Mule Polly has it sussed. While I’m inside sampling some of Newfoundland’s finest home cooked meals, say a skillet of caplin fried in fatback on an oil range, someone will say, “Look! There’s a horse looking in the window.” At which point I look up from my plate of fried fish and say, “yeah, that’s just mule Polly. I think she’d like some molasses bread.”
Chalk it up as a peril of Newfie hospitality.
There’s a saying here in Newfoundland that only a fool would starve on the Rock. I’m living proof it’s true. While I may be foolish, I’m definitely not starving. Chalk it up to that famous Newfie hospitality.
Often as not, I can’t get through the morning without being offered a cup of tea. And since I’m a polite traveler, try to be make people comfortable by accepting their gifts, I stop. Call it a case of of “yes ma’am. I’d just love to drop in for a cup of tea. Oh, and some cake? Lovely! Thank you. Oh, it’s lunch time already? Oh really, I shouldn’t stay. Okay, if you already have that left over jig’s dinner heated up. Well, sure, I’d be happy to join you…”
And so another day is marvelously shot to hell with a salvo of Tetley and teacakes followed by cod britches and rutabaga. Cod britches are the sacks of roe that, when fried, can detour even the most blinkered traveler.
But what about Polly?
For the first two months of our Newfoundland journey, she was content to stay outside while I was bellying up to the brine cod and potatoes. Or a lovely dish of cod livers and tongues. Ah yes, with a dish of mustard pickles. Polly? I’d picket her out by a 50-foot tether and she settled for clover and dandelions.
Then, during one of my invitations to tea, there came a bump at the kitchen window. There was Polly, staring in through the glass. Her nostrils flared so wide, she fogged up two hand sized sections of glass. And my hosts said, “aaaaahhhhhhhh, how cute”. And I thought, “damn it Polly, don’t you horn in on my feed”. But before I could scare her off my host slathered some molasses on a slice of bread and passed it through the window.
Polly obliged. And a habit was born. As soon as I walked into someone’s home, if her tether was long enough, she’d look for the nearest window. And peep in. Funny how that mule soon learned to tell the difference between a bathroom and a kitchen window.
Initially grumpy over her behavior, I took to photographing the intrusions. Looking over them now, I see they paint a marvelous picture of Newfoundland hospitality. Look at the photo of her in Red Cliff and you can see an old oil range in use. In other photos you see cod liver being cooked over an open fire. Or fir clap board siding being replaced on a salt box cottage. In a small way, Polly’s snacking was playing out in front of the larger scene of traditional Newfoundland life.
In the villages like Red Cliff, Keels and Open Hall, that is. It’s in these enclaves that the traditional ways and diets still reign.
Funny thing happens when I look at the photos of her in bigger cities. There, she’s looking into homes that look like the new ones back home in Carolina. All the encoutrements of the three-bedroom-three-bath-bonus-room-air-freshner-in-the-lightsocket lifestyle. Vinyl siding. Double pane windows. Parked in the driveway, instead of a giant Newfoundland boulder, is a brand new Ford F150 purchased on credit. Or maybe a shiny 30-foot travel trailer fresh from the dealer’s lot. On the table, instead of homemade bread and salt beef, likely as not, are boxes of processed meat, cheese and store bought bread. Then there are the jam jars.
Sure there are exceptions either way. But in the larger centers jam jars are labeled in factories by computers. In the villages, they’re labeled on the lid with a magic marker. By Linda, or Diane, or Shirley, Louise or Grace. Yes, those are real names of real folks who’ve share their preserves with Polly and me. If you’re reading this, Grace, that bake apple jam worked a treat on your loaf of home made bread. (Oh, and by the way, where should I mail you the fishing rod I ran off with? Contact me here.
Yes, I understand. As a traveler, it’s easy to romanticize the outports. It’s easy to look at the hardscrabble ways and label the struggle “authentic” or “the spirit of the place”. But face it, hauling cod or working a long liner is back breaking work.And it doesn’t pay as much as some people feel they need to get by. I understand why young folks leave the villages for St John’s, Gander, Toronto and the better paying tar sands of Alberta. Places where meat, jam and bread come from the store.
But in my traveling heart I belong in the outports. Where cod gets salted and berries get picked and if you stand on the shore on a calm day you may seen a whale spout or an iceberg drift past.
So I pass through the larger centers when I must and return to the small villages when I can. Tickle Cove, Birchy Cove, Amherst Cove and Lethbridge. The places where, when I stop for tea, a mule can still look through a window set in to rough cut clapboard. And expect a slice of molasses bread to appear.
Here are a few photos of what I call The Mule at Your Window.
(Afterword: as ever, I want to thank everyone who’s helped mule Polly on our voyage across Newfoundland. Apples, carrots, a place to stay, a hug, a wave, a word of encouragement. All have become a part of our cross-island trek and for that we’re grateful. And now Polly would like a slice of toast. Thanks. Bernie and Polly.)
Where this story happened:
Note: the following article is about the making of “Mule Rider”, the UNC-TV program that ran on Our State on October 3. The entire Mule Rider program can be viewed here (this will re-direct you to UNC-TV’s site).
Bayboro, North Carolina. That winter night I parked the wagon by the shrimp boat fleet. Their nets hung like green mist. Mule Polly was grazing next to that giant anchor and I thought of how all day long, she’d marched through the wind and highway trucks and now it was so beautiful, calm and…alone.
Just the two of us. One man. One mule. Alone together on the road.
I want to put my arm around my honey and say, “damn, babe, just look at that”. Or just sit quietly with another human being and say nothing. Soak in the nets and salt smell and conch eggs crunching in the winter grass. Absorb the peace that comes after bashing through the wintry elements all day.
But the solitary traveler has no babe to drape his arm around and share the beautiful moments. No other travel compadre to pass the Mason jar to. No. A mule can only provide so much companionship. Then you need a human.
Less cheery, equally vivid, moments pass in isolation too.
The water sloshing from under your boots as you lead your mule up the highway. Eighteen wheelers roar past, leaving wakes, not dust. You numb out. One foot leads the other. Dragging yourself from one visible foothold to the next. Bridge to silo to tree to raised burial vault to spanish moss covered live oak. Step. Slosh. Step. Slosh. With night coming on and you don’t know where your weary mule will rest or who will take you in.
“Damn I wish I had someone here for this” you think and it’s back to stepping and sloshing through the country where graves pop from the ground in high water.
A gust of wind from astern smashes in to the wagon so hard it pushes mule Polly – who’s pulling my wood wood and canvas home – up the road. So you climb back in to the wagon to run the brake, so the winter wind doesn’t push your mule off the road. You later hear the gusts were the most violent of the year.
No wonder I travel alone.
But this trip is different.
For the first time in a long time, mule Polly and I have company on our journey.
That companion would be…. you. Well, in a roundabout way.
Let me explain.
With some – make that monumental – assistance from UNCTV, Our State magazine and BB&T, I was able to hit the road with a full film crew to capture the peak and crap moments of wagon life.
Late last winter, Emmy-Award winning film maker Morgan Potts and crew joined me for three days on the road traveling the dormant landscape of eastern North Carolina. Morgan, four crewmen, three white UNCTV vans and a camera bigger than Polly’s head joined me as I visited old friends from Oriental to Aurora.
Together, we braved whopping winter winds, road construction and torrential rains. A man named Sid told me my favorite grain bin story and net maker Virgil Potter explained how to build a trawl doors to sew a proper net.
Quiet times were recorded, too. Nights, the crew left me with a movie camera. I used it to capture wagon life – from shaving without water to cooking on the home made stove. It’s all the material I’ve never seen before in a documentary or on TV. A home made wagon stove that swallows trawl door offcuts. A hand written diary bound with net twine.
Soon, mule Polly and I will be hitting the wagon road again. It’ll be cold, wintry and wet. Only this time it’ll be on TV. And you can join me.
Morgan informs me the footage his crew captured is shaping up impressively. He says it’s, “like I have been right there with ya.”
The final product airs on UNC-TV’s Our State October 3 at 8p.
Look forward to getting out there with ya!What: Mule Rider on UNC-TV’s Our State program
Where: UNC-TV Public Television
When: October 3, 2013, 8p
Next page, a photo essay of our winter journey through coastal Carolina.
Where this story happened: