nebraska catching up with each other and resting the mules for a quick week before B continues on to Hailey, Idaho and I return a rented car to Rapid City and fly back home to my dog Snookie.
B has now spent 115 nights on the road this trip and has not had one night in which he had any trouble finding a place for him and the mules to stay.
Mostly it has been the generosity of American families that have provided his quarters. B has met so many nice people and families from all the 8 states he already crossed through on this trip. He has seen the different places and ways they all live, an experience he would have never had if he’d pre-planned his trip.
Our rendezvous in the Sand Hills has been the same. We agreed to meet up in the Sand Hills. I’d fly in to Rapid City and rent a car and come and find B and the mules in a little town called Hyannis, about a 4 hour drive from Rapid City. Other than knowing we’d give each other a massive hug upon our eyes meeting again, little was possible to envision how or where we’d spend our week together with the mules.
I brought only a small knapsack with me with a very thin sleeping bag folded up in it, a change of underwear, sweatshirt, a pair of shorts, a small stick of deodorant, my toothbrush plus a rain jacket. That was it because the ticket I purchased said I was only allowed one personal item 12” x 9” x 17”.
If I really thought about it though, for one week, what else would I really need anyway?
We could find a campground or someone’s yard to pitch the tent. We could stay in a little motel if we found a place close by to keep the mules. Or, possibly, if we were really lucky, find a cabin or bunk house on a nearby ranch where we could be with the mules for the week. The important thing for me was spending the week catching up with B and the mules.
What ended up lining up through serendipity was way beyond my wildest dreams, a charming cabin built from rail road ties on a lake with a picnic table out under a cotton wood tree. The cabin looks across a reedy lake at the town of Hyannis and among the first buildings you see looking toward the town is the Hebbert’s sale barn where the mules have found quarters in corral pens meant for Charolais bulls. They spend their days out eating the lush grass around the sale barn on their pickets then they go in to the corral pen, drink water at night and sleep safely inside the secure high panels of the corral.
As for us I found the first day of my vacation fulfilling an old dream of being a cowboy working cattle on big land under a wide open sky. It so happened that the couple B rented the cabin from are horse trainers and cattle ranchers. B and I were invited to help Seth Adam (cabin owner) and his brother Doug move and doctor cattle for the day on their family’s ranch. This day was a highlight I shall never forget, an unplanned gift of having faith in the power of serendipity.
I've heard both, that I should have gone with B on his mule ramble West (click here MulesWest) or, that B should have stayed with Snookie and me on the farm. True we did just get married. We got married because we want to be together long term. B and I understand that we each have our own missions and responsibilities that must be tended to and that these may unfortunately not always allow us to be together in the same place. The following essay explains our current choices, his to go rambling westward with his mules Brick and Cracker and mine to stay behind with Snookie for this trip.
B draws a pie chart and sees that he's already used up half his time on Earth. He sees what's left and understands that the years of good health in which to really pursue living are less guaranteed with every passing year. If you are B “really pursuing living” means to challenge yourself both physically and mentally, to push hard and to take in the experience with an open and fresh mind. He takes trips like sailing alone around the world or riding a mule across America on roads no longer designed or expecting such a slow moving form of transportation.
They are big undertakings that take a lot of time, courage, discipline and commitment to pull off. The kind of thing a few people do when they have been diagnosed with some terminal illness and become aware of the shortness of their time left. Then they throw caution to the wind, shirk assumed responsibilities and roles, and head off to pursue that one wild dream of a lifetime.
Fortunately, B doesn't have death yapping at his heels from a terrible diagnosis, he just is keenly aware of time's true worth. He really loves his life and plans to use up every bit of it to the fullest he can through first hand experiences. He wants to ride his quarter till its last penny has ticked through the timer and the 25cent operated horse has rocked forward for the last time and come to a complete halt. Ride over! Then and only then will B be ready to rest. He is a true adventurer.
To love a man like B is to understand his need to go. If I could stop time perhaps he could wait for me to be able to come along but no one can stop time. To make B waste any of his life's quarter would be wrong, unthinkably so.
This love that B has for adventure is no less important than the love I have for my old dog Snookie, which prevents me from going along this time on the mule ramble West. Snookie is now approaching 11 years old. He's starting to have trouble jumping into the car. His hind end is getting noticeably weaker. He trips and stumbles more often. He's a lot wobblier then he was as a pup but he still enjoys ball games and walks.
Sitting here looking at Snookie, I am aware that my time with him is dwindling. The vet mentioned degenerative myelopathy of the spinal cord as a potential diagnosis of his weak hind end and stumbling. If this is the case, he might have a year left before he will be paralyzed in the hind end. Even if he doesn't have this degenerative disease, he's an old dog and his remaining miles are limited. I think of the years we've had together. He has been and still is a wonderful companion.
Time, again in this decision, is the limiting resource. Given this situation, I have to give my time to Snookie. I want to be with him for the good time he's got left.
I'm sad, that I can't be with B on the mule trip West, that I too can't be off on a long ride now while my health is great, that this time can't be shared by the three of us in the same place, that the better part of our year will be apart,. But, I am comforted in knowing that we both have thought carefully about the worth of time and that we are not wasting it. There will be no regrets later on for B not heading West with two mules while still healthy and able and no regrets for me not spending time with Snookie while I still can. B and I understand each others decision and we both understand the worth of time. It's sobering to really think about the preciousness of this commodity. Use it wisely.
Since I am not going to be out under the stars with my saddle for a while please find future posts at Old Dog Diaries which is also on the Considering Animals Website.
Brick, Cracker and Bernie leave our front gate, April 6th for a destination far in the West. They shall be gone until the snow starts to fly again or until the Pacific Ocean laps at the mules' hooves. The Photo was taken by our very nice mail lady Robin who happened to be passing by as Bernie was leaving.
Snookie, Pickle and I will most certainly miss our dear friends and family/herd/pack members but we will keep ourselves busy while they are away. I'm not quite sure yet how we shall fill those many months until they are back but I will keep you posted. There are some ideas and projects in the works. One of which will be a new blog on Consideringanimals.com called Old Dog Diaries. Look for it to start sometime soon.
