Coming soon: the Lost Sea Expedition TV series
July 30, 2016

 bernie harberts mule polly lost sea expedition
Mule Polly and me during the New Mexican phase of the Lost Sea Expedition, our wagon voyage across America. Looking back on it now, I’m sure Polly wondered why I kept stopping and taking pictures like this one. She was right to wonder. That footage – including lots of interviews with folks met along the way – is now the Lost Sea Expedition TV series. (Hope, New Mexico)

Hey, ‘just wanted to give you a sneak peak at a massive project I’m just wrapping up. I’ve sailed alone around the world, been across America twice by mule and then some. But hands down, this is the biggest project I’ve ever completed. It’s a TV series called The Lost Sea Expedition .

A while back, I traveled across the United States with my mule. It was just Polly and me and our tiny home made wagon. Our gear was substandard, old, some borrowed. Instead of planning the route before hand, I let strangers point me in the right direction.

I wound up following the sea bed of a vanished sea – the Lost Sea – that once covered the Great Plains. My journey started in Canada and ended on the Mexican border 14 months later.

fbernie harberts mule polly lost sea expedition
The route across America. It covered 10 states, spanned 4 seasons and took over a year.

I carried film and audio gear in my wagon to document the trip. This is where I spent most of my limited budget. I went for the highest quality, most rugged gear I could afford at the time. I charged it with a solar panel bolted to the top of the wagon. Nope. I didn’t have a film crew, chase team, support vehicle or sponsor. I had time, though. And that’s the most important piece of equipment. Time and the kindness of strangers.

fbernie harberts mule polly lost sea expedition
Living day after day with my film gear let me capture the voyage inside and out. Here, I’m capturing a bit of life aboard the Lost Sea wagon. (Tokio, Texas)
fbernie harberts mule polly lost sea expedition
Because I spent so much time on the road, I was able to film nature in all her moods. Here, Polly wishes I’d quit filming South Dakota’s winter mood and go ahead and get us on to a stable. She’ll be proud of the footage when she sees it. (Black Hills, South Dakota)
As I rolled across the Great Plains, I asked folks what they knew about the sea that once covered the middle of the United States. I filmed interviews with Lakota elders, paleontologists, a creationist and regular folks. Many of those stories I shared with readers here on RiverEarth.com.

But what I never showed you was the film footage. Yes, at long last, that footage is being turned in to a 4-part TV series. It’s called the Lost Sea Expedition .

Turning a voyage in to a TV series is a big project. Here’s how it goes if you’re a commercial TV production company with a decent budget. In the field, there’s a camera person, an audio guy,a grip, a producer and that’s just a bare bones crew. Back in the studio, to get that footage broadcast ready, you need a producer, audio person, the guy doing color correction and the list goes on. And on. And on. Ever seen how many names there are at the end of Ken Burns documentary?

Thing is, I didn’t have any of those. No film crew. No staff. Instead of a sponsor, I self-funded my trip by selling books from my wagon.

fbernie harberts mule polly lost sea expedition joe taylor
To help pay for my voyage across America, I sold books off my wagon. They were about an earlier voyage I’d taken across America, this one from Atlantic to Pacific. In addition, folks gave me “green handshakes” – aka – cash. (Hope, New Mexico)

Because I filmed the whole project myself, I was able to control the whole production. Remember, I lived, filmed and traveled alone in my wagon for over one year. And that let me gather up experiences you can only buy with time. It let me understand how the Lakota creation myth is linked to the Ogallala aquifer. How a prairie dog town sounds. What it’s like to catch Prairie Fever.

Yeah, I’m so excited with the end result, I figured you’d enjoy checking out the project’s final stages!

Sure look forward to telling you more about this project soon. ‘til then, leave a comment or drop me a line. Be great to hear from you!

(update August 16, 2016: the official Lost Sea Expedition site is up now. Come on by for a look)
(Map Note: map shows spot close to where last photo was taken)

Posted Saturday July 30, 2016 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Surviving the Southern Ocean Rock
March 30, 2016
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 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda
Fighting for her life. Hurricane force winds threaten to splinter the ketch Windora‘s 40 year old wood hull. She dragged her anchor and wound up on a submerged rock in South Georgia, the Antarctic island. I was aboard her. Video footage is at the end of the article.(Vessel “Braveheart” photo)

“Below 40, there is no Law. Below 50, there is no God.” They saying comes from Southern Ocean voyagers. The 40 is the Roaring Forties, the 50 the Furious Fifties. It’s a bo-ho line to use down at Ye Olde Yachte Clube when it’s raining outside and you want to lay some salty lingo on a dirt digger.

But damn, here I was in hurricane force winds and snow. At Latitude 54 South. Standing on Windora as she threatened to pound herself to splinters on a Southern Ocean rock….

If you ever had a wood boat die beneath your sea boots you’ll know the sickening the sound. The rise of the timber body. Up the face of the wave. And then your guts fly up as your body goes down with the wave and “Bammmm!” down on to the rock you go. The jolt up through your feet and the sound of wood fibers ripped apart and the whole things is going down with you inside.

That’s what I felt on Windora but it was never supposed to be this way.

Okay, maybe I need to catch you up to speed.

Last time I wrote you, I was sailing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia with my friends Phil and Lynda aboard their 40 year old kauri wood ketch Windora. The plan was to sail the 800 miles to the Antarctic island. Spend a few months there. Then sail 2,800 miles across the Southern Ocean to Cape Town, South Africa.

falkland islands bernie harberts
South Georgia is way down south past regular old Georgia. Think Antarctica, not Jimmy Carter.
falkland islands bernie harberts
Windora is an Athol Burns design. New Zealand built, she’s strip planked in kauri. Phil and Lynda raised their two sons aboard her as they sailed around the world. They’ve put another 30,000 miles on the 20 ton vessel since a major refit. Here, she’s exploring a South Georgia glacier face.

This was just going to be a personal trip. A time of reflection. A chance to get back in to the wider world after taking care of my parents and, more recently, my aunt who was diagnosed with dementia. My brother and I wrapped up her affairs, sold her home and moved her back to native Switzerland.

There would be no book about this trip. No articles. No blog posts. Just a cold ocean ramble to South Georgia, a glacier covered island off Antarctic.

And for the first month and a half, things went according to Plan. Think South Georgia, and we’re talking glaciers, ice bergs, penguins and elephant seals. Here’s a sample of what we saw.

 bernie harberts south georgia windora
South Georgia has some the highest animal densities on the planet. Here, I’m catching up with some King penguins. The trick is to sit quietly and they come right up to you. This is easy because…. (Vessel Kestrel photo)
 bernie harberts south georgia windora
…there are thousands of penguins around. This colony on Salisbury Plain was estimated to contain 100,000 pairs of nesting King Penguins.
 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda
Hunted to almost extinction, fur seals and elephant seals, abound. Elephant seals, like this female, look cute…
 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda
…but don’t like being approached too closely.
 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda
South Georgia’s weather is variable. A nice day like this in Grytviken harbor – where Ernest Shackleton is buried – can quickly turn ugly. There’s even a color named for this – sucker blue. The sky’s nice and blue. You go for a walk. Then….
 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda
…things turn ugly. I started this hike in sunny weather. Within two hours, the snow drifts were thigh deep.
 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda
The water is just above freezing. Here, Windora passes one of the many icebergs encountered in these remote waters.

Then we had the encounter with The Rock.

For the impatient, here’s the video.

Up next, the blow-by-blow.

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Posted Wednesday March 30, 2016 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Putting to Sea
January 5, 2016

falkland islands bernie harberts Windora Phil Lynda Christiesen
The Falklands are sparsely populated. These king penguins saw us off on our voyage in to the Southern Ocean. We will be sailing aboard Windora the wood ketch anchored off the beach.

The day has come to put to sea. Tomorrow I sail from Stanley, in the Falklands Islands, to South Georgia island, off Antarctica. I’ll be traveling aboard Windora. She belongs to my friends Phil and Lynda Christiesen. We met years ago in New Zealand. It may be a while until you hear from me.

I know, in this era of easy communications, it’s just assumed one person can talk to another where ever they are in the world.

Not so. Over the next months, I’ll maintain little touch with the outside world. In these times of instant communication to and from any part of the world, that seems like a queer decision.

falkland islands bernie harberts Windora Phil Lynda Christiesen
If this was your view and your phone rang, would you answer the phone or watch the albatross?

The reason I’m visiting South Georgia is to experience massive isolation. Sure, every year, a dozen or so cruising sailboat venture there. Even more chartered yachts and cruise ships visit on their way to Antarctica. They visit a few days – maybe a week – then head on. In most cases, they’re bound to the outside world by satellite.

I don’t want that. I want to absorb the Southern Ocean. Spend days or weeks sitting with penguins. Row to a glacier face and listen to it calving. Smell the belching elephant seas. And then…write it up in my journal. Or doodle out a letter and send it home. Yes, there is a letter box in Grytviken, South Georgia. Ernest Shackleton is buried half a mile way.

I want my attention span to grow back somewhere closer to where it was a few years ago – before Facebook, Twitter and selfies. And for that, you can’t be constantly be checking email, tweeting or, if you’re in remote areas, punching your way out via sat phone.

How will I do it?


We (Windora, Phil, Lynda and I) sail to South Georgia. We hope to spend two months there then head east toward Namibia or South Africa. Or wherever the wind or circumstance blows us. Maybe we finish in April. Or it could be May.

The final details are up to the southern ocean waves and winds to decide.

Hear from you when we get off the sea!

Posted Tuesday January 5, 2016 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Falkland Shearing
January 2, 2016
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I know. I told you I was sailing a wooden sailboat from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia. Somewhere along the way, I ended up going from my sea berth to chasing sheep.

I’m new to this sheep thing. Here are some photos. Hope this makes you appreciate that wool sweater you’re wearing!

Yes, I still plan to sail to South Georgia in early January.

falkland islands bernie harberts
Before you can shear sheep, you have to catch them. In the Falklands, it’s called “gathering”. In days past, it was done with horses and dogs. Today, it’s done with Land Rovers and motorbikes. Look at that photo. You’ll see a lot of land and very few sheep. The island we’re gathering on has 750 sheep on 3,000 acres. If you look closely at the hood of the Land Rover,you’ll see….
falkland islands bernie harberts
….caracaras. Known locally as Johnny Rooks, these birds of prey will pinch your hat as quickly as they’ll nab an injured penguin chick, a camera, clothes off the line, or, if you’re digging potatoes, spuds. Curious by nature, these two had an affinity for Land Rover windshield gaskets. It doesn’t take long to figure out why the island’s Land Rovers are missing their wiper blades.
falkland islands bernie harberts
The sheep are driven from the island paddocks down to the shearing shed. The shed sits just on the water, a few feet from this shipwreck. It is said to the second oldest shearing shed in the Falkland Islands.
falkland islands bernie harberts
The big wait: sheep are either terrified or waiting. Here, they’ve been put in pens to await their annual hair cut. The sheep in the far paddock are lighter colored because they’ve been shorn (or “shored” as some islanders say).
falkland islands bernie harberts
The sheep are moved from pen to pen via gates. Hinges don’t last long in this salty environment. Chains soon replace well intended latches.
falkland islands bernie harberts
The sheep are Pollworth crosses. I don’t know what a Pollworth is, but even with my beard starting to grow in….
falkland islands bernie harberts
….I still have a long way to go. I don’t think my wool will bring much.

Coming next, what goes on inside the shearing shed.

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Posted Saturday January 2, 2016 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Where in the World is South Georgia
November 28, 2015

Recently, I got a message from friends there was a boat headed to South Georgia. There was a spare berth aboard. They wanted me to come along.

“Sure!” I said and finally I had The Answer.

The Answer to The Question folks always ask me – “Where are you traveling next?”

So now, when I tell folks I’m off to South Georgia, this image pops in to their heads.

Me in the Beer Dinghy, floating down the black waters spotting the fox squirrel. I’d bring an empty sack and gather peanuts and, between picking goobers, I’d add a few more layers to my southern drawl. This South Georgia was Carter Country after all…

south georgia map bernie harberts
This is what most people think when you mention boating and things Georgia. A dude sitting in a small boat. Maybe he’s wearing a life jacket. Maybe he’s wearing a hunting vest. I’m only wearing the later because I don’t own the former. So far, looks so good until you step back and see….
south georgia map bernie harberts
…that this is a shameless, poorly faked, mock up of a small boat trip. I use this old boat (aka the Beer Dinghy) to cover the mule hay.

About the time folks ask me how close to Atlanta I’m going, I have to interrupt the conversation to inform folks that I’m headed to the South Georgia, not south Georgia.

South Georgia is an island in the Southern Ocean, off Antarctica. In sailor lingo, it’s in the Furious Fifties, way down below of the Roaring Forties. It’s where George Shackleton landed after he sailed away from the “Endurance” aboard his whale boat the “James Caird”.

It’s South Georgia, where, in 1775, Captain Cook landed, surveyed and claimed the island for Britain.

Seventy-five percent of the island is covered in ice – during the summer.

Residents? Thousands of rockhopper penguins, elephant seals and skuas. Full time human inhabitants? Zero.

south georgia map bernie harberts
South Georgia island. The island is just over 100 miles long and between 1 and 22 miles wide. The map you’re looking at is less accurate. I sketched this map for you in my journal. Some say the island looks like a whale. Others say it resembles an albatross. The affects of caffeine, wood stove smoke and a sleepy dog may have distorted the scale of things.
antarctic map bernie harberts
Here’s the bottom of the world view (or the top-down view if your one of the hundreds of millions of Southern Hemisphere dwellers. South Georgia is about 800 miles from the Falkland island. Yeah, another one of my not-for-navigation sketch maps.

From North Carolina, I will fly (with a few stops) to the Falkland Islands. There, I will spend a few weeks with friends who are care taking an island. After Christmas, I set off in a 40 year old wooden ketch for South Georgia.

I leave for Stanley, Falkland Islands, December 3

While I’m on the road, the RiverEarth.com General Store will go offline. Yes, the electronic version of “Too Proud to Ride a Cow”, the book about my 13-month mule voyage across America will still be available on Amazon.com.

While I’m out, it’ll be almost impossible to post on RiverEarth.com. There’s just no wi-fi access where I’m heading. And no, I won’t have access to a satellite phone. That wouldn’t be sporting to the guy who trains for a southern ocean voyage paddling his Beer Dinghy with an ax.

Still, I’d love to hear from you. Just pop me an email. Just not photos, please. When I do have access to wi-fi (maybe a few weeks in the Falklands) it’ll be very expensive…. and those pics suck bandwidth.

And now I gotta run. There’s a back pack that needs packing.

See you on the other side!

Posted Saturday November 28, 2015 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Hoofing and sharing it.
June 17, 2015

A while back I decided to travel across North Carolina by mule. Trouble was, I didn’t own a saddle bag, horse trailer, or, yeah, it gets worse, a vehicle.

I did own a mule named Woody.

allan crawford new zealand
Mule Woody and pony Maggie on the North Carolina leg of our 13 month journey across America. I’m grinning because I’m trying out the blue saddle bags I just made of old horse blankets and leather scraps.

By dint of sewing, borrowing and improvising, I clobbered together enough gear together to get across the Tar Heel State. That went so well, I traveled another three seasons to the Pacific Ocean.

Curious how this catch-as-catch-can approach to life might apply to your own?

Then check out the “Hoofing It: by Mule Across North Carolina” program Thursday, June 18 at the Madison County Public Library in Marshall, North Carolina. The program begins at 6:30p. ‘be great to visit with you afterwards.

“Hoofing It: by Mule Across North Carolina”
Madison County Public Library
1335 N. Main St.
Marshall, NC 2875

Posted Wednesday June 17, 2015 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

The Drover's Slides
January 6, 2015

January 5 was my birthday and it got me looking back through my old slides. Funny how life changes. Thirteen years ago I was living in New Zealand chasing cows with Allan Crawford. These days I live on my farm in western North Carolina. I chase mules instead of cows. When I run to town, it’s for diesel, memory cards and wifi, not shark oil, scones and slide film.

allan crawford new zealand
Allan Crawford: Kiwi stockman, drover and, for a spell, my boss in the land of the Long White Cloud. Allan’s specialty was moving cattle over stretches where it was cheaper to march them on the hoof then load them on to a trailer. The photo is an old scanned slide.

Slide film? Yeah, that’s the type of film you had to load in to your camera before memory cards showed up. As I looked at my old slides, they started looking pretty cool in that vintage sorta way. I thought you’d get a kick at seeing some of them.

They were all shot on the old Nikon camera I sailed around the world with. I have boxes of them (slides, not Nikons). That crusty “look”? No amigo, that’s not an app. Turns out what I saw as defects back in the day looks pretty cool now. Sorta like a dog bite scar starts looking hip a decade later. You know, something to talk about.

Here’s how those photos came about.

allan crawford new zealand
Sea Bird dries out in her Hatea River berth. It took me two years to sail the steel cutter from Oriental, North Carolina to New Zealand. I originally found her on an inland lake in North Carolina. How the hell was I to know that three years later, I’d break down half way around the globe? My pre-digital Nikon never let me down. I snapped this photo from a rowboat. (Whangarei, NZ)

I’d sailed my sailboat Sea Bird half way around the world only to break down in a foreign land– New Zealand. There, I struck up a friendship with a Northland stockman, Allan Crawford. He and his family took me in and put me to work weekends droving cattle. I was supplied with a horse and a sandwich. I brought my old Nikon. The deal was I could ride along and take photos as long as I helped gather up and drive the cattle.

Monday to Friday, I painted, welded and sewed like crazy on Sea Bird. The rest of the week I went bush.

allan crawford new zealand
Allan Crawford astride Rangi prepares to muster cattle with his buddy Rodney Craig. Rodney is riding one of the only mules I came across in New Zealand. His name was The Colonel. Rodney hauled him around in the back of his work truck. The truck had metal sides. The Colonel just jumped in to the back of the bed and off they went. Damndest trick. I’d love to try it with Polly, my mule, and my 1992 Dodge.

My job was to help Allan move cattle from winter quarters to summer grazing and back. In his part of New Zealand, at that time, the cattle still ran free in the bush. After rounding them up, we walked them up the road. The cattle had the right of way. When a car showed up, it slowed and the cattle flowed around it. The brown critters were docile and just shambled along. The dark ones, the black angus, where flighty and ran like hell. They were a pain in the ass to keep up with but since I was the free help, Allan didn’t get too mad if I let one or two break free.

allan crawford new zealand
Give way: alone guides a mob of cattle across a narrow bridge. Unlike American cowboys, Kiwi drovers don’t use a lariat or a lasso. Instead, they rely heavily on dogs and sticks. Carrying a stick all day gets heavy. You can see Allan resting this tip of his on his gum boot. This photo was an early digital photo. It was taken with an ancient (circa 1999) Mavica digital camera. It still looks pretty cool.
allan crawford new zealand
Okay, I had to slip in another vintage digital pic. Just to show you how close those cattle would crowd the occasional passing vehicle. I especially like the cow standing cross-wise to the front bumper. I never saw one make contact. I saw plenty stop to munch hay out of the back of a passing pickup.
allan crawford new zealand
Some wet cattle. It seemed to rain most of the time I droved. Standard attire was a raincoat and gumboots. The boots were giant so we rode with with wide stirrups. If we got thrown, we wouldn’t get trapped by the irons.

Allan and I put in lots of saddle miles that year and a half. We moved hundreds of cows and I put lots of shark oil on my butt when it got sore. Allan never got saddle sore. I never crashed a beast into a Kiwi’s quarter panel.

I eventually repaired Sea Bird and sailed her the rest of the way around the world.

(Postscript: Allan and his wife Gwyneth still live in New Zealand. I chatted with him per phone a while back.)

Posted Tuesday January 6, 2015 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Finally a Mailbox
July 27, 2014
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The past fifteen years I’ve gotten mail everywhere but in my own mailbox. Much of it has to do with my traveling ways. It’s hard to blame the post man for not filling your letter box if you’re never around – and don’t own a mailbox.

It’s something I finally got around to correcting.

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Home, sweet, barely visible home. It’s a fifteen minute round trip walk from my house to the new mail box. Look closely and you can see my oak and tin abode above the fence.

I’ve spent a good deal of the past 15 years traveling the world by boat, mule and bike. Between journeys, I’d find a place to stay – for a few months to a few years – then carry on.

There were the semi-stationary addresses – strings of rented barn apartments, regular apartments and hunt boxes (horse stalls below, digs above) – mostly in Southern Pines, North Carolina. There were sea level addresses (thanks Keith and Melinda) and others on mountain tops (howdy Kristin and Grant).

There were even government addresses with tiny brass doors – that’s called a PO Box.

There were times of no address at all. On the road I got mail the old fashioned traveler’s way – General Delivery. General Delivery Tecumseh, Oklahoma while traveling by mule and pack pony across America. General Delivery Keyes, Oklahoma heading south to Mexico with a yellow wagon. Overseas, in French territories like New Caledonia, it sounded even grander – “Post Restante”.

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Woody and Maggie, the mule and pony with which I traveled across the USA
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Where does the postman leave the mail when you live in a tipi? Answer: General Delivery at the nearest post office. My digs for 13 months as I traveled by mule across America (Butterfield Trail, AZ)

This getting mail all around drove the search engines bug house nuts.

Hell, over the years I’ve had so many addresses when I searched my address online I learned I lived in St Thomas, USVI. Oh, right… In the late 1990s I ran aground a few months in the Caribbean. (I was giving riding lessons so I could earn enough money to sail on to the Pacific – which I did).

Of course all of this spun through my head as I attached the trace chain that attached the locust log to mule.

Say what?

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Posted Sunday July 27, 2014 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Tourism Newfoundland Clip
June 18, 2014

Matt Tucker
Digital Lead
Target Marketing & Communications Inc.


Our State Woody and Maggie article

Posted Wednesday June 18, 2014 by Bernie
Where this story happened:

Woody and Maggie (198/9? - 2014)
May 3, 2014

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.

woody maggie american sahara sand dune
Maggie and Woody in the American Sahara circa 2005. These sand dunes were just some of the obstacles the duo overcame on their walk across America.

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.

mule woody tipi
Introducing Woody to my tipi. It did not go well. In the end, Woody accepted it. I did, too. The six-pound home sheltered me for over a year on the road.

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.

woody maggie pack saddle trial
Maggie the day I tried her as a pack pony. I just slung my home-made saddle bags over an English saddle. I later replaced it with a pack saddle. A few days after this photo was taken we hit the road. The plan was to sell Maggie under way and purchase a larger pack animal. She ended up faithfully hauling my gear – and occasionally me – all the way to the Pacific Ocean. (Foxtrack Training Center, Southern Pines, NC)

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.

woody maggie white sand missile range
You see all sorts of things on a missile range: rockets, missiles, smoke plumes and flashes. But a mule and pony? Here, Woody and Maggie prepare to enter the rocket zone.(Olamogordo, NM)

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.

wood maggie first mule and pony at official center of the world
Woody gives Jacques-André Istel and wife Felicia a sniff before proceeding to the Official Center of the world. Yes, you can really set foot – or hoof – on a plaque saying you arrived at the center of it all. Then you get a certificate – even if you’re a pony.(Felicity, CA)

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.

woody mule cross bridge young rider
Woody takes a young rider up the road a stretch. Note the intense look on the young man’s face. I know that look well, having worn it often on my journey.(Chattanooga, TN)

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.

Posted Saturday May 3, 2014 by Bernie
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