Stories from Bernie's current trip - a mule voyage from Canada to Mexico

Framed up and Street Legal - Southern Pines, NC
November 30, 2005

Woody taught me everything I needed to know about wagon design. Strength comes first followed closely by light weight.

Woody strength testing the Forest Service bulldozer he’s tied to. (Forest Service Station, Catherine Lake, NC, May 2004)

Occasionally, when he was tied up and couldn’t get to Maggie, he leaned into his halter with enough force to break the lead rope.

With Jack and Bill I thought it was different. After all, they were older than Woody and came from lethargic plowing stock.

Then one day while I had Jack and Bill tied up to my horse trailer, Bill escaped and Jack lost his mind. Remember, these guys have lived together 13 years. They’re mighty attached to one another.

As Bill strolled off, Jack plunged into his halter just braying his head off after his team mate. I swear he scooted my horse trailer over a few inches. I mean just drug it sideways.

Then, when I caught Bill and tied him back up next to Jack, Bill decided it was time for a roll. Before I could untie him, he buckled and started writhing on the ground, pitching his weight into the trailer, rocking it until it looked like it was going to topple onto him. Then, seeing his buddy on the ground, Jack got into the rolling act and now the trailer was getting jerked side to side by two twelve-hundred pound sand bathing mules.

It’s a steel trailer, though, so it survived with little more than another dent in the fender.

Had my mules been tied to a wood structure, they’d have torn it to bits (which is what they later did to a small barn but that’s another story.

The reason I mention wood is because many of the early wagons were lumber with only a bit of forged iron for support. Oak, preferably white oak, was used for the flooring and frame because it was strong. Lighter woods, like pine and poplar, were used for the sides and interior.

Had I been a traditionalist, I would have gone all wood.

Then I saw Jack and Bill’s little display of destruction and thought, “What if Jack pitches a fit in the middle of the Badlands, out back of beyond, and he’s tied to a nice wooden wagon? Man, he’d tear the corner posts right out of it.”

I love an adventure but not the kind where I spend nine months wandering through the desolate West looking for hammer, nails and another two by four.

So I went with a steel frame, even if it weighs a few more pounds than tradition.

I used 1/8th inch steel tubing (called, I think, 11 gauge in metal parlance) because that’s the lightest steel I could weld with my welder. Anything thinner, my metal welding buddies informed me, and I’ve have to go with exotic gases to keep from burning through the metal. The weight isn’t too bad; about three pounds per foot.

The wagon frame has about eighty feet of tubing in it so it’ll weigh about 250 pounds before painting. I haven’t done the calculations for a wooden frame but it wouldn’t have been less than 150 pounds.

After that, I get ruthless on cutting weight. The sides will be three-quarter inch closed cell foam (R – 4 for you engineers) sandwiched between two skins of 3/16th inch plywood. The floor will be 1/2 inch plywood over a grid of light steel supports. The ceiling and roof will be more closed cell foam encased between 1/8th and 3/16th inch plywood.

It took a week to weld up the frame and side posts.

The completed frame

It’s six feet wide and twelve feet long.

Finally, a place to put Bernie’s chair

After the frame was welded up, it was time to haul the frame to the sand blaster’s for blasting. I tracked down the orange triangle that used to hang on Maggie’s cart and screwed it to the back of my new rig. That would let me legally tow it behind my pickup.

Street legal even in the Arizona desert. (McGee Ranch, Continental, Arizona, January 2005)

My new license plate

Then I hit the road for Ken White’s.


Posted Wednesday November 30, 2005 by Bernie
The First Sparks - Southern Pines, NC
November 23, 2005

I decided my wagon should have a light steel frame covered in thin plywood. After all, what other material could survive a captain who’d steered past charges onto shipwrecks?

Beaching…a common theme in my travels (Sea Bird cast up on the beach outside Darwin, Australia. Yet again…)

A ship wreck that Sea Bird actually missed. It was too far up the beach. (Yes, that’s Sea Bird resting on the beach.)

While it’s often true that past performance does not guarantee future results, my mistakes historically repeat themselves. So I decided to stick with the ferrous stuff.

All that remained was to find some steel.

I drove to Lee Iron and Metal in Sanford where I could buy all the steel I wanted for fifteen cents a pound. Yes! This was scrounging at its best.

For a half an hour, I crawled over tangled plates of steel with chunks torched out of them in the shape of ragged hearts. But they were an inch thick, way too heavy. I needed something more in the one-eighth inch range.

Finally I spotted a pair of galvanized DOT road sign posts. I made my way to the crane with the magnetic head and asked the operator if could pull them out for me.

He did. They bent.

Oh well.

If I’ve learned one thing in my travels it was this. Start right. In this case that meant a straight frame.

So I sprang for new steel tubing. Quite by coincidence, it cost me a dollar a pound at Steel and Tube.

Wagon? This is going to turn into a wagon?

By chance, I still had the welder I used on Sea Bird. It was the weekend warrior Lincoln version from Lowe’s that you plug into any old 110 wall outlet.

Bernie eager to strike a spark (Photo by Beth Clarke)

So I got going.

The first welds!

By day’s end, I’d welded up the backbone.


Posted Wednesday November 23, 2005 by Bernie
Title Suggestions With Mule Woody's Comments - Southern Pines, NC
November 22, 2005

Thanks everybody for your help. The title suggestions are rolling in! Here they come…in no particular order. Keep sendin’ em and I’ll keep posting em.

10 Legged Journey: Woody, Maggie and Me.
Many Hearts for Ten Legs
The Mule That Walked to the Center of the World
10 Legs, Will Travel
Are we There Yet?
From Atlantic to Pacific with Oats for Fuel
Half-assed Journey Across America
Long Miles with Long Ears
Bullet Holes & Bumblebees: A Story of a Mule and a Man
Giddy Up America
The Moses Effect: by Mule to Manna
Come Walk With us: From Sea to Shining Sea
You Can Learn a Lot from an Ol Mule
Mule Speed America
Footprints Across America
Hooves and Boots and Wheels
8 Hooves, 2 Boots, 4 Wheels
Hooves and Footprints Across America
Mule Dragger: Sailing Across America
See the USA: How to Drag a Mule Across America
Tipi for Three
Cap’n Bernie Rides Again
80 Million Hoof Beats Give or Take
One if by Ocean, Three if by Mule
Between the Oceans
Woody, Maggie, and Me : A Journey Across America
The Pony Express (NOT!)
Hoofprints Across America:Finding America and Americans From a Saddle

disqualifications (written by me mule woody)

bernie and i are sorting through all the titles that are pouring in and i have told him he needs to eliminate a few because they remind me of my dad who was a donkey. you see my mom was a horse and my dad was a donkey, or jack ass. i’m a mule which what that one guy got right when he talked about the half-assed bit. anyway, here are the two i disqualified.

dragging my ass Across america: a new way to see the usa
adventures of a jack ass


woody the mule

Posted Tuesday November 22, 2005 by Bernie
Blueprints? We Don't Need No Stinking Blueprints! Southern Pines, NC
November 20, 2005

It occurred to me after I razed my wagon that I hadn’t have a clue about how to build a new one.

Then I remembered Vernon Laman.

Vernon and Smoky in their home made wagon (Artesia, New Mexico)

I met Vernon in Artesia, New Mexico. He was in his eighties, had driven trucks for a living, and after he retired, he built a wagon out of a twenty dollar VW carcass. He joined us for a day on the road, and when we pulled up that evening I asked him what plans he’d used for his rig.

Blue prints? No way. “I built it around the buggy seat that used to belong to my grandfather.” he told me. Then he gave me some chili peppers that later made me consider castration but that’s another story.

The buggy seat that drove Vernon’s design

It got me to thinking. After sleeping, the place I’d spend most of my time would be in the driver’s seat. So I snapped up a folding chair, made a few measurements and whipped out my notebook for a quick sketch.

From sitting in that chair, I discovered I needed 3 1/2 feet at the front of the wagon, sort of like a covered porch where I’d sit and drive. That would be enough room for a chair and a good occasional leg stretch. For the cab behind, where I’d cook, write, and sleep, I figured 8 feet would do. Then I remembered that plywood sheets came in four foot sheets so I thought “Hey, make it twelve feet long overall and give yourself 8 1/2 feet of living quarters.”

Technical Drawing Number One: The Exterior Layout of “Captain Bernie’s Hybrid Expedition” Vehicle (Note Bernie’s chair)

Then came a quick interior sketch.

I cheated on that too. Remember Bob Sundown, the guy that lived in the sheepherder’s wagon in New Mexico? Well, he had what could be broadly called a sheepherder’s wagon.

The sheepherder’s wagon hosted just what its name implies; a shepherd. Before ATVs and ordered fencing, shepherds, especially in the Idaho area, lived in small wagons while they tended their stock. They followed the sheep to fresh grass in these horse drawn accommodations.

Though all were individual, they stuck to generally the same layout; namely, the bed was always in the back and most boasted a wood stove.

I got a fresh sheet of paper and penciled in the bed and stove where I liked it. The bed converts to two seats and a drop-in table. Like on my old boat. The rest of the area I just filled in with counters.

Technical Drawing Number Two: Bernie’s Sheepherder Wagon Inspired Interior Layout (with apologies to real shepherders)

And so now I have two sheets of plans for my new wagon.

Now comes the sticky bit.

Getting off my chair and building the bugger.


Posted Sunday November 20, 2005 by Bernie
Help! - Southern Pines, NC
November 16, 2005

I’m just wrapping up my book about Woody and Maggie’s ride across American and I’ve run up against a very embarrassing problem.

I can’t think of a dern title.

This is where I need your help!

Got any good notions for a snappy title?

The book covers my journey across America by mule and pony. It’s about all the good people we met along the way like the meth queen that put us up and in the morning I discovered the bullet holes above my mattress. The personal theme is how I went from being self sufficient to a fault (thanks to years alone on my sailboat) to realizing it’s ok to ask others for help.

Ok, here are the title guidelines.

1)It’s got to be short. I’m looking for something like “Buck a Pound” or “Zero” that can easily fit on the cover. That could be followed by a few descriptive words like “A Mule Journey Across America”.

2)It’s got to be catchy and funny. This is, after all, a book about meat thieves, a cheap mule and a broke sailor. I want a title that makes people laugh and think “Wonder what that’s about?”

So that’s what I’m looking for.

“Ok” I can hear you thinking, “so what’s in it for me?”

Well, for sure a couple of copies of my book; autographed by me and of course Woody and Maggie (they don’t know this yet). Oh, you also get a ride in my wagon if you’re close enough to drop by for a spin.

Alright even if you don’t win you can have a ride in the “Captain Bernie’s Hybrid Expedition” flagship. Just give me a few more weeks to finish building it.

So, that’s the challenge. Get to work. Spread the word. Come up with a whopper and drop by for a yarn when you can. I’m in Southern Pines, NC now and can be reached at 910 695 0989.

Hey, after all, even Woody has gotten into the act.

Sort of.

“hmmm. looks like bernie got tired of thinking of a title and took off.”

“hey, i have a great idea for a title. oh, it’s a carrot.” crunch

Too bad he deprived literature of a stunning title by eating his writing utensil…

See why I need your help?


Posted Wednesday November 16, 2005 by Bernie
Signs of Rot - Southern Pines, NC
November 8, 2005

It started innocently enough as it usually does. It was a fine day, a bit rainy, and I decided that I should introduce Woody, Maggie, Jack and Bill to my new wagon.

The (soon to be) last supper (Southern Pines, NC)

I scattered some buckets out, doled feed into each and my mounts dug in. In the idle moments I looked closer at my wagon.

“Funny” I thought to myself, “that corner looks wet.” When I stepped closer it was indeed damp. Rotten damp.