Ever since I was small I've dreamed of riding for days straight. Last autumn's mule trip with Bernie from our home in Western North Carolina to Grayson Highlands in Virginia via Damascus was a highlight of my life. But I had to make the sacrifice of leaving my yellow shadow behind. That's my faithful friend and dog Snookie.
Snookie is now ten years old. I was reluctant to leave him then for the six weeks we had to do our ride to Va. There aren't that many years left to be together. We are not apart much. He pretty much follows me around all day long keeping his eye on me and sleeps by my side at night.
So how do you make the decision to leave such a dog companion behind for the better part of a year as you ride a dream West? The answer at least if you are me, is you don't. Not right now. Snookie is my friend, my responsibility and my dog. He's a preexisting condition. I've had him longer than I've known Bernie. I know he'd be crushed if I left him that long. Maybe dogs are so loyal because that bond they have with their human is the most important thing in the world to them.
So as much as I would like to be on the next adventure with Bernie, riding West on Pickle for the better part of the year. I will be instead waving goodbye to him and the mules from the gate.
Bernie will leave out our front gate on April 1st and head West. Brick and our newest mule Cracker will go with him. We wish them good speed so that we may see them all again as soon as possible.
On February 23rd Bernie and I got married on the town dock in Oriental, NC. A close friend of Bernie's, Keith Smith officiated as the minister. The day was overcast and chilly. It blew a heavy mist over us and our guests. It seemed fitting for us who love the outdoors no matter its mood to be married in the mist.
A romantic timelessness emanated with the mule, the mist, the tuxes, Keith's (the minister's) black vest, the shrimp boats in the harbor and Bernie's top hat.
To me our wedding will always represent a lovely mix of what we hold dear, friends, family, animals, boats, the grand outdoors, casual effortless fun and a touch of romance. Enjoy the photos because, to me, they capture the wedding perfectly.
We thank and credit Ben Casey for the wonderful photos of the wedding. All of the wedding photos here were taken by him. The honeymoon photos were taken by Christian Harberts, Bernie Harberts and kind passers by.
For Bernie's post on our wedding click here.
I read the ad about the mule with interest and a bit of skepticism. The ad said in bold, “Mule That Walked Across America For Sale”. The ad said that Woody, age about twenty-three, was looking for a new home. Good for riding and packing. Can also be bought with small pinto pony mare, age over twenty, named Maggie who also walked across America.
I had my doubts. How could such a small pony and mule walk all the way across this country in modern times in such a busy fast moving world? And who would be bold enough to do such a thing?
And why if they had done such a spectacular thing would the person who'd gone with them ever part with them?
I went online to see what else I could dig up about the likelihood of this event ever having taken place. I Googled “Woody the mule walks across America”. Up came a photograph of a mule tied to a Forest Service truck. The mule's eye was rolled back in his head and he was rearing. The caption said, “Mule Woody rearing in a panic as he does not like to be separated from his pony Maggie.”
There were other images, too, of the little red mule and pinto pony in the desert, on city streets, standing with interesting looking people, sculptures and other animals. Yes, it did look like they had been on quite an adventure across America. They looked like real characters. Yes, their walk across America seemed for real.
Now I wanted them. I wanted to save them, retire them and give them a nice old age together on my farm in Essex, Massachusetts. But they were far away in North Carolina. Besides they were old and the man who owned them wanted a thousand dollars for each of them.
I decided to write him an email telling him who I was, where I lived and about my experiences being raised with and taking care of animals. I promised him in my letter that if he gave Woody and Maggie to me instead of selling them I could use the money to get them to my farm. There I would keep them together in retirement for the rest of their lives. I sent pictures of my farm with the red barn sitting with its green pastures looking out over the Essex River and marsh. I also sent pictures of my shiny coated, well cared for animals, my dogs sleeping peacefully together on the couch. I told him I had grown up on a horse farm and that I'd ridden and taken care of animals since I was a child.
I didn't hear anything back for two weeks. My friends laughed and wondered what I'd expected. Someone to just hand over their accomplished animals to me for free? Ha! How likely was that?
Then on the third week an email arrived from Tasmania. Bernie Harberts, their owner and co trans America adventurer wrote a quick note.
“Dear Julia, I received your email today. Sorry for the delay. I am in Tasmania at the moment sitting in an internet cafe. I have read what you propose and think it could work out well. I shall contact you in another week when I return home. Sincerely, Bernie Harberts.”
I waited and two weeks later I got a call from Bernie in North Carolina. He told me a bit more about Woody and Maggie and we made arrangements for me to plan their shipping up to Massachusetts. Bernie told me that he'd been traveling a lot. That he did not own a place of his own where he could keep Woody and Maggie. He told me that he was taking care of older parents. Woody and Maggie were living with a friend of his named Liz Munson who was in her mid seventies. Liz had miniature horses and did all the work herself on her farm. She was ready to downsize her herd and so Woody and Maggie needed a new place to live.
When he could not find a good solution he put an ad online. But all the people who had called on them did not seem to suit what he wanted for them. They wanted to buy the mule but not the pony. Or the other way around. I think he and Liz were really reluctant to part with them and to have them separated from one another.
I contracted with a van line to have them come up to my farm in July which was a few months away. Bernie gave me Liz's number so I could get the up to date specifics on their care. Bernie also said he would send me the book he wrote about his trip with them so I could get to know them all better. The book was called “Too Proud To Ride a Cow”. (Can be ordered here at riverearth.com)
I read the book cover to cover gleaning all the information I could on them. It seemed the pony was easy but that mule! Ugg! What had I gotten myself into? The PTSD mule who ran away from Bernie once per state. That would not accept being separated from his pony for a single moment and who was hard to trim, hard to catch, hard to deworm and almost impossible to give shots to without tying him up like a pretzel first. In another phone call with Bernie he assured me that it all could be done quite easily.
He sent me a hand drawn diagram of the Scotch hobble, a way to control Woody when giving him shots. He also emailed me a video on how to trim Woody's hooves while distracting him with a bucket of grain. He said, “hold on to that pony and you will never lose that mule”.
