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.