“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”.
“Its the 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.
My kingdom for a horse. Well maybe not. There are advantages to mules over horses. Like the reason I am on a twenty-something borrowed mule named Dusty instead of my beautiful pony Pickle. Dusty and his kind are just plain tougher. Pickle is recovering from a torn suspensory tendon and Dusty has probably never taken one lame step in his twenty-plus years.
But Dusty has plenty of quirks as I am finding out. He's not yet that traffic safe, hence my quickly jumping from the saddle a half dozen times yesterday as motorcycles came revving and flying past us. But even a little putt putt motor scooter makes him jump and has me grumbling "come on Dusty!"
That fear of traffic is the big one. He also is a bit of a restless soul. It's always time for the next thing with him. He's always assuming he's getting the short shift over the other two mules. Insisting that they have the better picket spot. Bernie says he will eventually settle. If not I'm the one that's gonna have to settle. Hand us the chill pills.
Yes, mules certainly have personality and some of it is charming. Like Polly sticking her head in the tent to say, "good morning" to us. Even Dusty is pretty damn cute sometimes nickering for food or water or a pat. He's needy but he's also a head down trooper. Mules will work hard in turn for very little. I must remember all Dusty's funky behavior is just him trying to protect himself and his rights as best he knows how.
I still love horses just a little more than mules. I grew up with horses and know how to communicate with them a better. Somehow I will figure out how to let Dusty know that the motorcycles won't hurt him. But as far as the semis that come roaring by, I'm with Dusty. They are terrifying!
The thing I've already figured out about mules is they are pretty wise, especially the older ones..Maybe Dusty will teach me a thing or two.
Sometimes you wish you could act totally different than you do. I've just finished watching Buck Brannaman's 7 Clinics DVD's. He so cool and always knows just what to do in the saddle under any circumstance. I'd love to channel him 24/7 but I find that I can only do it when things are mostly calm and my mind is relaxed.
I'm not so good at it when a flatbed trailer being pulled by a huge red semi comes flying around the winding roads at my mule. His ears go up his neck get arched he turns on his haunches, nearly plunging into the river some 30 feet below us. I'm pinned between the river below and the pavement on a panicking mule with a flatbed truck bearing down on us.
At least the driver has taken pity on me and my disorganized travel pattern. He slows way down but keeps coming . Squeezing in on us. Oh god! I'm jumping off and that's what I do, jump off, hold on to my mule Dusty and spin him in a circle as the truck completes his long slow (very long flatbed) pass.
I'm still standing and my mule is still with me. Back in the saddle things settle back to a nice pace until the motorcycles come along. I nearly run a stop sign and cross the yellow line. I was better in a car when I first started driving. I'm breaking all kinds of road rules with this mule. We need work but it will have to be on the road because we're on the road now. I'm hoping that Dusty will settle quickly and that I can get better a channeling Buck under some bumpier conditions.
My Dad grew up with horses. When he was a kid he rode Western and was a pretty good stunt rider. Later he switched to English. He was gentle and patient with horses and always left them better than when he got them.
I grew up on my Dad's horse farm. As a kid I rode all kinds of horses in various stages of training. I've now ridden for almost fifty years. And like with my Dad I've always been able to take pride in the fact that I've been, for the most part kind and gentle to horses; and left each one in a better place than where I began with it. So I was drastically unprepared for the results of some reading I did last winter and where it has left me today.
Last winter I picked up Tom Dorrance's book True Unity. Then I read Ray Hunt's Think Harmony With Horses. These books are truth and wisdom! Never before have I seen articulated so well the potential of horses and how we complicate their ability to learn with our ignorance, lack of awareness and over use of pressure, when what we should be doing is getting ahold of the horses feet, asking with the least amount of pressure that yields a response, look for the littlest try and reward it by immediately taking off the pressure and build out from there.
Tom Dorrance was a thinking cowboy and his thoughts were on horses and how to make life better for them. Other horsemen in the West called him the Horse Lawyer. Ray Hunt was his best student and went on to develop Tom's methods for himself and to teach others what he had learned from Tom.
Ray Hunt taught another horsemen named Buck Brannaman. Buck now passes on in clinics what Ray taught him. I just finished watching Seven Clinics With Buck Brannaman. Never before have I felt so sure that I am on the right track. The results I have seen with Pickle and Dusty already are baring out the strength of this method. I will now reread these books several times to digest them and watch all seven clinics over and over again.
