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Alone

They once called it The American Sahara, that line of sand dunes that drifts from Yuma toward the Salton Sea.

Then some geographically correct person re-baptized them the Imperial Dunes. As in the Imperial Valley where they grow truck loads of lettuce and alfalfa. Suddenly the dunes sounded tamer. Smaller. It sissifies mountain of sand to re-name it after a garden, even if it’s one of the nation’s biggest carrot producers.

But just what is large? Does the name of a sand pile matter if it takes your mule three days to traverse?


Small

I rode Woody and Maggie up into the dunes and turned them loose. Suddenly we all got smaller.

It got me to thinking. What if you’re a zebra-tailed lizard? What if you’re one of the mysterious desert dwellers that identify themselves more by tiny tracks than roaring or braying?

After I came down from the dunes, I just hand walked Woody and Maggie along the sky swept sand embankment.

Every day, from dawn until the sun was three handbreadths above the horizon (the hand is the relative measure of sun time out here) I studied tracks in the sand.


Sidewinder rattlesnake


Road runner


Maggie’s cart


Unknown

At four-hand breadths above the horizon, the sun burned the shadows from the tracks and they melted from sight. Melted too, out of my brain, were thoughts of carrots and potatoes and turnips.

To men on foot and mules, these sands will always be the American Sahara.

Bernie
RiverEarth.com

“Now stand on the plaque and make a wish” Norma informed me as I approached the bronze circle. I stepped into the ring of raised lettering that read “Official Center of the World” and tread onto the dot at the center. This was it. I closed my eyes. I made my wish.

Then I asked Norma, sort of cowering, “Hey, Norma. Has a mule ever stood at the center of the world?”.

And my wish came true.

Magnolia first, and then Woody (because he cowers at affairs of state) were duly lead into the pyramid.

I placed Woody’s hoof on the plaque. “So Woody” I asked as Norma jotted down the time the momentous event took place “what ch’ya wishin’ for?”


“hay, hay, hay, hay…”

And I swear I heard it. “Hay, hay, hay, hay”. Maggie wished for the same.

Their dreams came true.

He and Maggie were tied up outside the pyramid and dined on irrigated grass.

Later came the proof.

“This certifies that Woody visited the Pyramid and stood at the Official Center of the World” read the parchment certificate.

There was magic here. This marked a year to the day on the road.

It was a year to the day that I set out from the town dock in Oriental, North Carolina. A 365 day journey by plow mule and pony to get from Croaker Town to the Official Center of North Carolina (behind Mountaire chicken houses three and four in Star, NC) to the Official Center of the World.

Oh and then the celebrations began. Jacques Istel, the mayor of Felicity, and his wife Felicia, broke out three very French things. Champagne, a piece of the Eiffel Tower, and Gustav Eiffel himself.

It seems Jacques had acquired the quintessential Section 12 of the grand tower a few years earlier. Gustav’s appearance, in cardboard, remained shrouded in mystery.

Gustav in tophat was duly propped up in front of his creation. Jacques, wearing the official red mayoral sash, made a short pronouncement which ended to the effect that we should retire to the “Brasserie” for a champagne toast.

And so we wrapped up our first year on the road.

So it just goes to show that there’s still magic in dreaming. There’s still plenty of room for slow mules and ponies that wish for hay. And if a man walks and talks and wishes carefully, he may still get to the center of it all.

Bernie
RiverEarth.com

(Dear Jacques, Felicia, Norma, Debbie and Gustav.

Thanks for capping our year on the road with such a magical spell! For anyone who wants a taste, drop by Felicity for a visit.

Aside from enjoyable whimsy, the main and successful activity of the Town of Felicity is the engraving of history in granite seen at www.historyingranite.org and felicityusa.com.

Felicity lies about 8 miles West of Yuma, AZ just off Interstate 8.

Bernie)

Last night I heard spring arriving.


The sound of spring on the ground

All winter, it’s been a struggle to keep Woody and Maggie fed.

I can haul some grain on Maggie’s cart; sometimes a few flakes of hay. But as soon as I pitch camp, I tether Maggie by a front leg and turn Woody loose. That way they can browse a bit and add the odd wisps of dry Med grass or mesquite twigs to their meager rations.

Then, just before I turn in, I feed them a few handfuls of grain. As I drift off to sleep, the last thing I hear is the sound of horse muzzles nuzzling canvas.

If sleep comes slowly, I may hear “Clip”.

Then comes silence.

Then “Clip” again and more silence.

Finally there’s a stony “Chew, chew, chew” and the pattern repeats itself. “Clip”…….

The “Clip” is Woody snapping off a dead tuft of grass with his front teeth. The silence is when he looks for another bite. The “chew, chew, chew” is the morsel’s inevitable fate. They’re tough, these winter snacks, and take time for the old boy to crush.

I can hear it’s poor pickings. It’s the sound of a mule trying to make the best of a barren winter plate.


Slim pickings

Then last night I heard it.

“Clip, clip, clip” and immediately “chew, chew, chew”. Followed by “clip, clip, clip” and more chewing sounds. Listen! No silence in between!

I knew exactly what it was. I’d heard it last March at Miracle Meadows, North Carolina. It was the sound of new grass.

The next morning I discovered the splashes of green I’d overlooked the night before. Scattered like random splashes across the desert floor where tufts of green.

It was Med Grass, a fine-leafed grass that resembles Bermuda in the early stages.

The blades and days got longer. The rhythm of clip and chew changed.

Now it’s “Clip, clip” and then “chew, chew, chew, chew, chew”. It only takes a few bites to fill the old mule’s mouth for long moments of peaceful chewing.

Spring comes to our camp

It’s the sound of desert greening.

Bernie
RiverEarth.com

The joy of mulespeed is the ease of stopping. At 2 miles per hour, the mind slows to the speed of the scenery. From there, it ain’t much of a leap to standing still.

Standing still is where my mind sees the day’s last photos.

I always keep a camera handy and the photos usually just compose themselves. I just have to press the shutter. The following are just a few Arizona mulespeed scenes.


Barbed wire balls – North of Three Points, AZ

I stopped at Jay and Jerry Woehlck’s for some water. There were three large barbed-wire balls in their front yard. “I bought them from some Amish guy” Jerry explained. The Woehlck’s put me up for the night. The next morning, Woody and Maggie slowed to a stop alongside the barbed wire balls. Maybe they reminded Woody of where he came from.


Maggie’s fallen friend – Mobile, AZ

At the end of the day, I found myself at the Estrella Sailpark outside Mobile, AZ. It’s the largest sailport in the United States. Bruce Stephens, the owner, put me up in a cabin. After everyone went home, Woody and Maggie roamed the sailport grounds. Just on sun down, Maggie took particular interest in some Med grass growing next to an old sailplane. I snapped the photo.

(Thanks Bruce and Jason Stephens for putting us up overnight! For anyone interested in soaring visit azsoaring.com)


Day’s end – Gila Bend, AZ

Bernie
RiverEarth.com

John Henry was saying, “The last polymath was …” but the clanking gears in my brain drowned him out. They were too busy working down the names he’d threaded into the last five minutes’ conversation.

The Dalai Lama, Bronowski, the Kula Trail, L. Ron Hubbard, the three types of Pygmy death (dead, completely dead, forever dead).

Just when my brain got the mess untangled, the flash of silver caught my eye. It was John Henry’s skinning knife relieving a coyote of its jacket.

I’ve never skinned more than a knee but John Henry slipped gracefully from philosophy to the job at hand.

The coyote was stretched across an old wire spool, the wooden kind the phone company uses. “I like to skin mine out lying on their side. It takes me ten or fifteen minutes per hide”.

After the fur is separated from the carcass, John Henry puts it in to the washing machine outside his front door. As the fur is churning to clean, he invites me inside.

John Henry lives in an old adobe trapper’s cabin among a riot of books, hunting supplies, mules and Sterling MJ 600 traps. Containers of “Barnes Rifle and Handgun Bore Cleaning Solvent” and “Tetra Gun Lubricant” mingle freely with old friends like “The Milagro Bean Field War” and “The Fourth Hand”. There’s a soft whining coming from underneath his bed that says “puppies” and the crackle from his wood stove spells “mesquite”.

But where John Henry really excels is calling coyotes to decoy dogs.

He uses an electronic hunting call, usually the one that sounds like a wounded rabbit, to lure the coyotes toward his blind. When a coyote is sighted, he sends out one of his Airedale Terriers to greet it. The coyote, sensing competition from another carnivore, approaches the terrier.

The coyote begins playing with the dog.

The dog joins the game. It knows to bring the coyote closer to the blind. It slaps the ground with its front pays. It circles a bit closer to the blind. It teases again with the front legs.

Ever closer to the blind comes the coyote.

Then “Blamm!” barks the Remington 17 and the game is over.

“I like the Rem 17 because it doesn’t make a big hole but still vaporizes the coyote’s insides”. Not ruining the pelt matters to John Henry. A decent hide fetches twenty to twenty five bucks these days.

What began as an overnight invitation stretched to five days. I learned how to skin a coyote in under two minutes (tip: use a come-along and a doorknob). What you call the technique (“tube” or “case” skinning). And how not to set a Sterling MJ 600 trap (tip: don’t set it where it’ll get run over).


Sterling MJ 600 trap

I learned that education and career aren’t incompatible. I learned that the love of books and quotes shouldn’t interfere with the hands on lifestyle.

Which cheered me greatly as I bumped off toward Tombstone with my head full of new quotes and “The Milagro Beanfield War” in my saddle bag.

(Thanks John Henry and Matt for the bed and the books and the roof! For those who want to know more about John Henry’s innovative hunting techniques, visit his website coyotegods.com.)

When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do it without grumbling. He will not request it unless absolutely necessary.

—from “Hints for Plains Travelers” Omaha Herald, published 1877 .



No grumbling, Bernie

“My ancestors were on the way to California when they broke a wagon wheel in these mountains” Norman said as he handed me a photo copied map of the McGee family ranch.

“While the wheel was being fixed in Tucson, they discovered water and began looking for gold. That’s how we got into the ranching and mining business”.

I wondered if an errant Amish mule had destroyed their locomotion but refocused quickly on the map he thrust into my hand. “Just go back down the road, turn left and go until you get to the dirt tank. You can get to Three Points that way”.


In search of Norman’s dirt tank

Map in hand, I set off in search of the dirt tank, took a wrong turn and spent the rest of the day retracing Woody’s hoof prints.

If only I’d had a working compass.

In my original preparations, I’d bought a three-dollar Chinese compass for navigation. When I dug it from my saddle bag, I discovered it had developed a bubble. It was a really healthy, annoying burp that gurgled and bulged around the compass card. Now the needle just spun gaily in circles, pointing in all directions but Polaris and that dirt tank.

Swallowing my pride, I followed my hoof prints almost back to Norman’s office, keeping enough mesquite between me and embarrassment.

I set out a second time. This time I followed a tortured dirt road through the mesquite and prickly pear cactus, getting off to push Maggie’s cart uphill when the going got too steep.


Waiting for a push

Oh how the spokes squealed and screamed. I thought of Norman’s ancestors waiting for their busted wheel to get back from Tucson. How they found the water. How they started looking for gold. How they never left. How they formed such a strong identity with their land that they came to call the family that settled it “our people”.

But each time we crested a gully, I climbed back onto Woody for a few more dusty desert steps.

In the end, it took us two lovely days to travel the route that spanned six inches on Norman’s photocopied map.

I just kept the sun to my left.

(Thanks Norman, Gary, Heather and everyone else at Sierrita Mining and Ranching for helping us along the way. Boy we sure enjoyed our ride across McGee Ranch! And Ray, I hope you got lion number 39. Bernie )

It cheers me that I can do today what once took an act of Congress. It’s just too bad they never heard the saguaro.

In 1857, Congress voted funding for an overland mail route “from such point of the Mississippi River as the contractors may select, to San Francisco”. The contractors chose St. Louis. Congress chose San Francisco. Ok, so I chose Oriental, NC to San Diego. Still, our routes often overlapped.

As I make my way across Arizona, I weave my way back and forth across the route that John Butterfield eventually chose to fulfill Congress’s mandate.

John Butterfield had been a stage coach driver for lines back East. The route he chose ran from St. Louis to Fort Smith, Arkansas and then south-west under the Rocky Mountains through El Paso and then across Southern Arizona.

I chose a similar route for many of the reasons John did. It was flatter than the northern route. And it was snow-free year round.

In Mobile, Arizona I followed the old Butterfield Route through the desert for four days.


Pitched among the silent giants

Until now, I’d never had the occasion to camp under a giant saguaro cactus. Now they were everywhere.

The second night out, I pitched my tipi among one of these silent giants.

Or was it so silent?

After the sun went to ground, after the rosy glow faded, a breeze slid from the hills and blew life into the cactus grove.

That’s when I heard the sound. That’s how I heard my first saguaro concert.

The saguaro behind my tipi had three distinct sounds.

Down low, where there are no spines, the saguaro resembles an ancient Long-leaf pine trunk. Tiny grains of sand make brushing sounds on the loose bark. Then higher up, where the inch and a half long thorns run to the sky in bristling vertical rows, it sounds fuzzy; a hair brush held out in a gale.

Higher up yet, where the arms sprout and curve to the sky, the saguaro is the loudest. It’s a round sound that wraps itself around each limb like an acoustic hand.

When you close your eyes, the whole cactus speaks from trunk to tip in these three voices.


Mule Woody engaged in a bit of cactus listening

In 1860, the Pony Express began mail delivery from St. Louis to Sacramento. In 1861 the transcontinental telegraph was completed. In the span of a few years messages went from bumping across the nation in wagons to zinging across through slim wires.

Then a few years later Congress’ next overland dream was realized. It was called the train.

The improvements in communication shifted business away from John Butterfield’s overland route. For a few years, the route was still used in regional legs. Then finally it disappeared all together.

Now the desert’s gone back to quiet.

But not silent.

Bernie

RiverEarth.com