In July Woody and Maggie arrived with a watermelon at my farm via an East Coast van line. My best friend Beth and I greeted the van at the street. Out came a pretty little pinto pony followed by a slightly taller, determined-eyed red mule. I was saying to the van driver that Bernie suggested we unload the mule first as the van driver lead Maggie out. Next thing I knew out flew Woody towing the large muscled van driver down the ramp with him to catch up with his pony.
Slowly, I figured out my own methods with Woody and Maggie. The two of them slipped into a peaceful retirement at my farm.
Bernie, Liz and I kept in touch. We talked always of our friends Woody and Maggie and how they were doing.
One day I got an email from Bernie saying he was heading up to Newfoundland with his mule Polly. Would it be alright to stop and visit us?
I hadn't given as much thought to Bernie as I had to his mule and pony. Then he showed up at my farm.
It was a raining-sideways night. He pulled up with his old Dodge truck, his old horse trailer mounted on a flat bed with his little red covered wagon. In the blowing gale, in the dark with a flood light shining on to him, in his signature hat and a rain poncho, with a huge smile on his face and open arms, was the first time my eyes had set upon him. Here stood Bernie. I knew then that this person was going to be special to me.
Sometimes Bernie and I just simply say now that a mule introduced us when people ask how we met.
The sky that day, the day that... It was Jan 20th and it was Sunday. Bernie and I went for a walk up the mountain to the orchard where there is an expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was sunny and cold. There were a few strange clouds just clearing out as a new high pressure system worked its way in. We were lying side by side on our backs in the tussocky grass watching the clouds changing and the jets going by. We saw a cloud that looked like a rabbit appear and another that looked like a heart.
B said, “never mind the rabbit and concentrate on the heart. I am asking you to marry me.” I said
Then he placed a ring on my finger made out of a piece of wire fence and another made out of the same wire he put on his own finger. Bernie doesn't know how people get married but that's not important. What is, is that he wishes to marry me.
So we shall.
Read Bernie's account at riverearth.com
I think living out on a horse or mule was what I was made to do. I absolutely love being in a saddle all day in the grand outdoors. Nothing better in my opinion. When we went on our mule ramble this fall we used Bernie’s old faithful, cross-country mule Polly to pack our gear. We did not take very much other than a tent and cook gear.
We ate small meals, carried lentils and ramen noodles, and a whole grain cereal mix that we make and eat every day at home as well. We enhanced our meals with herbs that we found. Some times we were given vegetables from people's gardens. We asked for and sought water along the way. We only carried two small jugs of water on Polly. We each had a small canteen as well in our pommel bags. A few times we all went thirsty for a while.
Bernie and I each brought only enough clothes to fit into a gallon freezer baggie. That included everything- jacket, long johns (that were not worn), undies, one set shorts and one set clean pants. We wore one piece work suits with shorts and t-shirts underneath.
The sun was hot but it felt better to be fully rugged up from it with suits and gloves, hats and sunglasses. You can’t understand that kind of over exposure from the sun until you are out in it relentlessly like that.
Meals were rationed as we only had one small mess kit and limited gas and water with which to cook. .Most days we ate two or less energy bars (between the two of us), road apples and nuts between breakfast and diner as we rode along.
We each had a light sleeping bag. One of us slept on the horse blankets and the other on a small camping pad.
We were constantly in motion riding, setting up camp, breaking camp, caring for mules, saddling, unsaddling, and hunting for places to stay the night. Where to stay each night was a question that would begin to weigh on us every day as we would watch the sun sinking. It’s ok at first but grows more desperate as the sun gets lower in the sky as you ride further searching for the answer. Where can we put these good mules who have worked so hard and need to rest, drink and eat?
We had to find them places with enough forage and grass for them to eat and enough space so that their leg pickets would not get tangled. We stealth camped only twice on the whole trip. Kindness and generosity always came to our aid in the most magical and reliable way. We always got to settle down and sleep.
The thing about constant motion and rationed, good quality food is that it makes you feel bionic. I came home feeling better than I have felt in years. There’s something to that more feral form of living for both animals and humans. I hope to always remember this. Those raw feelings like being a bit cold, hungry and tired keeps your immunities up and your body healthy. There’s a certain sharpness that comes from not being comfortable all the time.
We as a society and as stewards of animals are in danger of forgetting the importance of not letting everything in our lives become too easy, too comfortable and too rich.
Maybe when my good old dog finally meets his end in a few more years I will lean in more to this life of a nomad. I could see staying out there a good while but I do also love a home and a hearth and a community of good old friends. The pull and push of life.
My New Years resolution is: to try to not always let myself eat till I am full, to embrace being a little too hot or cold sometimes, and to remember that comfort is not always your friend.
Happy New Year!
lA suspensory tear on a horse is a serious injury and takes a long time to heal. We've been working on healing Pickle since he injured himself last February. He's still not completely healed but a digital image check up with Dr. Hay at Tryon Equine Clinic in early November showed a substantial improvement to the ligament. Pickle has been sound since October.
Pickle is in PT, a program prescribed by Dr. Hay. We do trot sets with him at increasing increments. He's up to 3 trot sets of 3 minutes each with 5 minutes of walking between sets and 5 minutes of walking at the beginning. Next week he moves up to 4 minute trot sets. By March he should be cantering and back to having his freedom in the pasture. It feels like a long road back.
So it was extra nice to get out to Moses Cone on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Blowing Rock, NC with him last week for a walk/trot trail ride. It wasn't a month long jaunt like I'd recently completed with mule Dusty but it was a very pleasant hour and a start.
Yesterday, Oct 26th was Mule Appreciation Day. I wanted to get this post written yesterday but I couldn't come up with all I wanted to say. It has required considerable thought as I owe a great deal of appreciation to the mules.
I appreciate the mules Brick, Polly and Dusty who carried Bernie, me and our gear on our recent 200 mile ramble from our farm in Lenoir, NC to Damascus, VA and then on to Grayson Highlands and back to our farm.