The information collected in this treasure trove is enough to last me the rest of my life trying to apply to myself and my horses/mules. I feel again a beginner though I have taught. I am sure now that what I knew was not all right. I am learning again and though the ego doesn't like it the mind knows that this new path is right and will lead to higher ground. I wish I could share this information with my Dad. He'd have liked to know but he's gone so I will share it with you. The sooner you can know it the sooner you can check it out for yourself and the more time in life you will have to apply it to the horses and mules you work with. This is a real big gift! Pass it on when you get it.
Above is the dedicated work of three great horsemen and cowboys. They have changed me.
One of the best trips I've been on was the one three years ago when we headed out right from our cabin with three borrowed mules and a bunch of cobbled together riding gear that was also mostly borrowed. We rode to Happy Valley which is one valley over from where we live. Bernie had heard that there was supposed to be some sort of music festival going on there. We didn't even know where.
We left with breakfast in our bellies and a jar of peanut butter in the saddle bags. We had a bit of cash between us and open minds. We decided to see what we might find as an unplanned adventure. We brought Bernie's tepee and 2 sleeping bags. In all, we were gone for three days.
We ended up not being hungry. We found the music, which was the Happy Valley Fiddler's Convention. We found good food both bought and donated. Someone even gave us two cold beers when we didn't think anything could get any better.
This travel right out the front gate on foot, with a dog, on a bike or with an equine partner is a vacation, a challenge, an adventure with so much untapped potential.
That's why we are trying it again. This time, starting on August 31st, we will be gone for a little over a month, just wandering the hills near home and learning new things, seeing old things from new perspectives, and seeing so many things we didn't know were right here. Plus we will meet a lot of new people on our journey and the good thing is these people if they become friends won't live far from our own home.
This adventure will also start with a ride to the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention. Below are two emails I wrote to Bernie's brother three years ago about that mule trip. I hope it might inspire you to walk down the road from home a piece.
First email to Bernie's brother:
We are having a great time. We decided to let work fall at our heels for a few days and just play together. We went down to Ronald's and picked up three riding mules...two to ride and one to pack. We are planning to head out over the hills together right from the farm and be gone for a few days...only a tepee, some coffee, a jar of peanut butter, water and a stove needed to start.
We have in mind to get to a little blue grass festival in Happy Valley but we don't know if we will find it or even arrive in time for it, or be allowed in. We just wanted to go...to kick up our heels and be free and spend some time together. The kind of time you might someday regret you did not take. So off we go. Tomorrow around 9 or ten we will swing in to the saddles and be gone. We both said one day how fun it would be to have you on that third mule. Hope all is going well.
Lots of love,
Second email to Bernie's brother regarding the mule trip.
Perhaps you know the whole tale by now. We left in the morning...up the logging road and then up the quickest trail...then up in to the woods on what used to be a trail, then down on something we were never sure was a trail...then to the end of where there was never any sign of a trail ever existing...then back up and down and all around in circles looking for a trail....mule behind mule...woman behind man...round and round in a sweaty stir. Then we come to our senses, time to head home for some lunch...back down all the trails to the cabin.
We tie up the mules and eat lunch. Feeling better we head out by road. We travel a very slow but beautiful, stunning, sensational eight miles on mule back. Mule ears rocking back and forth, the pack saddle swaying to and fro with the mule's stride, B's saddle squeaking. People come to the front of their lawns to see if we need anything and to just say “hi”.
Finally after bridges and corn fields, ground wasps, logging trucks, barking dogs, running horses, duck crossings and a few fast moving cars, trucks and campers we come to an arrow and a sign. “Fiddlers Convention straight ahead on the left”. We can see the campers and tents down below us...B yells a friendly “Howdy” greeting and lets those below know that he has come for the fiddlers convention. They shout back, such friendly enthusiastic greetings. We turn in, get our official convention bands, green for Saturday, orange for Sunday...Camp any where. We find a perfect spot along a back fence line, make friends with our new neighbors who think we are cool or poor for coming the way we have on mule backs.
Everybody is so friendly and nice. I only dip in to the peanut butter once at the camp site. There are concession stands, one run by the boy scouts cooking hamburgers which we are both craving. We splurge, getting two and loading them with all the condiments.
