Knocking on Doors

When my mules Brick and Cracker and I set out on our latest journey from North Carolina to Idaho, we did so with minimal planning. We had no chase crew, sponsor or person lining up places for us to stay. We just went.

The Uninvited Guests. A painting my wife Julia did of how mules Cracker, Brick and I found lodgings on our journey from North Carolina to Idaho. (Julia Carpenter painting)
A long way to go: Brick and Cracker loaded up for their first day on the road.

I knew where we’d stay the first three nights on the road. After that, I winged it.

At the end of every day, I needed to find a place to spend the night with the mules. I didn’t need much. A patch of grass and some water for them and a level spot for my tent. If I stayed at a campground or barn, I was prepared to pay.

I found my digs the old-school way. I knocked on doors. I talked to folks in gas stations. I asked people that pulled over on the side of the road to talk with me if the mules and I could stay at their place. Or maybe, did they know somebody…?

It’s the way I always did it.

On a recent trip, from North Carolina to Virginia and back with my wife Julia, we winged it, too. A few hours before dark, we started asking farmers, ranchers or anyone with a field if we could stay there.

Sure, it was stressful, with night coming on, traveling up the road with three mules, not to know where we’d sleep. But it usually worked out. The two nights we didn’t find lodgings, we found something. We spent one night in a Christmas tree plantation and the other in a farmer’s field.

Stealth Camp #1: Camped on a Christmas tree plantation (outside Todd, NC)
Stealth Camp #2: Camped in a farmer’s field (Off the Virginia Creeper Trail)

A Better Way?

As I rode Brick and Cracker through Tennesse, I thought, “Hey. I should try social media.”

I posted a message on social media along the lines of, “Hey, I’m traveling through western Tennessee on my mules. If you know of a place we could spend the night, please let me know.”

That experience taught me that generosity knows no bounds. Folks from Georgia to Oregon write me things like, “when you’re in our town, be sure to look us up.” Or, “are you traveling through Dallas?”
The hospitality was incredible but all the offers were way out of the way. When you’re traveling with a mule, you don’t want to travel more than about a mile out of the way for lodgings. A mile means almost an hour detour. Remember, you have to ride there and back.

I ended up knocking on a guy named John’s door and he put the mules and me up for the night.

I posted one more time on social media that I was looking for a place to stay. I got the same result. I spent so much time telling people that I couldn’t make it to their place that it cut into the time I had to look for a place to stay. Worse than burning daylight, it took my head out of the trip. Instead of looking at a nice pasture and figuring out who owned it, I started wondering if anyone was messaging me.

After that, I went back to knocking on doors.

That trip showed me that, though our nation is so politically and socially fractured, there still are lots of generous people out there ready to reach across the divide. Some want to help from far away. Some are right in front of you.

Knock on doors when you need help. Open doors when you can give help.

Bernie Harberts, mule, pavillion
Ryan Crick finishing breakfast in his shop. Ryan invited me to join his crew for a bite. I hadn’t had biscuits and gravy, bacon, fried eggs and Coke for breakfast in a while. Ryan is a direct man. I like how he stabbed his knife through his breakfast box to signify breakfast was over.
Bernie Harberts, mule, tophat, allie brewer, yolanda treece
Easter evening with Allie Brewer and Yolanda Treece. Allie was up from Knoxville visiting her parents. Yolanda is known for her beautiful voice and vocal performances. (outside Russellville, TN)
Bernie Harberts, Dan Coffey, Geneva Lynch, mule
Geneva Lynch and Danny Coffey. I showed up at Danny’s back door pretty rattled from riding the mules too many hours up the highway. (Tazewell, TN)

About That Trip With Brick and Cracker

I ended up riding Brick and Cracker from western North Carolina to Idaho. We found a place to camp almost every night on the road.

Nightfall (Muddy Gap, WY)
The route

Right now I’m editing the third draft of my book “Trash to Triumph” about that trip. I’d be happy to give you a heads up when it comes out. Just sign up for the RiverEarth.com newsletter and I’ll send you an email when it’s ready. You can do that right here.

6 Responses to Knocking on Doors

  • I really admire what you did.Would love to experience something like that. very encouraging, how old are you? I am 71 in pretty good shape, but not sure. how did you stay warm? blessings, Pat

    • Dear Patrick. I don’t know you but I say you should go. The beautiful thing about long-distance saddle (and wagon trips) is that, as long as a person is in halfway decent shape, they can start. And then, once they’re on the road, they’ll get in great shape. The active lifestyle – riding, eating well but not to much, lots of steady exercise and meeting LOTS of new people – is a recipe for peak health. The fact that you’re 71 is the least limiting factor. Sure, there are things about you (and me, I’m 54) that ain’t like they used to be. But you can compensate for most all of that.
      If I was to give you advice, I’d just say get a steady mount and start slow. I don’t know where you live but you could do an amazing ride going no more than ten to fifteen miles per day. Then taking a few days off.
      You asked about how I stayed warm. Well, some nights on my last trip I froze. That’s because I sent all my warm clothes and sleeping bag home during summer and when winter caught me (Wyoming) I was unprepared. But it was no big deal. Some shivering a few nights in my sleeping bag -wearing all my clothes – and then my wife Julia sent me my winter clothes. I could have just as easily bought a heavy set of insulated coveralls and a heavier sleeping bag.
      Well, I hope that answers your question Patrick. I sure enjoyed hearing from you and may use your question for a future article. I get that question a lot which is a good thing because it show me how many people are ready to start a saddle journey if they just could take that first step.
      I know you can.
      If you could do a trip, where would you go?
      All the best Patrick,
      PS: In case you need any extra inspiration, read “Last of the Saddle Tramps” by Mesannie Wilkins. She was in sixties, in poor health and rode across America despite her doctor’s advice. And then she lived into her eighties. Of all the books about long-distance riding, this one speaks to me the most.
      PPS: I’d be happy to send give you a heads up when my new book “Trash to Triumph” comes out. It’s about the ride I wrote about in “Knocking on Doors”. Just leave me a comment if you want me to sign you up or you can do it yourself right here:

  • That sounds like a great trip!! Wish i had tagged along!! Bucket list!

  • Sir,your adventure is an inspiration to many of us that never got up the courage to take that”leap.You have given me hope that”yes” it can be done!God Bless!

    • Hi Ben, Thanks for your beautiful comment. It can be done. And you can do it. One of the articles I’m working on is explaining how hard it is to take that first step – whether it’s a voyage, a relationship, a life change, a new job or a mule trip. The first step. That first, incredibly hard step through that super-tough, invisible material that separates us from what we really want to do. My big dreams in life are trips. And yet, I STILL find it hard to take that first step. And yet, I have to. All the best Ben. Good luck on whatever first step you’re pondering. Bernie

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