Those mules endured. They put up with driving rain, baking sunshine, mud, rocks, highways, all manor of speeding vehicles (including dump trucks, logging trucks and tractor trailers), bees, bicycles, river crossings, tourists, cameras, tons of pats, bridges, railroad trestles, heights, windy roads, honking horns, town centers, sidewalks, an attacking mule, running horses, barking dogs, wild cows, wild ponies, snakes, goats, donkeys, motorcycles, runners, ditches, steep banks, barbed-wire, bush-waking, downed trees, minimal food, tangled pickets, sore heels, and times with out water.
They were truly tested. I am so proud of them all. They were amazing and gave us a wonderful trip. I appreciate each one of them so much, young Brick who carried Bernie and who saw so many things for the first time in her life, veteran Polly who carried the pack and never put one foot wrong even when she got dragged into a ditch or when the pack saddle slid sideways coming down a steep hill, old Dusty who has never in his life liked traffic held it together enough for us to survive the roads and was a true champion on the trail sections, flying over bridges and railroad trestles and even being calm when he got stung by bees.
These lovely animals were not only good beast of burden but were wonderful companions. Both Bernie and I loved being with them on the road. We loved watching them, taking care of them, sharing them with strangers and talking about them with the people we met. Yes, I have some mules to honor on this day, the day after Mule Appreciation Day.
“Our task in life consists precisely in a form of letting go of fear and expectations, an attempt to purely give oneself to the impact of the present. -Richard Boothby on the effects and lessons of a psychedelic trip as interviewed in Michael Pollan's book “How To Change Your Mind”.
“It's not the Destination, It's the journey.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
For me to pull away from the magnetic field of fears, friendships and strong bond with my old dog, Snookie, to head out our gate on a month long, unplanned mule ramble seemed nearly impossible. I was mostly in denial that I was going on this journey until I kissed Snookie goodbye and plopped my butt into my saddle between a stuffed pommel bag and a bulging saddle bag for that first mile of narrow road riding after we hung a left out our front gate.
It was not the ideal start. I already felt disloyal for leaving Snookie. I'd left Pickle, my pony who I was supposed to be riding on this trip, in the hands of someone else to rehab from a lameness while I was away. I was riding Dusty who had a bad reputation for not liking traffic. Bernie was on a green mule, Brick, who we'd only owned 3 weeks. We had to pony our pack mule Polly off Brick as it took me all the hands, legs and confidence I had just to keep Dusty going along the edge of the road as cars and trucks passed us.
Hello to the unknown, the unplanned. Goodbye to my organized, responsible life behind the gate. See you in a month.
What if it rains? We get wet and then dry.
What if we are lost? We'll ask somebody.
Where are we going? We'll figure it out as we go.
Where will we camp? Who knows but something will come up.
It will? Well ya.
What will the mules eat? Grass and brush and whatever we and they find for them.
Will that be enough? Gonna have to be. Maybe we find them some corn or horse feed along the way. What about water? We will find it somehow.
Should we bring something to treat it with? Na.
What if we run into unfriendly people? We'll deal with it then but it probably won't happen.
My boots aren't waterproof. Oh well there's other more important concerns than that to NOT worry about.
Like, will this mule get better in traffic?
Is that a semi I hear rumbling?
Should I jump off?
Are the mules allowed on that highway? Don't know that they are but don't know that they aren't.
Are we crazy? Maybe a little but you kinda have to be to get out there and see what this trip is gonna be all about.
Gotta think like a kid. Drop the reins of responsibility and fear and just RIDE.
So that's what I did. I RODE. I worked on putting fears and worries to the side and concentrated on hanging on, keeping Dusty out of the middle of the road and believing in good luck, good people, good drivers, good land, good directions, good advice, sound skills, an amazing travel companion and great mules.
I got it all. Plus the bonus of an amazing adventure.
This part of western North Carolina and Virginia are as beautiful as any land I have seen in 52 years of life and travel. Grayson Highlands State Park with its mountain balds and wild ponies is a land direct from my fantasies. Who knew places like this existed that you could have all to yourself for a day?
Better yet, who imagined you could view it from a saddle? A place so beautiful with such cute, wild ponies grazing free and ravens circling nearby crags seems like it would be overrun with tourists. It wasn't. We had it all to ourselves. Mt Rogers National Park next door was equally splendid, rugged and empty. To get to Grayson Highlands and Mt Rogers from riding out our own front gate was an unimaginable joy. To think you could saddle your mule or horse and arrive in such a place is a magical thought.
This was the highlight of the trip. Or was it? Was the highlight instead ALL the wonderful generous people that flooded us with warmth, and gifts of food and drink and offers of help and places to stay?
We were brought homemade chilled wine in a cow barn in the rain, given apples, carefully packed snacks in brown bags and freshly dug potatoes. We were given sandwiches and ice water and homemade cookies. We were asked to breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were given pastures for our mules and dry cow barns to sleep in and offered shelter in an RV. People smiled and waved and slowed down and put up with us in the road.
Only two people in the whole month were rude. One honked his horn at us in annoyance and one young buck sped up and screeched his tires hoping it would spook the mules. But the message of kindness and generosity was loud and clear. That's a gift and a highlight to know first hand - most strangers are kind and generous.
So maybe that was the highlight of the trip. Or perhaps the highlight was the personal growth. The squinching up of all my nerve and letting go of fear and responsibility. Of riding down the windy, touristy, Blue Ridge Parkway in Friday afternoon traffic. Of white-knuckling it down a mile of 4-lane Highway 421. Of jumping Dusty over a guard rail to keep him away from the rushing tractor trailers.
Of leaping in to an adventure and letting go of fear and expectations, an attempt to “purely give oneself to the impact of the present”.
Yes it's the journey for sure, not just the destination.
We have made it home. After roughly 200 miles and a month out, this afternoon we rode back in the gate. Many photos and stories coming soon here and on Bernie's riverearth.com site
We are traveling with some great companions. I love listening to them outside the tent in the night. I love finally finding them a nice patch of grass to rest and feed in. They are working hard for us most days. That makes it an extra nice feeling, come the end of a long day when we can finally pull the saddles .and let them free to eat and roll. For eating and rolling are the main pleasures of almost any mule.