We listen to great music and realize just how deep the talent runs in the hills of the South. There are a lot of young coming along and starting to win prizes away from those who have taught them, mandolin, violin, fiddle, base, washtub, harmonica, banjo and beautifully hilly sounding voices with accents you must be born to and grow up with. We dance together, check on the mules and sleep deeply.
The next day we visit with people and they visit with us. We listen to a whole lot more good music, take a nap by a cool running creek in the heat of the day and watch some boys playing and throwing rocks in the river which reminds B of you and he as boys.
Then on Monday we are near the last to pack up and leave. We roll up, saddle up, pick up and then step up. B gets on using Laura Foster's grave as a mounting block. To me she is too sadly famous and with respect I climb on with out the aid of her grave.
Laura Foster might have been killed by Tom Dula or maybe it was her cousin who killed her out of jealousy and Tom who saved a life rather than took one and in the process gave up his own...crooked history that will never be set straight, but a history of those very hills none the less.
I loved the "just take off adventure". Now I am home and trying to catch back up.
Lots of love,
Imagine a white room with nothing in it, no magazines or cell phones for distraction, in fact not even a chair. The door is closed, locked from the outside. The room is small. Oh and you are in there with another person with whom you have some issues that you have been avoiding discussing. Now's your chance to clear the air. Be bold, reach out with the first words and begin a conversation that can clear the air and put your relationship with that person on a better trajectory, a trajectory that will allow you to build a solid relationship based on a good understanding of the other's ground.
This is the kind of opportunity that I have recently discovered a round pen provides you to have with an equine partner. A round pen, for those who don't know, is a round pen fully enclosed which allows you to work a horse at liberty. Ours is 60 foot in diameter and the fencing is 5 feet tall.
Looking back on the other side of this experience, which we have now done with three of our equines, I am ashamed to admit that I am way late to the game. WHERE HAVE I BEEN? The round pen is an incredible tool! I shall never go back to the days I didn't use one when first beginning work with an equine be it a seven year old Haflinger, a young and testing molly mule or an old and some what indifferent john mule who's already been around the block many times.
It doesn't matter who that equine partner is. With each individual a relationship between you and they needs to be established. The round pen prevents this relationship from becoming artificial and dictated by you through the use of restraints. The round pen provides the equine the choice of his responses between fight, flight or accept and join up with you. The pen merely keeps the challenge in a contained space.
As you drive and retreat the horse/mule is given his choices of response. This becomes a dance between you and he. The dance is a language. You must pay full attention to his response and he to yours to come to an understanding. You'd like to explain to him that you want to come out the leader. That you'd like him to follow you willingly. But you have to prove to him that this will be a good outcome for him. He shall perhaps test you to make sure.
In most cases if you can prove to him that you are capable he will be happy to have you lead and he to follow. This makes all tasks that come after in his training a lot easier because you have truly gained his respect and will to work with you.
Below are some notes I jotted down in my journal after working with Dusty in the round pen for the first time. Dusty is the mule I am about to spend the next 6 weeks with as we ride out the gate on September 1st on Bernie's and my mule ramble. I thought it best to start with the air cleared between Dusty and me, so into the round pen we went.
From my journal.
I face an old and indifferent mule. So many people have handled him during his life. They have made him work hard. Some have probably not been gentle, others have probably been fair to him. I can see that he likes his own kind better and would rather not hang out with me.
I will step in to this pen with a history too. For one, I'd rather be working, looking at and riding Pickle.* But that is not going to happen on this trip so I better get over it and start to focus on Dusty with a kind and grateful attitude. After all he and Ronald are the ones doing ME the favor.*
I can see by Dusty's cocked in ear that he's still at least a little interested, still tuning in to my movements in the pen. His interest is only really piqued though by my demanding him, with the wave of my flag, to move his feet.* If I stop waving the flag I know he will stop and hang his head out over the gate where the other two mules are watching him and grazing. Right now he'd be glad to show me his ass end and focus on getting back out to his companions.
I've got to be aggressive enough with my flag waving to make him move, keep him moving around the pen at my command. But not so aggressive that he won't trust me and want to come in and join up with me. When I see his ear flip in I offer to negotiate by stopping my waving and stepping back to give him space to turn and come into me if he wants to.
I watch for signs that he is interested in making a deal. The deal I want, is the one where we have decided that I will lead and he shall follow me. When he turns to face me and puts his hind all the way away from me, I understand that he's ready for me to approach him.
I go up to him, keeping him held by my eyes. I reach out slowly and pat him on the head, a slow slid of the hand down the broad part of his forehead. He relaxes his ears are up and he's looking right at me. He's now focused on me. I turn my back to him, soften my shoulders and invite him to follow me. I can see he's beginning to think about it but he's not quite convinced yet. I invite him several times more. But no, not yet, so I wave my flag and drive him back out to the rail. I ask him to step along with a bit more energy.
I step back and invite him in again. When he turns to me this time, he's ready and begins to follow me tentatively. It's good enough for a start. We are on our way to an understanding. This Dusty Julia dance will get smoothed out over the next several weeks. I can already see Dusty and I waltzing down the back roads of Western North Carolina together. Oh, what dance partners we shall become, Ginger and Fred of the Brushy Mountains.
Asking an equine to join up is a dance made up of what you do and what the equine does as a response. Every movement is an ask or a response. You must be very tuned in to what they are doing and what you are doing. Timing is everything. It takes a real attentive focus to not miss what his body language is revealing.
Before you enter the pen it's best to understand where things stand between you and your mule/horse. It's a good time to be perfectly honest with yourself and know if your tendencies lean towards the wimp who does not have the horse's/mule's respect, or the bully who is too quick and impatient to give his mount a fare chance to understand things and respond to them.
Most of us don't enter this pen perfectly balanced between these two extremes. We are slid just a little closer to one than the other. It's cool to try to find that perfect balance; go into the round pen knowing which end you are a little too close to and start to adjust your own scale to just right. The horse/mule's responses help you to set the calibration. The moment the horse/mule starts to follow you, you are on your way with that horse/mule to a good working relationship.
* Pickle is my golden palomino Haflinger.
*Ronald Hudson graciously lent Dusty to me for this trip.
* My flag is simply a stick with an old shopping bag attached to the end which rustles when I shake it which gets Dusty moving.
Bernie and I went up to the high orchard for a beer the other night. The light was beautiful, the animals peaceful, the beer cool and our health in fine fettle. What more could we possibly want?
What am I going to wear on my feet for this upcoming ramble? I've given it a lot of thought already, especially since we've been having a very wet summer. I like my feet to be dry but I also like comfortable boots that breath and that I know I can rely on not to rub when I have a long way to walk. I think for myself, I shall take a pair of my favorite brand of leather work boots and just give them several good coatings of silicon spray.
The mules will wear boots too. Bernie who has done so much long distance travel with equines, says that this is " the best way to go". The mules need the boots so that they don't get too foot sore from the gravel roads and to protect their feet from broken glass on the side of the roads.
The choices for equine owners when setting out on such a trip as ours are to have their mounts go barefoot, wear steel, nailed on shoes, or to wear a pair of removable hoofboots.
To read Bernie's reasons for choosing hoofboots for his trips across America click here to read Bernie's post.
Every dog I have owned has been an exceptional dog, “the best dog in the world”. I'm starting to think that any dog one gets to know really well has this potential. They are humorously carefree and endlessly full of devotion. It's so easy to make one a best friend. Sure they all have their own quirks but so do we.
This is how I find myself facing leaving “the best dog in the world” behind when I go off on our mule ramble on September 1st. Snookie can't come along. It's too far, too on the road to bring him along. He's turning 10 this October. I haven't ever left him for this long since I got him as a 3 month old puppy. I don't know if he will be as challenged by this as I shall be. I imagine that he will be. He likes to be with me no matter what I am doing or where I am going. He hates to be left especially when the bigger animals are going.
So my yellow shadow will be lost when I exit the gate and take a left on September 1st. He will miss sleeping by my side, trotting along behind the mules, accompanying me on errands and missions, begging for my dinner and partaking in just about any activity we are up to.
Lucky for him though he has two homes and two owners. He will be staying with Tom his other owner, my friend and ex husband. Snookie will stay with Tom for the 6 weeks we are gone. I imagine he and Tom will have their own adventures.
For me, with Snookie getting older and a dog's life being so short, it was hard to make the decision to go at all. But I realized that Snookie is not the only one the years are ticking by on. I am over 50 now.
I believe that we must never regret not fitting things into this ever narrowing window of time, health and energy. This dream must be seized. And the creep to stay close to home for whatever reason, pushed back.
I know my yellow shadow will be waiting for me when I return. I will be over joyed to have him again at my side. The following photos are a tribute to “the best dog in the world”, my yellow shadow.
A note to Snookie from me reads:
“Dear Snookie, Though I leave on an adventure of unknown destination, I promise to not be gone as long as Odysseus was. So please wait for me in good health and contentment. I shall return to you soon. All my love. You are truly the best dog in the world.
When I was a kid I dreamed of being a cowboy and sleeping out for endless nights under the stars with my pony beside me. I'd pretend I was taking off on him. I'd pack him up with a bedroll and fishing pole. I still harbor that dream. On September 1st a version of that dream will come true as I saddle my mount, throw on the saddle bags and head out our front gate on Zacks Fork Rd in Lenoir, NC and take a left.
Bernie and I have roughly planned a trip. It goes like this: Leave out the front gate on September 1st. Take a left and ride on. Try to avoid fast moving cars. Head for the hills. Find places as we travel that we can camp for the night with 3 mules. Return by mid October to honor some commitments. Not much more will be thought out ahead of time other than keep the packs light, the mules caught and well cared for and our attitudes positive.
As a child in Vermont I would ride for hours down dirt roads, through rivers and across a lot of country with my father. He'd carry wire cutters and pliers on his saddle so he could get us through barbwire fencing. Sometimes we'd jump the fencing with our coats laid across it. I had forgotten how fun this was. How this just getting on and going exploring on a horse can be. It seems we get so caught up in training horses to do things like jump or bend or spin or cut, that we lose sight of the true magic of just getting on a horse and wandering through a landscape on a loose rein. In my opinion that's the very best way to spend time with a horse. The real essence of our relationship with equines.
My dream was to do this trip with my friend Pickle. Pickle is my kick-ass, 8 year old Haflinger pony (although he's 14.3 hands so technically a horse) who was found in 2017, thin, frightened and just halter broke at the Tarheel Kill-pen by some kind people by the last name of Horton. It still is my dream for some day to camp under the stars for many nights with Pickle, but sadly Pickle is not going to make this trip. He's got a suspensory sprain that just has not healed enough yet.
I brought him down for a consult with Dr. Bill Hay at the Tryon Equine Hospital (a very impressive facility). Dr Hay thinks Pickle will make a full recovery but he needs a few months of rehab which have started with a month of stall rest and walking. Then he will start trotting and eventually return to full work and pasture time. But Pickle's recovery will not sadly coincide with our trip. So he will continue to convalesce with our very capable friends at Leatherwood Stables as we head out the gate on September 1st.
Lucky for me. I still have a mount to ride. Bernie's friend Ronald Hudson is generously lending me Dusty. Dusty is a 20+ year old veteran of the mule Army training core. In fact he's still working training Army recruits about mules with Ronald's supervision. I am waiting for Dusty to finish a job so that we can pick him up from Ronald to start getting him ready for our trip. Or maybe for him to start getting me ready for the trip. I need time in the saddle to toughen up and he needs time with me in the saddle to soften up, get used to the commands of the leg and hand aids. We both need to start logging the miles together, which will happen soon.
Dusty is old. No one quite knows how old but surely over 20. He's the look out mule in the herd always watching for possible trouble. The one with the watch who knows when the food is late or the gate has not been opened on time. He's off white, some call it champagne, with yellow eyes. He likes to wear a coat of mud and even works it into his eyeball sockets. He is never clean and I don't think it's even possible to ever get him clean. He has a pink nose and always looks to be wearing a bemused smile.
Bernie, veteran of long distance travel and mule adventures will be riding his green, sleek, six year old mule Brick and using super star veteran Polly who has walked across America and Newfoundland as our pack mule. That's our team.
We just found out that the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention is that weekend of the start of our trip so I think the first destination will be the field below Laura Foster's Grave (folk legend Tom Dula's murdered girlfriend), home of the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention. We went a few years ago by mule and had a blast. So this would be a wonderful first destination for our “ ride out the front gate” ramble. There shall be some long ears listening to fiddling soon.