“Geez, that left corner looks dodgy.”

Spurred by idle time, I grabbed a hammer and pried loose a few boards for a closer look. Then a few more…

“No, still don’t see the leak. Let’s take a little more.”

Signs of trouble (Note the yellow Sawsall on the floor. That’s never a good sign…)





And yes, before I knew it, my home on wheels was gone.

“Now what?” I thought as I gathered up my feed buckets and put the mules away.


Posted Tuesday November 8, 2005 by Bernie
Finally a Mule Team - East Bend, NC
November 3, 2005

Growing up, one of my favorite pictures in my parent’s house was a photo of a man cultivating tobacco behind his mule.

(One of) the photos that got me thinking run-away thoughts as a kid (Photo by Jack Jeffers 12/4/74)

That old man was slim as a tobacco stake and the great old mule he walked behind had a notch missing from his ear. The man’s cultivator was one of those old wooden ones that relied on river rocks to help it get a better bite. I imagined the photo was taken in Oklahoma. From then on, I had the dream of running away to that land of black and white men and ponderous mules.

Why am I mentioning this?

Well, because I ended up with the same sort of tobacco working mule. Two of them actually. Now I have something to pull my wagon (when it’s finished) with.

Jack and Bill working tobacco (East Bend, NC circa 1997, photo courtesy of Bud Patterson)

Jack and Bill belonged to a fellow named Frank Hennings who lived outside East Bend, NC. According to Ted Nance, who found the mules for me, “Frank was the area’s best country vet before they got modern medicine like they do now. He castrated more horses than anyone I know. Did hundreds of them and charged ten bucks.”

Frank owned Jack, now seventeen, and Bill, now eighteen, for about thirteen years.

“Oh, Frank used to plow all sort of things with them. After the tobacco was picked, he’d plow the stalks back under with them.”

Frank Hennings driving Jack and Bill to a plowing job (East Bend, NC circa 1997, photo courtesy of Bud Patterson)

Then a few years ago, Frank died.

His beloved mules were turned out. Occasionally they were harnessed when a hay wagon needed pulling or a parade needed attending.

Then I stumbled into their retirement. Now it looks like they’re ready to get back into the harness again.

Oh, if I can find some…

Frank heading out on a wagon train with Jack (l) and Bill ® (photo courtesy of Bud Patterson)


(Thanks Ted Nance and Bud Patterson for helping me find my buck-a-pound engines.

Also, thanks to Jack Jeffers (jeffersfineart.com) who sent me the story behind the mule I adored as a kid. The following is a reprint of the story of what I thought was the Okie mule.

Simon Ward and His Tennessee Mules
Jack Jeffers c2004

This is one of those rare circumstances when a concept can suddenly appear out of nowhere.

I was returning from an art show in Nashville, Tennessee when I decided to take a back road from Knoxville to Kingsport. It was old US Rt 11W. It sort of reminds you of Historic Rt 66 out west with all the old and dilapidated motels and filling stations that dot the landscape. Relics of the past I call them. Most of my finest images have been discovered along these old trails.

I had just passed through the town of Surgoinsville in my 72-cargo van when I happened to glance over my left shoulder and spotted an old fellow and a mule going through a fresh field of tobacco. He was using an old wooden harrow weighted down with several good size river jacks to make the blade penetrate the soil. This was a sight to behold, as one large mule appeared to be dragging both man and machine through the clod-filled field.

I was caught totally by surprise, but I had my camera pack in the back of the truck and decided to take a chance and capture this image before it passed into oblivion.

I pulled off the road, donned my forty-pound camera pack and quickly climbed over the remains of a fence as the farmer and mule disappeared over the distant crest of the hill. I figured that when he made the next pass, I would be set up and ready to capture this image for posterity. It happened just as I had planned, and I made a couple of precisely timed exposures before the operation came to a halt. Now, I would have to explain to this man why I was standing in the middle of his field with a heavy tripod and camera aimed in his direction.

