From Saddle Bag Rice to Strawberry Wine: What a Mule Rambler Eats

“Lord, what do you do for food?”, folks ask when they meet me and the mules and I tell them we’re riding toward Idaho. My wife Julia sent me off with a bag of food: rice, coffee, pecans, ramen noodles and a few other staples. I’ve been eating rainbow trout, smoked potatoes and drinking strawberry wine. Okay, and a little rice.
How the hell does that work?

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

Mule Brick and the gear I’m packing.

In horse and mule travel, it’s the weight, not the miles, that kill. Things you think you can’t live without – from beer to a roll of toilet paper – get left behind. That’s why Brick, my pack mule, only carries about 100 pounds of gear. That includes the 30 pounds that make up her pack saddle, pad and rigging. That’s well within her capacity.

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

Headin’ up the mule trail…er, mule highway. Sometimes, it’s a mighty tight fit.

Life in the saddle is a life of constant motion. You’ll spend 4 – 8 hours in the tack. Your arms and legs swish back and forth thousands of times per day. Your eyes dart back and forth, checking for cars ahead and logging trucks behind. Your inner gyro sways left and right, back and forth, maintaining balance, minimizing impact on your mule’s back.

Then there’s all the riding activity.

Mornings, your mules need to be fed, watered, saddled and packed. That takes an hour and a half if you skip breakfast. During the day, you’ll have to put on hoof boots, ask for directions, answer questions from visitors, find a place to break for lunch, find a place to spend the night, take off hoof boots, check grazing arrangements, carry water, hammer pickets, attach hobbles, stake out mules, brush off mules, check for saddle sores and feed your mules grain if you have it.

Then there’s all the non-equine stuff that needs doing. You have set up camp, pitch your tent, pound tent stakes, unroll your bed roll, change from road clothes to camp clothes, visit with your hosts, break out the cooking gear, cook a meal, then clean up your cooking gear.

All that takes energy. I burn hundreds more calories out here than I do at home. Food is a big deal. I’m always hungry.

Julia sent me on this mule ramble with a large Zip Lock bag full of essentials: rice, nuts, coffee, lentils, ramen, sardines, quinoa and a small bottle of olive oil. I tucked it away in the pack bag labeled “F” (for Food).

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

Provisions: here’s the bag of food Julia sent me off with. It’s resting on top of the map I use for navigation. Julia and I used this same map for the mule ramble that took us from western North Carolina to Virginia and back.

The first night on the road, at the Anita Alta horse camp, I raided it for a bag of rice, a can of sardines and a handful of pecans. The next morning, I visited with some of the horse campers.

I ran in to Rascal and Angie around their camp fire. We talked horses and how their mule was shot with a crossbow. They offered me a cup of coffee. We talked wound vacuum pumps and roping horses. They sent me off with a peanut butter sandwich, Butter Finger bar, potato chips, 3 peppermints and a cold Coors beer wrapped in napkins.

And that’s how it’s been since the first day of my trip.

I’ve eaten a good bit of the food Julia sent me off with. I’ve eaten even more of other people’s food.
After a week on the road, I’m nowhere near close to having to go to a grocery store. How’s that possible when, back home, Julia and I run to Food Lion twice a week?

For one, I’m just feeding one person, not two. Also, I eat less out here. I carry mostly food that has to be cooked: rice, lentils and ramen. That means there’s less snacking. Eating isn’t as easy as opening the fridge. When I get the urge to eat, I have to dig out my stove. Fire it up. Dig out my provisions. Spend half an hour cooking rice or a feed of lentils.

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

My cooking setup. Here I’m getting ready to brew a cup of coffee on my MRS stove. I just boil the ground coffee in the pot for 5 minutes until the ground settle. For a second cup, I just add more water. No, by the third cup of coffee the caffeine isn’t all gone. I drink decaf. Life on the road is plenty exciting. I don’t need extra stimulation.

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

The business end of my stove. It burns gasoline. This scares many folks. They’re happy to say, “Oh hell, we’re cooking with gas now!” but they’re afraid to actually do so. Wimps.

Sure, I carry a few cans of sardines and some energy bars in my saddle bags. But not many. It’s a weight thing. They’re reserved for when I really need them – the times when I’m starving hungry and I can’t fire up my cooker.