The three mules that we are traveling with have distinctly different personalities although each of them is fond of eating and rolling.
Polly is the elder statesmen. Calm, friendly, hardworking, almost unflappable and never missing a chance to eat.
Brick is the baby, young, sweet, a little mischievous and curious about everything.
Dusty is the watchman. He also is one of those characters that doesn't quite make it easy for himself. He seems to be thinking that there's always a better deal being offered than the one he's getting. You'd like to say to him, "look buddy, just relax". He's the mule the others don't really miss when he's taken out of the herd. Yet it's hard not to like Dusty because he's strong, reliable and hardworking. He is actually a super mule.
They all are super mules. They are making this trip great. Bernie and I are really proud of them.
It's majestic at times. Last night I woke up and saw the mules sleeping in the moonlight. The other day we were on endless dirt roads just the mules, the beautiful blue sky, a gentle breeze, falling leaves and us. No cars or other people for hours.
Then later that day we found ourselves on a busier, faster road pinned against several long guardrails with no edge, desperately trotting the mules along them as surprised motorists in cars and trucks piled up behind us. Talk about stressful.
Then a day later we step the mules on to the Virginia Creeper Trail and the worry of riding on roads may have become history for the rest of the trip. We have landed in trail riding Paradise.
That's how this mule rambling goes. While it can be idyllic it can also be full of its own kind of challenges. Water may not be available at all times. Sometimes you don't have water when the mules are thirsty. Other times you have plenty when they aren't. Some nights there is plenty of good forage and other times there is little to none. Some roads we travel along are busy and fast moving but most are not.
Mule rambling demands flexibility both from the riders and the mules. The game is be flexible, be positive and take advantage of every opportunity. Well, also try to show a little restraint because you can over do it. Like eating fries, a cheeseburger and a piece of chocolate cake at 10 am when you come upon the Creeper Trail Cafe.
Mules are good animals for feast, famine and rambling. They don't need a lot of water. They can almost get enough from the heavy over night dew we have been getting. They seem to do well filling themselves with sticks and weeds when we can't find good picket spots with grass. Dusty is the only one not quite maintaining his weight and that's because even when we have found them good grass for the night, Dusty chooses to be on watch instead of head down munching all night.
Mules also don't often over eat like people and horses. They know when they've had enough. Well mostly, certainly they are better than horses at this judgement of not eating themselves sick. They can however still founder from rich grass. That's why last night, as a precautionary measure, we pulled them out of the lush pasture Mike Johnson had kindly lent us and stuck them in a less rich lot adjacent to his hay barn.
Brick and Dusty seemed fine after a night and a day on the lush pasture but Polly's belly was huge and she was drooling a bunch. She, like us, with the chocolate cake at the Creeper Trail Cafe, doesn't seem quite sure when's a good time to stop indulging.
This trip is a fine indulgence in many respects but it still also offers plenty of challenges. It's this duality that makes the whole experience so rich.
I love writing about this trip. There is so much to describe. However, some times it's just best to let the photos do the talking.
The over arching theme that comes to my mind when I think of this ramble is the generosity of the people we've run into. Thank goodness for them all. People have been so kind. We stop to water our mules at a stream and Melinda McCoy from across the street comes out of her house with three apples for our mules. She also spends a good bit of time giving us directions towards Mountain City.
We are on back roads. We are far from home now. Our map doesn't have a lot of detail in this area. We don't want to use a cell phone and mostly there is no service or battery to rely on out here anyways. So we ask people for directions.
We want to go to Mountain City because we've decided to ride our mules to Grayson Highlands in Virginia to see the wild ponies and to witness the miles of scenic horse trails for ourselves.
Only we aren't quite sure of how to get to Mountain City and the day is already starting to wane on us. We don't have a place for the night. Soon we will have to change our focus from trying to find the best way to Mountain City to where to spend the night.
Around four pm we are still looking for the way to Mountain City. Maybe we are on it. Maybe not. A landscaping truck is pulling out a drive. Two guys are in it. I did not catch their names, maybe Bernie did. We ask them how to get to Mountain City and they ask us about the mules and our ride. We tell them where we have come from and we tell them we are heading to Grayson Highlands.
That's when they tell us we don't want to go to Mountain City. They both used to ride horses in this area. Instead they tell us we can get to the Virginia Creeper Trail mostly via dirt roads and that the Virginia Creeper Trail will take us to other trails from which we can get to Grayson Highlands.
Having just minutes before fled along a series of long guard rails with streams of traffic behind us, this sounds like Heaven. So with these new directions and a new destination, we shift our focus in the dwindling daylight to finding a place for the night.
Bernie goes in to the community center in Creston to ask about the field across from them and other options of land to picket the mules for the upcoming night. While he's in talking with them, I wait outside with the mules. That's when I meet Jay who comes over to say hi to the mules. I introduce myself and tell him we are looking for a place to camp and picket our mules for the night. He tells me if we want to ride about another three miles up the road we can stay with him.
We arrive at Jay's around six pm. He tells us to follow him in his SUV and he drives ahead of the mules on a dirt lane that winds its way steadily up the mountain. Eventually we come out in a nice clearing with a spring above it. It's ours for the night.
We set the mules up and pitch the tent. Then we chat with Jay for a while and hear about his plans to build himself a house and woodworking shop just above the spot we've tucked in for the night. Jay's plans are ambitious to say the least for a single man in his mid sixties doing it almost all alone. He's already built an amazingly solid road and seems to have endless energy and ambition. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years Jay is sitting on his porch up there drinking a beer and toasting his completed homestead. I fall asleep thinking of Jay's generosity, dirt roads leading all the way to Virginia and listening to owls calling.
The next day is wonderful. Dirt roads and more dirt roads! So much scenery I can't stop clicking the button on my camera. I can't stop. We can let go of the reins and just wander along. The paved roads we come to have no traffic, none. It's a glorious experience. Click, click, click. It's just me and Bernie and our three mules, the sunshine, the breeze, the falling leaves and all this country scenery (movie quality). How can we be any luckier?
