About the First 100 Miles
It’s about Mile 100 of our mule journey. We have settled in to the mule ramble pace. I say “about” Mile 100 because we don’t really know how far we’ve come. And we don’t care any more.
That’s the sort of trip we’re on. It’s a journey defined by paper maps, the thickness of mule hide and the durability of our own.
We’re not navigating by GPS so we don’t have way points we can hold up proudly like a stringer of fish. This week, we rode our mules up a country road past a barn with a basketball hoop bolted to the chestnut siding. The center line served as the free throw line. This county defies smart phone navigation. There’s no service in these hills.
I own a smart phone. Mostly I use it for its hot spot. That way, I can write blogs on my laptop from the road. I also use it for getting a sense of the route ahead. But here’s what I’ve learned about its limitations.
You can try to plan your mule ramble all you want. Sit at your laptop. Zoom in on Google Maps and preview your intended route way past midnight. Pick all the back roads you think will have the least traffic. The thought is, once you’re out there, you’ll just follow some invisible, digital line across the land. Like you’re driving a car or bike to a pre-determined destination.
Then this happens.
You’re riding up some winding road and some dude in a red truck asks you where you’re from. The conversation goes like this:
Dude: Where are you coming from?
You: Lenoir, NC, about 100 miles away from here.
Dude: Wow. Where are you going?
You: We saw on our map we could get to Mountain City on the back roads and then get up to Grayson Highlands to see the wild ponies
Dude: Oh hell no. Don’t do that! That’s a terrible road. Way too many cars and not enough shoulder. You’ll get flattened! What you need to do is take Rich Hill Road about 2 miles from here and then…..”
And then the Dude calls his friend and writes the directions on a scrap of paper. He spells out, in words on that piece of paper, how we get from where we’re standing to a place 40 miles away. All on back roads, many of them gravel. And at the end of the road, he says, there’s this amazing 35 mile long Rails-to-Trails route that takes us to a place way more amazing then we’d ever tried to plan out. From there, we can get to the ponies.
And we take his advice. We trade in our original plan for his. And that’s how, slowly, our voyage has become that of all those we’ve met along the way.
Sure, before we headed out, Julia and I tried to get a rough idea of where we wanted to go. Like I said, I have a smartphone.
We wanted to wake up in our beds, saddle up our mules, ride out the front gate and head in to the North Carolina mountains.
That’s how our journey started, August 31, when we set off with mules Polly, Brick and Dusty.
And then the trip, as Steinbeck says, started taking us.
It took us 6 days to travel the first 20 miles. 4 days later, Hurricane Florence chased us off the road. That was in West Jefferson, NC.
When we got back on the road, folks we met along the way talked us in to better routes. Sent us to better friends. Fed us better food than ANYTHING we had originally set out to see.
And so, about 100 miles in to the trip, we have settled in to the pace of word of mouth, weather and terrain. When the word of mouth is too good to resist, we don’t. If the weather is too wet, our mule’s feet get too soft. So they wear too much and just stay put. And when the terrain throws a road-less ridge in our route, we go around. Or turn back. Or just stare at that ridge, put our arms around each other and say, “damn, look at that ridge.”
We’ve had folks tell us we could download mapping software that works offline. But they’re missing the point. We want to experience the land and the people. And the more we cling to a digitally pre-digested itinerary, the farther we’re removed from the nitty gritty insights of local knowledge.
We understand the futility of measuring mileage and knowing everything before we get there. These are the wrong units o measure things by. When we get somewhere that puzzles us we linger. We may look at our paper map. Or not. And then we move on. Or we ask for help.
Our screens have gone mostly dark. We’re not counting the miles any more.
Here’s a look at some of the country and people we’ve come across in our mule ramble.
Post Script: You can read Julia’s take on our mule ramble, with a great sense of our day-to-day lives on the road, at ConsideringAnimals.com
Post Post Script: Julia, the mules and I are holed up in Damascus, VA, waiting out a patch of wet weather. A draft mule-big thanks to Mike and Cindy Johnson for putting us up.
This’ll let mules Polly, Brick and Dusty eat some much needed grass and let their feet dry out (the wet conditions have made them tender, even with hoof boots on). From Damascus, we plan to head toward Grayson Highlands via the Iron Mountain Trail. Unless, in the course of my chatting, er, route planning, I find a better route. I do not intend to consult Google Maps.
Post Post Post Script: Another big thanks to the folks at Mojos Trailside Cafe and Coffee in Damscus, VA for letting us use their wifi to get this post up.
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