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

Busted Wagon Hoops and Then Success- Southern Pines, NC
December 25, 2005

Ok, so the Christmas rush is over and now it’s time to make hoops for the roof of my wagon. As usual, I consulted my Technical Drawing Number One.

Technical Drawing Number One: the roof beams are at 12 o’clock.

Ok, ok, so you just saw Technical Drawing One two updates ago. But a quick sketch is really all you need if you want to build a wagon badly enough.

Wagon hoops are the pieces in a wagon’s roof that give the roof that barrel-backed look. Back when they took wagon building more seriously than I, oh, and they had apprentices, they used clear lengths of white oak sawed into staves. These thin strips of wood were bent into place while green, or, if dry stock was used, they were steamed first. Then canvas, or if you were poor, an old blanket, was stretched across the arched frame work.

But times have changed and I don’t have a thousand board feet of prime oak behind my garage. No, I’m more in the plywood league so I decided tradition would have to sit this one out. Wagon masters of the old Butterfield Stage, forgive me.

First I cut two-inch wide by eight-foot long strips out of a sheet of quarter-inch plywood.

Plywood strips ready for laminating into wagon hoops.

Then I drew the arc of the wagon roof I wanted onto a sheet of three-quarter inch plywood.

Next, I screwed a dozen blocks of wood, called “cleats” in boat-speak, along the line on the plywood. After I spread glue on my wood strips, I’d clamp them to these wood blocks to give my wagon hoops their shape.

This was fine progress and I congratulated myself I didn’t need white oak or a steam box as I slathered the wood glue on each side of five plywood strips. Now I just had to clamp strips onto my home-made jig.

Ok, strips glued up. Just have to clamp them in place now…

Glue ran off my hands as I sprang the strips against the cleats, ready to clamp them into wagon lore when BANG!!!!!

They broke in two. All five of them just shattered and sent Titebond glue and splinters all over the shop, my coat, but most seriously, all over my beloved stockman’s hat.

“Man, what’s going on here?” I wondered as I maneuvered the splintered lot into the firewood heap.

After I wiped the creamy mess of my hat, I checked the radius of my arc. No, it wasn’t too tight.

Then I looked a bit closer at my pile of plywood strips and discovered a secret I’ll pass on to you in case you’re building wagon hoops in your garage.

Plywood bends better in one direction than another.

Try it. Take a long, thin strip of plywood, like I was trying to glue up. Hold it in your hand and let the ends bend down. Then flip it over. The ends will either hang down more. Or less.

So I did what I call the “droop test” with each piece of plywood, just to find out which way the wood wanted to bend. Then, when I knew which way my strips wanted to flex, I slathered them with more Titebond and clamped then onto my jig.

Perfect. I never broke another piece after that.

Success! The purple plastic wrap keeps the glue from sticking the hoops to the plywood jig.

Now I have six wagon hoops. And a glue stain on my hat.

Next we’ll bolt the wagon walls and roof beams to the frame.


Posted Sunday December 25, 2005 by Bernie
Merry Christmas from RiverEarth - Southern Pines, NC
December 22, 2005

The Red Hat and Flashing Antler Club: Jack, Joanie and Bill

I never realized how enormous Jack and Bill’s ears were until I snapped a pair of flashing red velvet reindeer antlers behind them. It was a pretty good fake rake, a six-pointer with a thirteen inch spread if I’d been scoring them through a rifle scope. But that’s not what impressed me.

No, what struck me was that even with those enormous Yule appendages, Jack and Bill plodded on like good sports in their new life. “Gosh! What a great pair of mules!” I thought.

Then it hit me. What about poor Woody and Maggie?

For weeks now, as I’ve worked Jack and Bill to the training wagon, my old travel mates have stayed behind in their paddock. This agreed with Maggie as it means more food for her. But it was beginning to weigh on Woodrow. Every time I pulled the big mule team out, Woody gave me the old “That used to be me.” look.

Then Mel invited me to the barn Christmas party.

“Hey, we’re going to build a fire and grill weenies.” she said. “And after we cook marshmallows, I want you to pull the kids around in your wagon.”

“Perfect!” I thought. “I’ve got just the idea.”

We made our fire and charred our marshmallows and after I pulled my first load of passengers, I tied Woody and Maggie to the back of the wagon.

Maggie and Woody back among friends.

Kaily immediately jumped on Maggie. That long dormant “Regal Bearer of the Expedition Supplies” look came back over Maggie and momentarily she forgot about the hay she was missing out on.

And Woody? Well, nobody wanted to get on him because most of them had seen him dump me in Mel’s barnyard earlier. So he just walked behind the wagon snapping at the hay bales folks were sitting on.

Lap after lap we turned around Foxtrack, the kids doing most of the driving.

Kaily and Caroline drive us home.

Then, after everyone went home and I was left alone with my animals, I discovered the perfect Christmas gift I could give them. Or any other animal for that matter.


So from now on, Jack and Bill have company on their training rides. As they walk through the Sand Hills preparing for the Dakotas, there’ll be a pinto pony and a red mule tagging behind their wagon.

“Hey, we finally have a job!”

And with that, I wish each and every one of you a lovely Christmas.

And for those of you with pets, when they give you the old red mule “Man, I remember when…” look, give them a scratch behind the ears. Or better yet, spend some time with them outdoors.


Posted Thursday December 22, 2005 by Bernie
The World's Largest Blue Bologna Sandwich - Southern Pines, NC
December 20, 2005

After living in my tipi for almost thirteen months on the road, I decided my next home would have more substantial walls.

Bernie’s last home on the road. Winter 2003

Ok, so there were some privacy issues with my last living arrangements. Like cows.

Cows at the tent flaps

I decided that if I was going for stock-proof walls this time, I might as well go for warmth too. That meant adding insulation to my dream.

Here’s how I did it.

The side walls on the wagon I designed are four feet tall and eight feet long.

Technical Drawing One. Side view of the wagon walls.

To build the walls, I made the equivalent of a thirty-two square foot, bologna sandwich. To extend the analogy, for the top and bottom pieces of bread I used quarter-inch sheets of plywood. The Oscar Meyer was a sheet of three-quarter inch foam insulation.

The world’s largest open-faced, blue foam sandwich.

The completed sandwich.

Now that the sides are complete, I’m sitting down with a cup of tea. And then I’ll paint and bolt those sides to the wagon frame.

Finally, no more peeping cows.


Posted Tuesday December 20, 2005 by Bernie
Steer Steering - Happy Valley, NC
December 10, 2005

“So in all you’ve seen” Hoy asked with a grin that was amplified by the hand hooked into his blue overalls, “have you ever seen a steer climb a set of stairs?”

“Nope.” I had to admit.

But if ever a man could castrate a bull and then convince him to scale a flight of steps, Hoy was the man. That was why I was here to see him. Hoy, I hoped, would shed some light on just how I was to get Jack and Bill to pull my wagon.

“Well watch this then.” Hoy said and ambled over to a red steer tied to a post. He unsnubbed the animal, said “Come on Carter.” and slowly, one step at a time, man and steer climbed the front steps of Hoy’s porch.

The first stair-climbing steer I’ve seen

After Hoy got the steer turned around and back down into the yard, he lead him to a lean-to barn and hooked him to a wagon.

Hoy hitches Carter

“Come on then.” Hoy said. “Lets go for a ride.” I piled in, sensing a chance to spring my question.

Steer speed

Hoy’s one of the last men in North Carolina to work with steers. “I just like messing with them because nobody else does anymore.” he says as Carter pulls the wagon up the valley behind Hoy’s house.

I told Hoy of Jack and Bill and how I had them hooked up and didn’t really know how to get them under way. “So how do you get a team going?” I asked.

“It’s different in different parts of the state.” Hoy said. “Some people say “Walk On!”. Others kiss to them. But around here, the old folks used to say “Up!”

“Up?” I’d never heard that one before. “Why up?”

“Well in the old days” Hoy said, “people used to works steers a lot in these mountains. They were slow and pulled heavy loads. Lots of times, you just wanted that steer to take one step forward. Like when he was skidding a log. So you said “Up!”. If you wanted the steer to walk faster, you said “Up! Up!”.

We finished our wagon ride and the next day I tried my new commands out on Jack and Bill.

I ran the lot by them and they responded best to “Up! Up!”

Then I tried something new.

I’d heard Hoy turning his steer with “gee” and “haw”, right and left respectively. When I called the commands to Jack and Bill, they ignored me.

Seems like they don’t how to turn right or left on command.

This is a dangerous trait in sailing vessels and possibly words in mules. So really soon, I’ll have to teach them to turn by my voice. Since they don’t know “gee” and “haw” I can train them to any words I like.

I’m thinking “port” and “starboard”.


(Thanks Hoy and Bertha for the wagon ride, mustard greens and turnips. I think of you all every time I get my mules moving now. Up! Up!)

Posted Saturday December 10, 2005 by Bernie
A Training Rig for Jack and Bill - Southern Pines, NC
December 8, 2005

Somehow, in my new-found enthusiasm for welding, sand blasting and paint, I overlooked one small detail of my pending expedition; my mules Jack and Bill.

After all, hadn’t I bought them early in the planning stages of the trip so I could get them in shape? But now they mostly just kept their round bale company.

Woody and Maggie escaped my inattention. I still managed to ride them weekly. But the thought of riding plow mules raised the hollow enthusiasm reserved for pushing a wheel barrowful of cement. In the end the guilt got me.

I threw my saddle on Bill, whom I judged the milder of the two, and ponied Jack. They immediately blundered into a yellow jacket’s nest which gave the failed attempt more of a Mad Max taste than a Ben Hur experience.

So I built a training wagon, little more than a flat bed on wheels, while I continued on the “real” one.

Scavenging the remains of the original wagon for timbers

With friends Eric and Ginny, I picked clean what remained of the original wagon.

The new frame members are laid out

2 by 6 boards were reconstituted into a box frame.

The box frame

In two days, my friends helped me build a stripped down wagon bed that fit onto my Pioneer wagon chassis. The project came to ten dollars; five for lumber and five for a gallon of mismatched paint from Lowe’s. Everything else was recycled.

Jack and Bill are put into harness

Hitched up at last!

Jack the mule with Bernie and Sparky, un-official “Expedition Dog”

Finally, I was poised to hit the road, albeit in a make shift way.

Then I discovered something else I’d ignored.

I didn’t know how to drive a mule team.

That’s where Hoy stepped in and got me moving.


Posted Thursday December 8, 2005 by Bernie
Blasting and Macho Green - Southern Pines, NC
December 3, 2005

Despite what it says on a pack of 60 grit sandpaper, steel needs sand blasting. That’s really the only way to remove the mill scale, the protective coating the steel mills apply to raw steel to keep it from rusting while the metal is handled. Leave the mill scale on and just paint over it and your new paint job won’t adhere for very long.

I rolled my frame to Ken’s White and in two hours his assistant Sammy Parrish had the job done.

Sammy moves in for the job

Freshly blasted steel needs painting within twenty-hours to prevent moisture induced corrosion. To protect the newly exposed steel, I grubbed out a left over gallon of International under-water primer I had sitting in the garage.

On the fist sailboat I built, Garage Sail, I insisted that all paint was sprayed on. Back then, I was going for the mirror smooth, Detroit finish. I was ashamed that I didn’t have the money to buy a factory built sailboat. So I tried to disguise my plywood charge in a fancy paint job.

But over the years, near insolvency has changed my views. I worried more how well the job was done and less about whether I could shave in the results. On Sea Bird, my last boat, I went from sprayed finishes to paint jobs rolled on with a nine inch roller. Then I abandoned the roller in favor of the widest paint brush I could find, usually a four incher, often the two-dollar, chip brush variety.

Weeks spent on a faux factory paint job were weeks I could spend on the open ocean. Besides, the brush marks soon faded in the sun.

With this in mind, I tacked the wagon frame.

I dashed on a gallon of primer with the widest brush I could find and stepped back to admire the results.

The coverage was splendid, no annoying runs of drips. But my soaring spirits were brought in check by the color.

Instead of a macho sea-going red or black, it came out pink.

Two days later I covered it with a more manly shade of John Deere Greene

A manly shade of green

But I was growing impatient.

It was time to get Jack and Bill out on the road.


(Thanks Ken White and Sammy Parrish for fitting my wagon into your busy blasting schedule. Bernie)

Posted Saturday December 3, 2005 by Bernie

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