Then the directions go off. A unexpected cross roads. The day is getting late. Which way to White Top? There are few people to ask. The two different people in passing cars on the gravel road we ask aren't sure but try to help anyways with vague answers. One points down the road, the other up the road. Eventually we stop at a little house with an old man on the porch. We tell him we are trying to get to White Top via a place called Farmer's Store. It turn's out the old guy is Mr. Farmer who used to farm at Farmer's Store, which is just a cross road today. He steers us in the right direction. As we are chatting with him both the cars we have passed and asked for directions pull in the drive. They want us to know that they have given us the wrong advice and have come back to tell us how to get there. Now we know.
Now the question concerning us most is where to camp. Again we are running out of light and the rain cloud overhead is so pregnant she's due for delivery soon. The wind is starting to kick up. We see a lush hay field behind a family cemetery.
We see the house that must own both down a long manicured drive. I see an older lady in the yard. We ride down the drive waving. We will ask her if we can stay there for the night. As we get closer we can see that there are three people in the drive. There's a man with his head up under the hood of a mini van, a woman standing next to him and the older lady we'd seen from the road. The mini van is clearly broken and the people are grumpy about it.
I can tell they really wish we'd just go away and let them get the van fixed but they politely hear us out and agree to let us camp in the field for the night. That's generous! To be that kind when you are grumpy speaks of a special breed of generosity. That's a lesson for me to file away. So a special "thank you" to you Flossy Taylor and your family. Flossy's field was full of lush grass that has really helped the mules maintain their weight.
The next morning we made it to the Virginia Creeper Trail. What Heaven it is! A double wide trail along a white water river. Tons of beautiful well maintained railroad trestles to cross over many feet above the river. The Creeper Trail follows an old railway bed for 30-plus miles from White Top to Abingdon, VA.
At the first visitors center we came to the volunteer visitor hosts, a kind couple, the Gillmans, gave us two packages of cheese and a container of cold cuts. Like two hungry wolves, we consume half the meat before leaving the visitors center.
We rode all that day along the Creeper Trail. And oops, once again night is at the door. This time we run out of light. Luckily, there is a field right next to us and though we REALLY do wish to always have permission. This time we have to just tuck in and we do. We never meet the owner but we try our hardest to leave the land looking as close as we can to how we have found it, which isn't exact with the three mules.
The next day we taste the famous chocolate cake at the Creeper Trail Cafe, eat a burger there too. Then we ride all day arriving in Damascus Va at four pm. We head to a store called Hooked where we meet the owners, Kelly and Sharon. We buy a bag of cracked corn from them and take it outside and feed the mules as much as they want to eat of it right there in the parking lot. Mules are good that way. Unlike horses they rarely over-eat. Our mules now really need some calories so we let them eat until Dusty starts chewing on a stick so we know they're full.
Everyone at Hooked tries to help us find a place for the night. Kelly calls a realtor and gets permission for us to put our mules in a seller's field. Another guy, Ed, who has been hanging out at the store, offers to take the rest of the bag of corn down to the field for us. We accept the offer and head off to find the field with the mules.
When we get there we realize the whole field is mowed poison Ivy. No way can we stay there. It's after five now and we need a field for the mules. We are hoping for one with grass for them to eat and where we might rest them at least a day but now we are getting less picky as the time ticks on. We have no idea what to do or where to go.
We see a little road that looks like it heads in to a narrow farmed valley with cows grazing along slanted hill sides. Both our instincts are to wander up this road. We come to a junction. Both our instincts are to go on the smaller dirt road to the right. We pop up into a beautiful valley. We see a man picking apples on his lawn. We say hi. His name is Jim Osborne. Jim offers us some Stamen apples which we accept. Next to his house is a long drive into a beautiful cow farm with big fields. We inquire about the farmer and Jim tell us his name is Mike Johnson and that he's a very nice man so we ride up to meet him.
All Mike's family is out to greet us when we arrive. They smile warmly. We chat with them. Mike goes off with Bernie while I stay with the mules and chat with Mike's daughter and his wife, Cindy. They are all warm, smiley individuals. Mike shows Bernie a whole pasture we are welcome to and tells us we can use his hay barn and stay as long as we need to.
This generosity is amazing. It's like mule travel is indeed magical. People seem to love that we are out there doing this with these great hardworking animals. They love that we are unconventional and free. That we are on the road. They want a small part of it. What they want to do it seems, is to help us do it. They want some one out there and they make it possible for us to be.
Our mule ramble has logged seventy miles so far. We came home to wait out Hurricane Florence. This has given me the opportunity to reflect on the trip so far. First of all let me just say I do understand why more people don't choose to ride their equines along the edges of busy roads, especially when their equine is not particularly good or reliable in traffic. Yes, it can be terrifying.
Dusty is still not too good in traffic. He reared up on the Blue Ridge Parkway when he was pinned between a rock guardrail and a gigantic RV towing a car that was passing us. When he reared up he slipped, fell back and skinned his hocks then fell forward on to his knees. Lucky for me he managed to stay on his feet and I managed to stay in the saddle and keep us out of the road. Thank God for Western saddles, they are much easier to stay on in.
I've thought about quitting, especially since we are at the cabin now. It would be easy to not go back out on Dusty but then I would really miss out on an incredible opportunity.
You grow by taking some risks, by pushing your comfort zone. Besides if I waited for everything to be just right I'd never get out there. Because it never is just right. If we didn't rely on faith to find a place to tuck in each night, find water for us and the mules, and find enough forage for the mules, we would never have left. You just can't predict what will come along to booger the mules so you can't spend a lot of time worrying about that either. If you wait for everything including the weather to cooperate, you don't take a trip like this one.
Bernie's an expert at this letting go and taking off. He's traveled twice across this country with equines and sailed alone around the world. He's a king of freedom from worry, a prince of the open road. It's the expert and the apprentice. I watch him still relaxed, when we run short of light or water. We come out from a small country road onto a raging highway at rush hour, the cars, trucks and semis are flying by, Bernie says, “It's not ideal.” But he calmly heads down the highway with the mules anyways, because it stands between us and the town we are going to.
The expert lets go and focuses on the task at hand. I turn my mule behind the tails of the other two and fall in behind the Master of Letting Go. I'm on a journey I will see how I can do and what this letting go will bring me in the way of new experience.
That's why I'm heading back out with Dusty, to delve back into this adventure. My plan is to jump off when I need to, pray for my good luck to continue, and ride well. Plus Dusty should be habituating to the traffic some what. I am hoping that he is. Besides most of the time he's pretty good and most of the back roads we are on are not that traffic-y. Sometimes cars don't pass us for hours.
On the other side of taking risks is the unfolding of a magical experience. People are kind, thrilled to see us out there on mules. We've got the mules in places people aren't used to seeing them anymore, at fiddlers conventions, in suburban backyard lawns, in restaurant parking lots, in front of stores, along the sides of highways and on the sidewalks of down towns. A guy yells to us from his car on the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Hey, I didn't know horses were allowed on the Parkway”. We answer, “Are they? We didn't know either.”
The only time some of these town centers have seen mules or horses on their streets in recent times is during the occasional organized parade. People love it. They like it that we are out their doing it. They like the carefree spirt of it, the recklessness, its unconventionality. Most are happy to just see it but have no interest in doing it.
They smile. They see the pack mule and want to know where we have come from? How long we are out for? They want to talk to us. Many offer help and gifts of food and drink. We've been offered shelter and meals and gifts. People's kindness and generosity is overwhelming.
You can't experience this unless you have something to ride and Dusty is what I have graciously been offered to ride. He's been my ticket to the experience. Below is an account of the trip Dusty has taken me on so far. “She's got a ticket to ride.” His name is Dusty.
We spent three days at the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention where we visited with folks, lazed around with our mules, ate ice cream in the heat, swam in the Yadkin river and listened to some excellent local folk music under a big tent. Then we road 14 miles up to Darby and spent 2 nights at Leatherwood Stables. From there we headed up towards Triplet to visit Eustace Conway.
Eustace Conway is The Last American Man from Elizabeth's Gilbert's book of the same name. He is also one of the mountain men on the popular show “Mountain Men”. Bernie had met him years ago. Bernie mailed him a hand written note before we left on the mule ramble, letting him know we might stop by. It didn't say when. So we were unsure as we headed up backroads into the mountains towards Eustace's place whether he'd be home or if he was, whether he'd be glad to see us. We were hoping as we approached his land with the sun starting to set, that at least he would not mind if we stayed the night.
We arrived on Eustace's long driveway in the waning sunlight. We met Bob who works for Eustace on his way out for the night. Bob called Eustace and told him we were there and that we hoped to be able to picket our mules and make camp for the night on his land. Eustace told Bob to show us where we could camp and picket our mules for the night. He also said that he would be by later to say “hello” to us.
Eustace's horses and mules were all running loose where we'd been given permission to camp and picket the mules. It was a bit of a ruckus at first with all the equines getting to know each other as we tried to unsaddle and picket ours before we were out of light. Our mules were having to defend themselves while being tied by a leg. One of Eustace's mules named Peter Rabbit, an old white pink-eyed mule attacked our poor mules all night long. But though they were all roughed up a bit from the unprovoked bites and kicks, they came out of it alright in the end and even got pretty good at standing their ground on the pickets.
Eustace arrived with the dark to say, “hello”. He pulled up, headlights on, in an old flatbed truck that looked like it might not run any longer if it was shut off. There was a nice looking farm collie tied to the driver side mirror on a rope. Eustace jumped out and greeted Bernie with a warm smile and a bear hug.
At 8pm Eustace was still in the middle of his work day and was headed to his wood storage to load a 16 foot beam he needed. We offered to come and help him put it in the bed of his truck. He accepted. Bernie and I climbed on to the flatbed. The truck headed down the rode in the dark, Eustace driving, the dog tied to the mirror running along beside and Bernie and I bouncing along in the back.
The wood storage building from what I could see of it in the dim light of the truck headlights was huge, tall and wide. It looked dreamlike, not real, an enormous hand made building. Wood was stacked everywhere, in it, on it and around it.
The 16 foot, 8 inch wide beam that Eustace desired was leaning upright, tied along with other upright timbers of various lengths with a small piece of mule tape. They were all haphazardly leaning against a pillar. From a structural perspective none of it looked too safe.
Eustace climbed up on a plastic barrel on which he'd stacked a few pieces of lumber to give him the height to reach the knot to free the beams and timbers. I was surprised that when Eustace untied the knot none of the wood came crashing down. It just shifted slightly and came to rest.
Eustace then jumped down from the barrel with his flashlight held in his teeth and jumped into the bed of the flatbed truck which was parked about 10 feet forward of the beam. He put his hands up over his head and enthusiastically ordered Bernie to give the beam a push so that it would fall on to the flatbed where he could catch it in his arms and lay it in the bed. Both Bernie and I could clearly see that if Bernie pushed that big beam it would have fallen with such force as to have felled the mountain man for good. Eustace may be strong, he may be quick and nimble and skilled up the wazoo but that beam would have beaned him so hard he wouldn't have stood a chance.
I stood quietly in the dark watching Bernie try to get himself out of killing the mountain man by suggesting we push the beam on to the ground and then pick it up from there and put it on the flatbed. Eustace didn't like that idea at all because he did not want to get the beam dirty. Eustace looked frustrated why wouldn't this sot who said he wanted to help him, do his bidding. He kept insisting to us that he could catch it. We remained unconvinced and not ready to kill our host. Finally we agreed that perhaps if the truck was backed up a little closer to the beam the fall would be shorter and just maybe if Eustace was really strong and really quick he'd manage to catch it without injury.
Eustace asked me, who'd just been standing there with my hands in my pockets, to back up his gigantic old standard truck in the dark with Bernie somewhere behind it, him standing in the bed and a dog tied to the mirror. “Oh God, please let me find reverse the first time.” I did. Bernie pushed the beam. Eustace caught it. The job was done and we had not killed our host. The mountain man and his legend live on. Eustace is quick. Eustace is strong. But I'm not sure if Eustace is infallible. I'm glad Bernie's judgement is sound.
We went back to the tent. Bernie cooked lentils in the dark for our diner. Eustace stayed and ate our lentils in his horse pasture with us. We chatted with him for a couple of hours.
It was an interesting and dreamlike encounter. I could see it as a dream. I had a dream where a famous guy wanted me to push a big beam over on him. It was dark everywhere and this homemade structure we were beside loomed large. There was a dog tied to the Truck's mirror and everywhere that man went the dog had to do his best to trot along beside the guy's truck. The famous man said he could catch the beam but I knew he couldn't.” The guy had an angry white mule with pink eyes that was constantly attacking our mules.
A day later we left Eustace's climbing steadily up into the mountains above him. We were on our way to Todd. I've already told of being benighted in a beautiful field on the way to Todd and of running out of water so I shall skip that part.
In Todd we met a bunch of kind and generous people. We met Helen the hard working owner and baker of Todd Mercantile. We met Renate and Kelly who own RiverGirl Fishing Company, a fishing, floating, kayaking business on the New River. We stayed at Kelly and Renate's campground next to their RiverGirl business. They own a bunch of railway cars they are planing to restore as rooms to stay at. They also own the Todd post office building because it all sold as a package when Kelly bought the train station to open her fishing business in.
We camped in front of their caboose, using it to hitch our mules to, cook beside and store our saddles under. The River Girls were great company, they were fun to visit with, they taught us about their hellbender, Scotty, gave us eggs, herbs and some lavender oil to help me sleep. I don't know if it worked or not but the scent was mighty nice to fall asleep sniffing.
We also met Dave Demour an ex-monk, artist, song writer, singer, musician, psychologist. A seventy year old with springs, energy and rays of happiness. (see video below). He has a bike and a little dog named Moulin. He lives on top of a mountain outside Todd owned by Reinhold Goebeler.
We met Reinhold too and stayed on his land. Reinhold came here from Germany twenty years ago. He's done long journeys out West on horseback. He lives alone on his mountain outside Todd about 45 minutes on foot below Dave.
We also met Reinhold's girlfriend Becky who lives in West Jefferson and who kindly put us up in her backyard when we got to West Jefferson after riding 24 miles in the pouring rain from Todd. She fed us a beautiful home cooked and home grown diner. She never complained when our mules uprooted most of her backyard. We took showers at her house and traipsed in and out of her downstairs, charging our laptops and hanging out on her couch for a long next day as the mules helped themselves to her lawn and garden. Generous, very generous, overwhelmingly so.
This experience has been so rich, the kind and interesting people we've met, the beautiful countryside, the trippy unplanned nature of mule rambling. When rambling by mule the gate is open to serendipity.
And serendipity is how you find yourself following on foot, a tall man riding a Haflinger pony, bareback, up a mountain, at dark to deliver a fence charger to keep goats in a pasture on top of a mountain where an ex-monk sleeps in a shack and sings his heart out. That, friends, is the nature of mule rambling and Dusty is my ticket to ride. You might even pass a man named Chris out digging worms for his worm farm.
Of all the great camps we've stayed at so far on our mule ramble through the mountains of Western North Carolina this camp called "home" feels like the place to stay during North Carolina's approaching Hurricane Florence. Had Bernie been out alone, he'd probably have holed up in somebody's barn. But this time there's me along thinking that our own barn ain't that far away especially with a little help from our friends.
So, now we are home until this thing, cyclone, hurricane or massive storm passes by. Then we shall head back out the front gate for mule ramble, part two. Sure continuity is nice but so are dry feet and wooden walls during a strong blow. So come Saturday or Sunday when this thing hits us I shall have the tea kettle whistling and be watching the rain hit the windows. It's good to know the mules will be safe and sound in their barn and pasture.
We've been walking slowly through this Western North Carolina landscape, so we've been seeing a lot. We've run out of water then found nice people that gave us water and for our mules too. Then those same people gave us a big shopping bag full of snacks. Both the countryside and the kind people have been so impressive.
It seems, when mule rambling, one minute you can be with out water and the next it's provided. One moment there is nowhere to camp for the night, and the next you are set up for the following two nights. Today we are dry but I've heard a hurricane might be on its way. The forecast is for a lot of rain.
This journey is like a wave, a rumbling sea where faith sees you from the trough to the crest of the wave
Take yesterday for example. The day started out waking up from a camp we made when the day ended before we had found a camp. We took the spot beneath us where the day ran out into night. It was a lovely camp in a hay field next to rows of Christmas trees. The trouble was we were out of water for us and the mules to drink. Lucky the hay field offered a good heavy dew on long lush grass to appease the mules. We were a bit thirsty. No water to cook with so we ate a can of fish between the two of us and went to bed. In the morning we just packed up and left without breakfast.
We walked for a mile or so continuing along the dirt lane we had been on the day before when we were following the path of a running relay race that we knew had come from the town of Todd where we were heading. The race had passed on the night before.
What we had not expected was to find with the race's passing a locked gate at the end of our lane where the dirt was hitting the paved road ahead. We tried to wedge a saddled mule around the edge of it. We picked the wrong mule. We tried the next saddled mule, also a no. The one, Polly who carried the pack and was twice as wide as the other two combined, went. Then my mule Dusty went and finally when it looked like Brick was going to be left behind the gate she went too.
We got out on to the paved road and continued our progress towards Todd. I couldn't stop thinking about getting a drink of water and some breakfast. The sun was heating up on the paved road and after several hours of walking along on mule back I was getting a little light headed. That's when the nice ladies in a house on the road to Todd gave us the water and the unsolicited snacks. These kinds of human gems give one so much faith in humanity.
On we went after a breakfast of water and snacks towards Todd. What would be in Todd? It was beautiful rural country along the New River. Finally we arrived in Todd. Who would have thought to find in Todd a Bakery of wondrous treats and more kind people? So yeh, there's a hurricane supposedly coming along but this mule travel is a wave and if you go down in a trough you come back up again. Today I'm well hydrated, I've got plenty of fine baked goods in my belly from Todd Mercantile, my cloths are dry and there's an offer for places to stay for the next two nights so all is well. I'm on the crest of the wave and mentally ready for the next plunge and rise.