Ronald's Borrowed Vomit Saddle Bags

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.

Buddy the saddle mule carries me across the Low Water Bridge. Carrying the pack saddle – and a load of mysterious smelling cargo – is my mule Polly. Look closely and you can see rain drops streaking down (Low Water Bridge, Uwharrie Forest, NC)

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.

Ronald Hudson driving mule Polly in the 2013 Robbins Farmers Day Parade. He won the Best Buggy category.

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.

Polly’s cargo. The bulky, off-green bags are the duffel bags I turned into saddle bags. They hang from metal hooks affixed to her pack saddle. She’s also carrying one rope and one chain picket. At night, she is picketed out so she can roam, graze, roll and lie down.

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.

Day Four ends at the Eldorado Outpost. Buddy is carrying the riding saddle. Polly is carrying the gear.

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.


Here’s a glimpse of what we saw our first four days on the road. Under way I made photos, notes and audio recordings. My route led me from Asheboro, North Carolina to Erect. From there, we headed west through Black Ankle, Flint Hill, Ophir and Low Water Bridge. The fourth day we arrived in Eldorado where I spent a day visiting with friends Melinda, Chris and Marion (and countless others) at the Eldorado Outpost.

It took me two days to prepare for my Uwharrie Ramble. Day One was spent teaching Polly to haul salt blocks without killing me (or the 100 pounds of mineral salt on her back). The square shape in the duffel bag is a 50 pound trace mineral salt block. Day Two Ronald and I clobbered together enough gear for a week on the road. Sunday night I got the bug. Tuesday noon I was gone.

The Uwharries are actually an ancient mountain range. A series of old, worn down hills, it is still home to small to medium scale row crop and feed lot operations. Here, a corn field on Flint Hill Road.

Wayne Hussey’s corn crib. Wayne still farms with mules south of Erect. He stores his corn in the slatted portion of the building. It is lined with galvanized wire to keep the rats out. It’s not worth a damn at keeping weevils at bay. The night I visited they were hatching in to moths. All night the bats ate them just over my head. There was gospel music coming from Wayne’s barn. His mules listen to it. I made an audio recording. Maybe one day I’ll share it with you.

Red barn and crab apples

Life before decals. A traveling man and his mule have time to inspect road signs signs. As in slow down enough to discover that this sign was painted by hand….

….with a narrow paint brush. Look closely and you can see where each stroke begins and ends. The hand is steady as a template. I wondered what person painted this sign. Alone on the road with my mules, I was feeling in need of companionship. So I figured it was woman’s handiwork. Where was she now? Where were her brushes? Was she lonely in this age of decal road signs? Or was it just me?

My home on the road. Nights, I sleep in a hammock. I hang it from whatever I can find. Here it’s suspended from a Massey Fergueson tractor and the posts of Ken’s corn crib. Ken lives in Abner.

For a pommel bag, I used a pair of blue jeans. Ronald paid 33 1/3 cents for them at a flea market. I made a recording of how that came to be. Maybe one day I’ll play the story for you. To make saddle bags, I Just tied knots in the legs and lashed them to the saddle. Filled them with canned kippers and two quart bottles of water. Most days, lunch on the road is fish and water. Or, in this case, some pears picked along the side of the road. If anyone needs a pair of American Outfitters jeans, get up with me after the trip. I think they’re a girl’s size. They come with a hell of story but no tinned fish or fruit.

Destination Unknown. Polly and Buddy ponder another sign. It’s unclear where our road trip takes us next – or even how long we’ll be out.

Hope you enjoyed your mule tour of the Uwharrie Range. From Eldorado, it’s unclear how I return of Asheboro. I’ll keep you posted.

(Thanks, Ronald, for loaning me the pack saddle, grain, poncho and mule. Not so sure about those duffel bags. Another shout out to Melinda, Chris and Marion at the Eldorado Outpost for putting my mules and me up. If you get crazy lucky, Chris might be barbecuing chicken out back. Go for it. Otherwise just consider yourself everyday lucky and go for the fried bird. It’s worth a four-day mule ride.)

Map note: The map shows Low Water Bridge in the Uwharrie Range.


2013-08-12 16:28:49

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

2013-08-14 17:54:04

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

2013-08-21 08:47:10

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”.

2013-08-31 20:04:06

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!

Elizabeth Denny
2013-09-14 13:16:49

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.

2015-09-24 20:43:35

Welive in mitchell countyvon pumpkin patch mountain. Mostly trees and boulders but wevwould love to host you in the Pisgah. Also have the wanderlust.

Bernie Harberts
2015-09-30 10:32:12

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.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

[…] mule ramble from Ronald’s house to Wayne’s. The account of that ramble is called “Ronald’s Borrowed Vomit Saddle Bags” and you can read it right […]

Current Ramble
Other Cool Reads