It started pouring with rain and in minutes I was soaked. As was Buddy, the mule I was sitting on. And coming from Polly, my pack mule, a noxious, air sick smell. Damn, maybe Ronald was right. Maybe someone really had puked in to those duffel bags he’d loaned me.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s back up the plot a few steps.
Last time we spoke, I was hauling salt blocks on my mule Polly. Getting her broke to carry a pack saddle. That went well so I figured, “Hell, why don’t I just replace the salt blocks with some camping gear and hit the road?”
Which I ended up doing.
But here’s the thing. Running away can be an expensive business. Or it can cost you almost nothing. Doesn’t matter what you take. Car, mule, bike, motor home. Boat, goat, float. Your thumb. It’ll be as expensive or cheap as you make it. It’s mostly a matter of how badly you want to go.
Take this week. I wanted to run away with mules Polly and Buddy in the worst way. Not a little, as in, “one day, I’ll hit the road with my mule.” No, I wanted that primal put-your-gear-on-the-mule’s-back-climb-aboard-and-hit-the-road experience. Do the simple thing. Feel the world in that direct to the jugular way that only comes from a saddle ramble.I was at my buddy Ronald Hudson’s house when the nomad notion struck. Trouble was, while I had the will, I didn’t have the gear.
I’ve learned this in my middle years. When the travel bug bites, you jump. Right then. Not after you have the perfect gear. Because by the time you have the proper equipment, you and your crazy drunk notions will have sobered up. Even if no moonshine was involved in your runaway thoughts, each decade that passes takes the wire edge off a man.
Each year that rolls by gives you more reasons not to hit the road. Things like “I don’t have the right gear.” “I don’t have time.” “I don’t have the money.” Garden variety dream killers. I know. I battle them, too. But to budding spur of the moment ramblings, deadly as 2,4-D herbicide.
But back to Ronald.
What you have to understand about him is he’s tighter than I am. He never let the lack of proper gear get in the way of entering a chariot race. Nope. After all, that’s how we met in Bishop, California.
I’d ridden from North Carolina to California on a mule named Woody. First time I saw Ronald, he was in a chariot race steering what looked like a barrel with wheels. Full gallop. Had on a purple cape, a gold winged helmet. It appeared the only thing that would stop his mule team was a bullet. A guy like that, you have to go up and meet him, right?
After the race, I introduced myself. Turned out he lived an hour from where I grew up in the Tarheel State. A few years later, both back in North Carolina, we started driving mules together. We’ve been friends ever since.
When I told Ronald I wanted to run away but didn’t have saddle bags, he said, “lets go out to the barn and see what we can find.” (Only later would I tell him I didn’t have a pack saddle, riding saddle or riding mule. Testament to him as a friend, he came up with – and loaned me – all of the above.)
We rummaged around the wood and tin structure. We dug through the tack room. We untangled piles of dusty harness and pack saddles. We damn near chocked to death on red clay dust. But after a spell we came up with saddle bags.
Well, something close enough to pass.
In the “real” world, you buy saddle bags. You can get them online for as cheap as twenty bucks to hundreds if you think hand tooled leather will make you a better traveler. What Ronald produced was neither.
It was a set of the nastiest, dirtiest Army duffel bags I’ve come across. They were turned inside out. They had that wartime military surplus store smell – like burned GI Joes. Oh, and a little something else. Hmm….
I asked Ronald about this. The smell. The dirt. Their skanky condition. He said he’d bought them from a guy at a flea market. Cheap. The man who was selling them told Ronald, “Yeah, they smell a little rank. Not real offensive but they had a little odor to them.”
Ronald found out they were used to hold vomit bags. At a buck or two a piece, he couldn’t pass them up.
Neither could I. Especially since Ronald was going to let me use them for free.
To sheath their nastiness from the gear I put inside them, I lined each with a garbage bag. This, I hoped, would buffer my clean shirt and sleeping bag from their toxic stench.
I added a few more things. Strapped them on mule Polly’s pack saddle. And hit the road.
Flash forward four days. I rode out of Ronald’s on a Tuesday. Friday afternoon, on the Low Water Bridge in the Uwharrie Forest, it started raining. It turned to a deluge and I was soaked through and through – improvised saddle bags included.
The rain stopped. You know that just after it rained smell? The one that’s eluded the air freshner folks? Well, that’s not what I smelled. What hit my nostrils was more like something you’d get a whiff of after a bumpy flight. I filed the information away in my brain and focused on more pressing matters – like steering my mules up the road.
That night, I made the Eldorado Outpost.
After I watered and tethered the mules, I hung my hammock. Crawled in to my damp sleeping bag – the one I’d stored in my cut rate saddle bags. And yow, the smell hit me. The stench of a plane load of vomiting passengers. Soldiers who’d made use of a plane’s worth of air sick bags and, at flight’s end, placed them dutifully in two certain Army green duffel bags.
I cursed Ronald all night long for his generosity. Over and over in my mind I replayed in my mind what he’d told me about those duffel bags he’d loaned me. You can listen to Ronald’s warning, too – complete with crowing rooster. Like you’re sitting there in his barn like I was. Just click on the player below.
In the end, of course, I only have myself to blame for my predicament. On the cosmic scale, a little barf smell is just a speed bump to a man hitting the road fast and cheap. A minor price for four marvelous days on the trail with my mule mates. Something to be cured with a garden hose and a bit of airing out.
Then again, for a little bartering, I’m sure next time Ronald will loan me a clean set of saddle bags.