I did not have my dog Rufus with me on this trip, but I quickly introduced myself and told him exactly what I was doing. Simon Ward was his name, and he just shook his head and chuckled over the whole sequence of events. Bottom line, he was flattered that I would want to photograph his mule Kate.

Simon was quite a character. He probably didn’t weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds with all his clothes on. But he sure could handle that great Tennessee Mule.

We chatted and he told me all about Kate and how he had traded a watch for her some year’s back. She was 22 years old and huge. The interesting thing was that the watch he traded for Kate had been lost for some time before he happened to spot it one day lying out in a field. It still worked, so he traded it for Kate. “Been together ever since” he said.”)

Posted Thursday November 3, 2005 by Bernie
Finally a wagon (well, sort of...) - Virgilina, VA
November 1, 2005

The big news is I have a wagon. Sort of.

I can thank Mike Walker for that.

“Good luck, Bo!” were Mike’s parting words (Mike and Pam Walker, outside Virgilina, VA)

Mike’s the guy that sold me mule Woody for my trip across America. I ran into him recently at Benson Mule days, and when I told him I was in the market for a wagon he said “Bo, I’ve got just the wagon for you. It’s gonna run you about two grand but it’s just perfect.”

Then I dropped the budget bomb on him. “Well, Mike” I replied, “I’m still on the same old budget; dollar a pound.”

Mike chuckled like old ship’s captains do when they think about the hulk they have leaning against the apple tree in their back yard. “Bo” he said, “I really want to see you do this trip. I’ve got an old wagon that might just work for you. It’s sitting up at my place behind the tipi. Run up there and take a look.”

“Bo, I’ve got a wagon for you…”

Mike was right. Next to the shingled tipi behind his house stood a sheep herder’s wagon who’s advanced state of disrepair put it squarely within my means.

A few days later, I took my truck back to pick it up.

Mike lives on a hill and the wagon’s, shall we say, flexible condition, became apparent when my truck and new wagon picked up speed on the grade. Back and forth it wallowed like a top heavy schooner until we ran out of hill and rolled to a stop with a final gelatinous lurch.

I stepped from the truck. My new wagon hunkered off to the right like a souffle on the verge of collapse. Four of the plywood beams that held the roof up had shattered.

Mike produced an old lasso, and with fence posts and boards I broke off the wagon’s sides, I built a new skeleton inside the shell of rotten wood.

More props than a mineshaft

Pam tossed the lariat over the now-shored-up wagon and I lashed the lot down with a knot I prayed would keep my wagon’s new guts in place.

A sight to make a cowboy cry.
Then, in a stupor of a good citizen taking steps toward the bad, I towed my fractured treasure onto the highway.

A few miles down the road when my thoughts were interrupted by a rectangular flash in the rear view mirror. One of the wagon’s windows had fallen out.

Just then, a police car hove into view.


I hit the emergency blinkers, eased onto the shoulder and watched the sliding window thread its way through the oncoming traffic.

The police slowed and I waited for the stab of blue in my rear view mirror. But in a fit of better judgement, the cruiser accelerated and disappeared. He must’ve figured such a rotten catch wasn’t worth pursuing. His luck, I’d show up in court.

I retrieved the wagon window, chucked it back into my rolling hovel and tackled the remaining 120 miles, blinking and grinning.

Remember that Charlie Daniels song “The Uneasy Rider” where the tag line is something like “got to LA via Omaha.”? Well, that was us.

I snuck down those Carolina back roads at 35 miles per hour doing anything to dodge Durham. Now I’ve been to Bushy Fork, Saxapahaw, Silk Hope, Bear Creek… Just on dark, slid into Southern Pines.

All that way without a ticket

The next day I found a team of mules.

(My thanks go out to Mike and Pam Walker, who have, once again, helped me launch another voyage with modest means. If you’re looking for a mule, you might want to give Mike and Pam a ring. Bernie RiverEarth.com)

Posted Tuesday November 1, 2005 by Bernie

Recent "Lost Sea Expedition" posts:
Lost Sea Expedition Archives: