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:
You enjoyed 2mules together ! I feed my horses every morning but I can not find time to get on them ,because money is evil to me ,can make more cinammons than saddle up and go . I enjoy your trip with reading website. k .s
— keiko · Monday August 12, 2013 · #
Hi there Keiko. Thanks so much for sending the veggies. I wasn’t at dad’s when they arrived so now all that’s left for Polly and me are some carrots and a piece of cabbage. He says he couldn’t wait…. As per your hitting the road, I say you just load up your saddle bags with cinnamon rolls and hit the trail. Knowing you, you’ll soon be back in the bake sale business doing fine! Have a great day. Bernie
Bernie, it may have been unpleasant, but now you are poised to dominate an industry.
Look who is #1 in a Google search of “vomit saddle bags”.
— Keith · Wednesday August 21, 2013 · #
I enjoy reading about you, Polly and Buddy. I like your planning…make up your mind and hit the road before you have time to change your mind!
About those American Outfitter Jeans (with or without the pears), if they are my size I’ll offer 10 cents for a pair. That’s triple what Ronald paid for them, and now they are a little more “used!”
Have a great time!
— judy · Saturday August 31, 2013 · #
Hey, My husband and I live in a small town in NC called Wallburg. It is in between High Point and Thomasville. If you ever venture out this way, please feel free to stop by. We would love to host you and your 4 legged babies.
— Elizabeth Denny · Saturday September 14, 2013 · #
Welive in mitchell countyvon pumpkin patch mountain. Mostly trees and boulders but wevwould love to host you in the Pisgah. Also have the wanderlust.
— Barbara · Thursday September 24, 2015 · #
Be great to visit you all in Pisgah. Don’t you worry about the trees and boulders. I’d show up with a gamey pack mule and have Polly haul the gear. I’d hang my hammock from a big tree and roll the boulders down the hill (and get my grandfather Fritz rolling in his grave as he always forbid us the joys of youthful rock-rolling….).
Hope all’s well on Pumpkin Patch Mountain.