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.