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.