Message in a Tumbleweed

To catch a tumbleweed
Keyes, Oklahoma

Can you send a message in a tumbleweed? How would you do it? I was traveling across America with my mule Polly. It was winter, and I was lonely. I thought, “I need to put a message in a tumbleweed and see if I hear back from anyone.”

Messages in Bottles

I have always been charmed by messages in bottles. When I walk on the beach, I look for bottles with corks in them, hoping one of them might contain a note. When I sail, I keep an eye out for bobbing bottles. I’ve even launched some bottles of my own.

While sailing alone around the world from 1998 to 2003 on my sailboat “Sea Bird”, I launched dozens of messages in bottles. I’d take an empty bottle, scribble a note on a scrap of paper, cram the note in the bottle and toss it into the sea. I did it because I was curious and lonely.

Bottle launch 1998
200 miles off Beaufort, North Carolina

I’m still waiting for the first message to be returned by Neptune or someone combing his beaches.

Message in a Tumbleweed

So, traveling across the Great Plains by mule wagon researching mid-America marine fossils, I’m giving messages another go. No, I’m not stuffing business cards into my empty wine bottles and tossing them into the buffalo grass, hoping some rancher finds them and returns them before his prize Angus bull crushes them underfoot.

Nope, I’m launching notes tied to something else.


Yep, call it the shorter days of November getting to me. Call it the loneliness brought on by watching the last Sandhills cranes whirling south on those northern busters. Call it loneliness by any name, but that’s what it boils down to.

I’m giving in to the call of the man alone at sea.

How to Make a Message in a Tumbleweed

Today mule Polly and I chased down a tumbleweed.

To catch a tumbleweed
Keyes, Oklahoma

The stretch of prairie I’m crossing in my wagon right now, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, are covered in millions of tumbleweeds that bounce north in mass migrations one day, only to pass me headed south with the next front.

Then they pile up. They pile up so high on fences they rip the barbed wire off. They pile up so high in the road ditches they have to be bull-dozed off. They pile up so high in ranchers’ corrals they have to be shoveled out before stock can be worked

Corral tumble jumble
Keyes, Oklahoma

That’s the problem. They’re just too many of them out here for one with a dirty note tied to it to be noticed.

This is where the fluorescent orange spray paint comes in. After I caught my tumbleweeds, I piled them up in a corral in Keyes, Oklahoma. I picked the biggest one, the prize tumbleweed, and gave it an orange belt brighter than a prairie sunrise.

Then I wrote a note on one of my business cards. Polly inspected my handiwork. It read: “Keyes, OK – November 18, 2008 – Hi there. I’m traveling with my mule Polly from Canada to Mexico. It’s lonely out here. If you find this note, please write. Thanks. Bernie Harberts / Mule Polly

Mule spell check

Then using gaffer’s tape I use on my movie camera, I tied my message into my tumbleweed. For good measure, I added a piece of pink marking tape. Polly had another look.

Tumbleweed Launch

This afternoon, I led Polly onto the prairie, tumbleweed in hand, and turned our tumbler free.

The launch

Goodbye tumbleweed

The tumbleweed landed on the ground, bounced, and the wind whisked it away. It swished and sounded prickly, and seconds later, it was gone.

Waiting for  a Message in a Tumbleweed

It’s dark. I’m lying in my tiny wagon listening to the prairie wind blow outside. Mule Polly is staked out, turned tail to my wagon, seeking shelter from the wind. She has plenty to eat and drink.

I have a candle burning in my wagon, and I’m writing in my journal. The wind sounds like it’s rubbing its back on my wagon. The wagon is swaying gently back and forth, and I’m all alone.

I wonder where the tumbleweed with my note has gotten to. I still feel lonely but a little less so knowing that, somewhere in the night, my message is bouncing across the plains.

Now the waiting starts.

If you find my note, please write me back. I even included a stamp.

Cheers from these Great Plains!

Tumbleweed Postscript

Mule Polly and I have finished our wagon journey. People still write me to ask if I anyone ever found one of my messages in a tumbleweed. Here’s an update I wrote called “Waiting for the Tumbleweed Connection“.  It contains more photos of my messages in tumbleweeds. Enjoy.

How to Watch the “Lost Sea Expedition”

The “Lost Sea Expedition” trailer. No mules or tumbleweeds were harmed in the making of this series.

I turned all that footage I shot from my wagon into the four-part “The Lost Sea Expedition” series. The series premiered on Rocky Mountain PBS, and you can stream it on Amazon. Yes, the messages in a tumbleweed made the final cut.

It’s a beautiful, heartfelt series about a man, a mule and America.

You can stream the series right here on Amazon. If you haven’t already, it would be great if you left a review. A few words is all it takes and you can do it right here. These really help. Thanks!


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Maria Lum
Maria Lum
3 years ago

Did you receive any notes back?

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