(Next, some photos of what we saw in the past four days.)
Map note: The map shows Low Water Bridge in the Uwharrie Range.
Where this story happened:
This week I went rambling in the Uwharrie Forest with Polly and Buddy, my mule companions. Just the three of us, 100 miles of road and a bit of gear: hammock, sleeping bag and string. No great mission. Just two mules and a man out clearing his head.
Days, we traveled the back roads. Nights we camped with friends new and old. The second night I slept in a hammock tied to Wayne Hussey’s corn crib.
Wayne lives and works the red clay land south of Erect, North Carolina. He still farms with mules – five of them. Plants corn. Cuts hay. Harvests the corn and stores it in his old timey corn crib. Weekends, if there’s a parade in nearby Robbins, he might hitch his mules and travel there by wagon. If there’s nothing special going on, there’s always cultivating, harvesting or plowing to be done – with mules of course.
I reached Wayne’s late in the afternoon. Unsaddled my mules. Picketed them out. Walked over to the old red barn to see how his mules were doing. Check if they were still listening to that church music.
I’ve known Wayne for years. Two things about him are always the same. His mules live in a red barn and they’re always listening to gospel music. It comes from the old radio parked high on a dusty shelf overlooking the mule drawn manure spreader. That radio’s played in the barn so long, I swear if you turned it off, the music would keep coming out of the beams and siding.
Just as I expected, as I neared the barn, I heard gospel music.
The music coming from the barn wasn’t the canvas shredding, raise the roof, tent revival, Come to Jesus, love offering kind. No, it was that swingy, catchy brand that, if old line Baptists didn’t think it was a sin, could result in a dance breaking out.
Playing was “It’s Not What’s Over the Door”.
The rhythm got in my dusty hair, wind burned eyes and dirty coveralls. It wafted all around me and made its way around the barn and washed over the collars, hames and bridles piled in the saddle room. The notes drifted up to the hay loft, way high up where the square bales rub against the rusty tin and mud bird nests. Pooled down low, too, around the mules’ feet and the new litter of barn cats. Made me want to wrap whatever I could find up in my arms and waltz across the dusty aisle.
Which if course I didn’t because I was alone and barn cats are never in the mood to dance.
Still, I liked the song and made a recording of it for you. You’ll hear part of it in a minute.
The song played itself out and I put my recorder away and went about my evening chores.
Central to Wayne’s farm yard is the corn crib. It’s just a square box of wood, wire and tin. Roof on top. Been added to over time. The type of building folks built when the plans were in their head, not on paper or a computer. They cut their boards by hand so the building wasn’t too big at first. Over time they added to it. Scabbed a lean-to to this side. Then another on that side. Over the years, what had been started as a crib to store corn morphed in to a barn full of dusty farm equipment – auger, combine, corn picker.
After leaving the barn, I grubbed some corn from Wayne’s crib. Fed it to my mules. Wayne said it would be okay. Then I filled up on well water, hung my hammock from the corner of the crib and crawled in for the night.
I lay there in my hammock waiting for night to come. Thinking of my guest status. What it was like to hang out there in the night sky surrounded by gospel music, corn and bats.
It got dark. My hammock world turned black and I could hear the gospel music coming from Wayne’s barn. Here’s what was running through my head. Yes, the music you’re about to hear is the tune I recorded in Wayne’s barn. Listen for the grasshopper.
Up next, more photos of Wayne’s corn crib and life on the road with mules.
Where this story happened:
Mule Polly never was intended to be a pack mule. The mule that I drove from Canada to Mexico and across Newfoundland has made it clear she doesn’t count carrying a pack saddle among her duties. Last time she was doing the beast of burden thing, she ran away, crashed her packs into some trees and high-tailed it to camp. Ronald Hudson, Polly’s last owner, has me warned she was ticklish about the subject.
This weekend I could take it no more. I had to run away.
Originally, the plan had been to take her on a week-long wagon spin of the Uwharrie Forest. Like I’ve done many a time. But the last few weeks, I’ve been dealing with lots of tangled life matters. Not juicy stuff. Just garden variety stuff we all deal with – truck repairs, taking care of a parent, paying taxes, driving long distance. Booooooring… Yeah. the stuff all of us deal with. The same stuff every guy in traffic next to me is going through. I’m not special in that department.
And like that guy one car door over from me I got to thinking, “wouldn’t it be great to just run away?” I mean, not even in a wagon. Just with a mule and a bit of gear? Strip away life’s complications and set off with a little bit of nothing. Hmmmm….
This weekend it came to a head. I was visiting Ronald. In a fit of curiosity, we strapped a pack saddle on Polly’s back. Loaded her down with 100 pounds of salt blocks and…nothing. So I saddled her pasture mate Buddy. Lead the two long-ears around Ronald’s farm. And…nothing. Much.
Okay, so Buddy’s twitchy from not being ridden for over a year. And Polly trails behind with that “what the hell is this?” look on her face. But they worked out just fine.
Which makes me want to take off with them for a few days. Replace the salt blocks with a clean shirt, my string hammock and the old Primus gasoline cooker. Then point those long ears up the driveway. Turn left when I hit the asphalt. Hell, turn right. Who cares. Just go straight ‘til I come to a turn then make that decision when I get there. See what comes up.
I’ll let you know if I caved in to wanderlust. And how about you? What are your break-free notions? Damn it’s hard to resist once that worm burrows in to your brain, isn’t it?
Photos by Ronald Hudson
A few photos from our slap dash setup:
Where this story happened: