I’ve written and read a lot of obituaries lately. In the span of eighteen months, my mother, dad, mule, pack pony and family dog have died. None of this comes as a surprise. The young are supposed to scatter the ashes of the old. Then they go on living. Potatoes are banked. Winesaps are pruned. Commutes are commuted. May be some ash slips in to the orchard.
Here’s a look back at two extraordinary equines that took me in to their lives.
Woody and Maggie – the mule and pony that walked across America with me – are dead. They were the first equines to set foot on the Official Center of the World. The story of their 13-month voyage was featured in two books, numerous magazines and a series of travel programs. They were in failing health. They were put down together so as not to be separated at the end of their lives.
Little is known about Woody and Maggie’s earliest years. They’d been bought, sold, traded and sale-barned so many times, by the time I got them, the slant and wear of their teeth was the only evidence of their birthday – never mind their birthplace. Here’s what I cobbled together about their early days.
Woody came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was an Amish mule but, being too small to plow, was sold at auction. He was in his late teens or early twenties when I bought him in 2004. I found him outside Roxboro, North Carolina. Man shy and leery, there was something in his past no one mentioned.
I bought Maggie the same year from my friend Mel Wyatt in Southern Pines, North Carolina. She was a reluctant lesson pony. Her claim to fame was throwing brown babies after black babies. Shortly before I bought her, her latest foal, Nova, had been weaned from her. She’d spent time in West Virginia.
Aside from that, details of their early life was scarce. Then our lives joined and their history became part of mine.
In spring 2004, I set off across North Carolina with Woody. Starting in Oriental, we walked to the Atlantic Ocean before turning west for the Blue Ridge Mountains. Woody became lonely. Outside Jacksonville, he chased me down in a portable toilet. He became possesive. In Pin Hook, he shouldered aside a kid to “protect” me. The introvert in me appreciated the company. The lawyer in me felt I needed representation.
In Southern Pines, 2 months after I began my cross-state ride, I bought Maggie. Woody fell in love with Maggie (okay, bonded if you’re an animal behaviorist). He left me alone. We kept on walking.
They would stay at each other’s side until their deaths, 10 years later.
Now a threesome, we trekked through August and Tennessee, crossing the southern Plains that fall. Winter caught us atop the southern New Mexican Rockies. Pony and mule were reduced to living off snow melt, thistles and handfuls of grain. Thirteen months after departing Oriental, Woody and Maggie reached San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.
The animals had weathered the voyage so well, folks wanted to buy Maggie’s foal, going as far as inquiring about the due date. I told them I could never sell off her foal – because she was just plump, not pregnant.
Woody and Maggie were – on paper at least – unlikely voyaging candidates. Both were small, old and gnarly at journey’s start.
Of pony height (he measured 57 inches at the shoulder), Woody was the exuberant explorer, as willing to ford a raging river as he was to shy at a white plastic bag. Of boundless energy, he threw me vigorously and often during my cross-continent ride. After carrying a McClellan cavalry saddle 3,500 miles across America, he celebrated by unseating me three more times. I quit riding him after that.
Maggie was the grinder. Only 13 hands tall (52 inches) she marched without cease – sometimes shouldering her pack saddle, other times pulling a small cart. She walked 32 miles across the wintry White Sands Missile range all in one go – starting and ending by moonlight. But she wasn’t a pushover. Once, while riding her, she balked. I hit her so hard with my stock hat it knocked the stitching out of the crown. She didn’t budge. I hit her again. This got her running. Fast. Very fast. Only it was backwards, right in to a clump of bushes.
Defeated, I dismounted and led her the rest of the way to camp. There I mended my hat.
Yes, Woody and Maggie were imperfect. They were about as unlikely a traveling duo as you could cobble together and still succeed. No matter. They launched my improbable dream and ended up walking across America. They were with me through desert and storm and for hundreds of days they stood in for human company. In California, they set hooves on the bronze plaque marking the Official Center of the World. They were the first equines to make that journey.
Later, on their book tour, they endured thousands of miles in my horse trailer attending countless signings and programs.
They always came through.
When I first met them, I knew nothing about mules or pack animals. Woody was old, bronc-y and content not to change. Maggie had a twisted front foot and a blue eye that, later in life, caused no end of trouble. I didn’t know well enough to look for more suitable mounts. No, I was desperate to go mule voyaging so I bought them and took off.
In the years since that voyage, I’ve been exposed to many much better trained and built equines. Mules that roll back, spin and stop as asked. Obedient horses that have degrees by Roberts, Parelli and Cameron – all well respected natural horsemanship trainers. Animals that, according to their education, should be able to clip clop to the moon on light beams.
Thing is, if I’d waited to find and afford two of these beasts, I’d never have started my journey. Woody and Maggie sure as hell weren’t perfect – but they got me up the road.
Following their ride across America, Woody and Maggie joined me for the “Too Proud to Ride a Cow” and “Woody and Maggie Walk Across America” book tours. They later lived in Cameron with a lady named Liz who loved and cared for them like they were her children.
Their final seasons were spent with my friend Julia in Massachusetts. They passed their days within sight of schooners and a maritime museum. Maggie enjoyed having the inside of her back leg scratched. Woody’s stall faced a busy street. He loved ogling traffic accidents from the vantage of his barn door.
Thanks to Liz and Julia, they were able to spend their final years together.
In the end, they just got old. Weighed down with the maladies of advanced age, Julia and I put them down. Together. This late in their lives, it would have been cruel to euthanize one, leaving the other alone.
I traveled to Massachusetts for their final day.
Woody and Maggie were cremated. Their ashes are scattered on my farm. Some of it wound up in the garden patch.
I miss them sorely. I think of them when I eat the Swiss chard.
Where this story happened: