UNC-TV and Our State "Mule Rider" Program

Note: the following article is about the making of “Mule Rider”, the UNC-TV program that ran the “Our State” program on October 3.
Post Scrip: You can watch the program below

Bayboro, North Carolina. That winter night I parked the wagon by the shrimp boat fleet. Their nets hung like green mist. Mule Polly was grazing next to that giant anchor and I thought of how all day long, she’d marched through the wind and highway trucks and now it was so beautiful, calm and…alone.

Just the two of us. One man. One mule. Alone together on the road.

Night falls on Polly and the fishing fleet. Behind her, the outriggers of the steel trawler “Miss Georgie” punch in to the sky. A closer look at the vessel’s bow shows…

…where many look to comfort and company. (Bayboro, NC)

I want to put my arm around my honey and say, “damn, babe, just look at that”. Or just sit quietly with another human being and say nothing. Soak in the nets and salt smell and conch eggs crunching in the winter grass. Absorb the peace that comes after bashing through the wintry elements all day.

But the solitary traveler has no babe to drape his arm around and share the beautiful moments. No other travel compadre to pass the Mason jar to. No. A mule can only provide so much companionship. Then you need a human.

Another view of our camp. Here, the anchor that stood sentinel over my gypsy outfit my first night on the road. (Bayboro, NC)

Less cheery, equally vivid, moments pass in isolation too.

The water sloshing from under your boots as you lead your mule up the highway. Eighteen wheelers roar past, leaving wakes, not dust. You numb out. One foot leads the other. Dragging yourself from one visible foothold to the next. Bridge to silo to tree to raised burial vault to spanish moss covered live oak. Step. Slosh. Step. Slosh. With night coming on and you don’t know where your weary mule will rest or who will take you in.

“Damn I wish I had someone here for this” you think and it’s back to stepping and sloshing through the country where graves pop from the ground in high water.

A gust of wind from astern smashes in to the wagon so hard it pushes mule Polly – who’s pulling my wood wood and canvas home – up the road. So you climb back in to the wagon to run the brake, so the winter wind doesn’t push your mule off the road. You later hear the gusts were the most violent of the year.

No wonder I travel alone.

But this trip is different.

For the first time in a long time, mule Polly and I have company on our journey.

That companion would be…. you. Well, in a roundabout way.

Let me explain.

With some – make that monumental – assistance from UNCTV, Our State magazine and BB&T, I was able to hit the road with a full film crew to capture the peak and crap moments of wagon life.

Late last winter, Emmy-Award winning film maker Morgan Potts and crew joined me for three days on the road traveling the dormant landscape of eastern North Carolina. Morgan, four crewmen, three white UNCTV vans and a camera bigger than Polly’s head joined me as I visited old friends from Oriental to Aurora.

Together, we braved whopping winter winds, road construction and torrential rains. A man named Sid told me my favorite grain bin story and net maker Virgil Potter explained how to build a trawl doors to sew a proper net.

What do movie stars complain that mules enjoy? Waiting. Here, Polly eyes Mike Milstead as he adjusts a tripod. Crouched beside Polly is Morgan Potts. This morning would have given a skimpily clad screen star a little something extra to really complain about – frost. (Oriental, NC)

John Carawan between picking tunes. I’ve visited John and Linda Carawan a few times over the years. He’s the only person I know that doesn’t call my dulcimer playing what it is – horrific. Unasked and unscripted, John presented Polly and me with a song he wrote for us. Called it the Ballad of Bernie and Polly. Maybe I’ll play it for you later. I’m hoping it makes the producer’s final cut.(Mike Milstead photo)

Quiet times were recorded, too. Nights, the crew left me with a movie camera. I used it to capture wagon life – from shaving without water to cooking on the home made stove. It’s all the material I’ve never seen before in a documentary or on TV. A home made wagon stove that swallows trawl door offcuts. A hand written diary bound with net twine.

My home made wagon stove. It runs on whatever wood I scrounge. Same goes for my cooking. The eggs were given to me by folks outside Aurora, NC.

The stove burns short lengths of wood I gather in my travels. It’s interesting how the type of wood you burn reflects the land you’re traveling through. Here, a short length of yellow pine. It’s an offcut of a longer board used to build a trawl door. The trawl door keeps a trawler’s nets spread wide. Sitting atop the board, what Virgil calls “conch eggs”.

Soon, mule Polly and I will be hitting the wagon road again. It’ll be cold, wintry and wet. Only this time it’ll be on TV. And you can join me.

Morgan informs me the footage his crew captured is shaping up impressively. He says it’s, “like I have been right there with ya.”

The final product airs on UNC-TV’s Our State October 3 at 8p.

Look forward to getting out there with ya!

What: Mule Rider on UNC-TV’s Our State program

Where: UNC-TV Public Television

When: October 3, 2013, 8p

Next page, a photo essay of our winter journey through coastal Carolina.


Solo wagon voyaging implies the rest of the world has disappeared and it’s just the two of you left. All day long, you plod along with Long Ears. Maybe wave to a contrail in the sky. Just to have some human interaction.

Actually, wagon travel is somewhere in between. Here are photos and comments spanning the spectrum from crowd to isolation.

My cold weather film crew mates. Mike Milstead is fitting a small camera to capture some on-wagon ambient footage. Assisting is Morgan Potts. Cameraman Mike Burke barely squeezed in to my wagon with his giant lens. It was worth all the cold weather fiddling. The guys captured some extraordinary winter wagon footage.

Where to find food in the winter landscape? For Polly, this patch of clover outside Aurora is good enough. While I waited for Polly to fill her tank, a big pickup roared up. I thought we were in trouble. Turns out the guy who owned the land Polly was lunching on just wanted to visit. See if I needed anything. His name was Sid. He gave me a tour of the grain bin behind Polly. It was like…

… a miniature, steel version of the Pantheon. Okay, so it’s just a grain bin. But check out how the sun comes through the circular opening, marking the spot on the wall. In Rome, in the Pantheon, this opening is called the oculus. I think Sid just called it a hole. Not every day you get to see an oculus in Aurora.

While I might make it sound like wagon travel is a loner’s game it’s not. At all. Every day, you need to feed, water and shelter your mule. Here, friends at John and Linda Carawan’s visit for a gam.

I built a fold down writing desk in to my wagon. Perfect place to write in my journal come day’s end.

To hell with smart phones, tablets and touch screens. Give me pen, paper and net twine. They’re just better for my neural network and the hazards of the road. I build journals with whatever I find in my ramblings. Here, some net twine Virgil Potter gave me serves as a fine binding. If I were a critic, I’d gauge my sketches as “more energetic than technically accurate.” Describes me down to the tea (yes, the loose leaf kind, gun powder if you’d be so kind. The mailing address is PO Box 245, Southern Pines, NC 28388…).

A piece of mesh cut out of a fishing net. The curly brown material is part of what they call “conch eggs” in Bayboro, NC. You can see a photo of a whole one on the previous page. It’s sitting on the board in front of my wood stove. Trawlers fishing off the east coast pull them up in their nets. When they return to Oriental to repair their nets, they fall out. When dry, they are crunchy as a potato chip. When damp, they are tough as leather.

Filming this segment involved two trips by UNC-TV film crew. The first trip involved traveling with Polly and me through eastern North Carolina. Later, they joined me on the farm to film some more. Here, they’re setting up for a shot of me walking through my hayfield. They are: Steve Price-lighting, Mike Milstead- grip, Grant Dennis- Audio, Mike Burke- Videographer and Morgan Potts- director/producer.

Good night Polly. Here’s the last thing I see out my back window most nights on the road. That’s my equine travel mate picketed close to the wagon. I stake her out so she can browse all night and bed down if she’s tired. Sure beats being tied to a tree.

The Mule Rider program can be viewed here

(Special thanks to UNC-TV, Our State magazine and BB&T for putting hundreds of hours and vast resources in to this project. Kudos to film crewmen Mike Burke, Mike Milstead, Jay Cartwright, Glenn Abbey, Steve Price, Grant Dennis and director/producer Morgan Potts. A tip ‘o the hat to everyone back at the UNC-TV studio who wove hours of footage into fifteen minutes of kickin’ final product. Also Keith and Melinda at TownDock.net for putting Polly and me up in their yard before and after the filming. Mel, pardon the divots on the garden mound. Polly says it’ll come back especially green….)

Map note: map shows Sid’s grain bin of “oculus” fame.

2013-09-14 09:48:45

I just found you through the tiny house blog, & am enjoying your writing. Built my own house, tho’ not tiny (1000 sq ft), just up the road from Robbins. No TV, so won’t be able to view the Our State program, but I look forward to following your adventures here. Best wishes on your next adventure.

2013-09-16 15:51:00

Great going builing your own place Laurie. Nice patch of country around Robbins. Just enjoyed a weekend there driving Polly at Farmers Day. Maybe we’ll start the No Glow Club for TV-free folks. Hell, between you and me, we’d have at least two members. I enjoyed your site Laurie – especially about the pawpaws. They’ve always been mysterious to me. Do you think they’d grow in Western North Carolina? Cheers. Bernie

2013-09-23 02:05:39

Kitty corner and across the continent, I, in SW Central British Columbia Canada, am a candidate for third member of the no-glow, TV-free club since 1980.

I do very much enjoy your website, sharings and adventures Bernie. My life has been adventurous also – like packing up three young children, two dogs, my saddle into a Datsun Conestoga wagon in search of the last frontier in the Peace River area of Alberta Canada, from West Berne, New York in 1978. I left the farmstead I had been self-sufficient on, for new adventures. I found them – lots of them through the years. Not all fun, though most of them were, and no regrets. I’m slowed down enough to write about it now. There are adventures still to come…but at a more settled pace now. I haven’t lived in an equid drawn caravan yet, but it is in the plans. The donkeys are growing. Their time will come for harnesses and hitches. Your adventures, and Wagon teamster Bob’s, always inspire and delight me. So sign me up for the No Glow Club and I’ll be checking in to see what you are up to often.

2013-09-30 18:02:39

MaryAnna. Wow, Member #3 in the No Glow Club. Pretty soon we’ll be in the double digits and need a Secretary.
Great to hear you’ve given in to the same wanderlust that inhabits me. Sounds like you’ve had some grand adventuring there. With more to come.
You mention going with donkeys. I say that’d be a super way to go. Just get ones that walk fast. If you don’t believe me, my buddy Ronald will let you walk/drag his mammoth burro up a hill. He’s fine going down but uphill he’s slower than one of those cement yard donkeys… Keep adventuring! Bernie

2013-10-02 08:55:46

Bernie, I do think pawpaws would do fine there. They’re indigenous to 26 states… I believe I read as far west as Nebraska. I got mine years ago from edible landscaping in afton, va. It looks like his selection has widened since I purchased mine. Another place you might check, closer to home, is useful plants nursery in Black Mountain. I don’t remember them having pawpaws when I picked up some other interesting things there a few yrs back, but they’re nice folks and might be helpful.
Love the No Glow club! I do on occasion watch a movie; just not hooked up to the rest. Does that disqualify me :o)

2013-10-02 15:45:20

Laurie, Thanks for the pawpaw encouragement. No, watching an occasional movie doesn’t disqualify you from the No Glow Club…as long as the curtains are pulled. At least that’s what I do when I fire up the laptop on the wagon. Hell, it could launch the No Glow Club’s first line of merchandise – black out curtains. The perfect gift and club fundraiser (along with a sledge hammer). Cheers. Bernie

steve and lolita
2013-10-04 08:06:36

My lifetime dream is to go from the east to the west coast. Now that my four children are grown its time for us to make our dreams come true. I have said that I was born at the wrong time because my heart belongs to a more simpler time. We have decided to bike although I had tried to talk Steve into mules and a wagon like our for fathers so many years before us. After watching you on TV Steve has began to rethink our mode of transpotation. Any advise for us.

2013-10-07 17:40:08

Finally reading your response Bernie…and chuckling.

Yes, a movie played on the laptop now and then. Just enjoy it when out of civilizations way and one doesn’t have to draw the black curtains…the sound of hoof beats, dirt bikes or helicopter coming will give you time enough to get it off…like time enough to pull out of the water tub and put some clothes on when bathing.

Six Mammoth Donkeys, ranging in age right now between 6 months and 3 years plus an aged Jenny (mother of two of the others) as my anchor in training and traveling. I may be crazy to have six…but at 800# mature (14 – 14.2hh) they won’t eat as much a Bob Skeldings three drafts…and they can eat brush and leaves like goats, along with grass). I reserve the right to change my mind, as well.

Fast walking…I hope so…for donkeys. I’ll train with that aim in mind, carrot on the stick just out of range. I rode and drove a large standard donkey I saved from death row. The Vets didn’t think I could rehabilitate him, but we fooled them. I saw the life in his eye and listened to his plea to live. In the 1970s, we traveled with one of my young children on his back and the other two in the cart with me. He went along great and never lost a kid as they changed places so all could ride. But when the hill got somewhat steep, he stopped. I clucked him on. He lowered his head. Something must be wrong with poor Poncho. I stepped out of the cart and up came his head and he stepped on. I train well (by horses and donkeys), from then on when he was going up hill and slowed his step and lowered his head, I stepped out and walked it. The donks and I will work it out. I can still walk.

And Lolita, I love that name. I named one of my Morgan fillies Lolita; and I named one of my three yearling Jennets (which I bought as a day old donkey foal) Lolita. She is pretty as a picture – sweet and cheeky, alternatively. Best wishes for you and your husband and the trip across the US. Whoohoo!

2013-10-16 09:14:16

Dear Steve and Lolita, You asked about traveling across the US on mule and wagon vs bike. At the risk of a wagon shaft across the chops next time I show up to borrow my buddy Ronald’s wagon, I’d say take off on the bikes. Once you’re on the road, you’ll have the Adventurer Mantle on your shoulders and, should the urge strike, you can trade up to mules. Main thing is to just get going as soon as possible. Cheers! Bernie

2013-10-16 09:23:04

Howdy MaryAnna, Got a kick out of your Poncho story. I’m a big fan of burros – big ones, little ones and wild ones. But especially fast ones. Burros in general remind me of a cross between a desert island goat and my ’92 Dodge diesel. Skinny, grey and able to grind away decade after decade. Neither are fast. Which brings up my favorite donks. The ones that walk out. Because damn they can be s…..l….o…..w….. Sounds like Poncho taught you that.
One of my crusty mule buddies suggests, when choosing a donkey, to walk in to the herd, light a firecracker and see which one runs away the fastest. That’s the one you want…. Okay. That’s just a theory. Maybe you can tell me how it pans out! All the best with your 62 chromosome adventures. Bernie

Connie Johnson
2014-12-04 11:14:23

Hi Bernie, Just got on your website for the first time in a long time. Wanted you to know I had a book published and remembered what you told me about Xlibris. I am writing a sequel and wanted to know if I could use one of your real life stories. I want to tell about how you threw everything overboard when you were sailing around the world. My book is an inspirational fiction and the Pastor is telling this story to the guys at the coffee shop. Wanted to get your permission first. Would also like to use your name, too. Can’t wait to hear from you. Bro. Joe and everyone at the radio station says “Hello.”
Merry Christmas!
Connie Johnson

Louise Peddle
2015-10-27 18:45:08

Enjoying reading some of your adventures,glad to know you are well and still travelling. We are all well, the girls are growing up. Would love to hear from you some time.


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