I’m adapting to limited rations. I’m learning to live with a rumbling stomach and a slack belt. I’m more shivery in cool weather than usual.

Still, even after compensating for eating less, my body feels like it’s getting a lot more calories than are coming out of my saddle bags.

Then it dawned on me. Folks are giving me lots of food. Out of curiosity, I made a list of every individual item of sustenance I was given – every serving of fruit, every can of beer, every smoked trout.

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

“Coors, Muscadine + Vodka”. I carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket. In it, I note peoples’ names, directions and random thoughts from the road. Here’s a partial list of the food I’ve been given.

A guy named Larry gave me a cold Natural Lite 4 hours in to my ride. Six days in to my trip, it had grown to resemble a glutton’s grocery list.

Here it is:

Day 1
Natural Lite beer

Day 2
Coors Lite
3 peppermints

Day 3
Coors Lite
3 baked rainbow trout
Roasted potatoes

Day 4
2 fried Bantam eggs
2 slices whole wheat toast
Apple slices
Peach jam
Roasted potatoes
Muscadine juice with vodka

Day 5
10 pounds corn for the mules
Bottled water
Homemade venison and sausage bratwurst
Hoop cheese
Ritz crackers
Busch beer
Busch beer
Busch beer
2 glasses strawberry wine
2 X 7 oz bottles strawberry wine

Day 6
Smoked pork loin
3 yeast rolls
Smoked sweet potato
½ smoked white potato
Busch beer
Busch beer

Damn, that’s a lot of food!

No way I could pack this away in my saddle bags. Between the spoilage factor and trying to wedge it all in to my army rucksacks, it would be unfair to ask pack mule Brick to lug this all weight around. Hell, the beer, strawberry wine and muscadine vodka cocktail alone would weigh 10 pounds.

Here’s what I’m learning from this. In life, you need to set forth with what you have. Don’t haul along everything you think you’ll need for your physical and emotional needs. Just get going.

I won’t starve out here. People are incredibly generous out here. For the most part, they go out of their way to take care of one of their wandering own.

That’s some powerful thought medicine. Suddenly, instead of thinking you have to haul everything with you, you realize if you just set out, what you need will find you.

Bernie Harberts, farmers exchange

Della and John of the Farmers Exchange hooked us up with water and corn. (Sandstone Cove, TN)

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

Della and John.

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, trail ride

Della’s necklace.

This find-it-as-you-go-along approach has surprising knock on effects.

Remember how Angie sent me off with a cold beer wrapped in napkins? The napkin wrapped cold beer seems a tradition in these parts. I’ve accepted, a can at a time, a six-pack of paper towel-wrapped beer this week.

With all those wrapped up beers, don’t ask me what I’m doing for toilet paper.

Bernie Harberts, mule, horse, pasture

Mules Brick and Cracker enjoying some lush grazing compliments of Theresa, our host for the weekend. They’ll have 3 days of well deserved rest before heading out again Monday.

Bernie Harberts, strawberry wine, wind bottle

Okay, I knew you wanted to see that strawberry wine. Cheers!

PS: A magnum-sized thanks to Rascal, Angie, Milton, Richard, Steve, Joann, Jimmy, Johnny, Della, John, Tim, John and Theresa for all the food, water and lodging you’ve provided mules Brick, Cracker and me.
PPS: Yes, the mules are eating as well as I am. That’s the topic of a whole other story.
PPS: Pardon the shaky grammar. I’m writing these posts on the fly in my tent and people’s pastures.

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Julia Carpenter
2019-04-13 19:02:54

So. What happened to the Butterfinger bar? It didn’t make your list of things consumed.

Rev Johannes Myors
2019-04-14 08:39:34

I’m with you. Ounces count. My two-wheeled steed with all of my gear wears about 100 pounds. Here is a rough breakdown.

Allison (my two-wheeled steed) – 27 pounds
2 sets panniers and seat bag – 12 pounds
Camping Gear (tent, sleeping bag and pad) – 10 pounds
Clothing – 15 pounds
Food – 15 pounds
Electronics – 5 pounds
Extra gear – 12 pounds
Water – 4 pounds


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