“On a Mule Bound for Triumph” Article in Eye on Sun Valley (Idaho)

Did I ever tell you about the hundreds of miles of plastic flowers and dead snakes I encountered in my recent mule ramble? Enjoy this Sunday read that came out this week in Eye on the Sun in Sun Valley, Idaho.


Bernie Harberts encountered an early season snowstorm that dumped three inches of snow between the Hailey rodeo grounds and Triumph.

The snow was starting to stack up on the streets of Hailey when Bernie Harberts dismounted from Cracker his mule at the Hailey Coffee Company.

He sipped the steaming cup of coffee that owner Santos Serva handed him. Then, he was on his way, his pack mule Brick in tow, for the remainder of their 2,200-mile journey from the woods of western North Carolina through the sagebrush and lava of eastern Idaho to Triumph.

It would take three hours to navigate the remaining 10 miles between their overnight camp at the Hailey rodeo grounds. The trip had turned treacherous thanks to the snow, demanding tremendous balance on the part of the mules and extreme vigilance on the part of Harberts, who knew he might have to jump off in an instant if one of the mules fell.

Warmed by the coffee, Bernie Harberts is ready to continue his journey. PHOTO: John DeLorenzo

But, finally, they arrived at the home of Nick Parker, Harberts’ brother-in-law. The mules were rewarded with a super-sized ration of carrots and the opportunity to roam untethered in Parker’s fenced backyard.

And the wiry 51-year-old man in the Outback hat and embroidered denim shirt began readjusting to the comforts of life, including indoor plumbing, hot showers, a good night’s sleep in a bed without frost on the ceiling come morning and mirrors to see how scraggly his beard had grown in the 188 days he’d been riding across America.

“The mules love it out west,” he said, as he fed them a couple bananas. “They’re well-suited for the desert heat. They know to take advantage of whatever water they come across—even puddles—because it may be awhile until they find more. And they’re super browsers—they even nibble on sagebrush.”

This is the third cross-country trip Harberts has taken by mule. A native of Seattle, he grew up riding horses, competing in steeplechase, show jumping and dressage on the Eastern seaboard and in Europe.

Mules have a mother horse and a daddy donkey. They have 63 chromosomes compared with 62 for a donkey and 64 for a horse. PHOTO: Karen Bossick

After getting an engineering degree in Wood and Paper Science at North Carolina State University, he spent a few years in the corporate world designing woodworking machines before he decided he’d rather commute with a mule than a Volvo.

He walked across Newfoundland with a mule. He pedaled a $10 bike around Tasmania. And he built an 18.5–foot sailboat, sailing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island off Antarctica.

After spending five years sailing alone around the world, he decided to go back to mules.

“The problem with sailing is that you can become so self-sufficient that you don’t need anybody anymore. You lose human interaction. With mules you have to knock on someone’s door and say, ‘I need help. I need water. I need food. I need shelter.’ ” 

Bernie Harberts went to solid rubber wheels for his wagon after he got too many flats using regular tires.

Harberts started his first cross-country journey in 2003 with a mule named Woody. They walked 3,500 miles from the Atlantic Ocean along North Carolina’s coastline to the edge of the Pacific Ocean near San Diego.

Harberts spent nights in a tipi that Woody carried. And, along the way, they met a rat rancher, a tattooed lady poacher and plenty of truck drivers, feed store owners, teachers and barbers.

After a brief sojourn at home—a 900-acre old growth timber farm– Harberts returned to the road—this time with an 800-pound mule named Polly who pulled a 21-square-foot wagon the size of a banquet table that Harberts had built.

He called the 14-month, 2,500-mile trip from the North Dakota-Canadian border to the Mexican border “The Lost Sea Expedition” since it traveled through an ancient seabed that predated what is now the Great Plains.

Bernie Harberts, flanked by brother-in-law Nick Parker and his sister-in law Carolyn, says the mules take 4,000 steps a mile—twice what he stepped, according to a pedometer. “So, they took eight million steps to get here if you count all four steps.”

He made his way past ghost towns and sod huts on Lakota land. He met a paleontologist who showed him the dinosaur fossils he’d found. And he made a four-part series with the footage he got on his solar-powered film camera, showing it on Rocky Mountain PBS and streaming it on Amazon.

Harberts decided to make the trip to Triumph using two mules and no wagon.

“You meet fewer people with the wagon,” he said. “You can carry more water and food, but you still need a place off the road. And you’re at the mercy of traffic more since you can’t get off the highway as easily as you can with mules.”

Harberts classified each state by the litter he found along the roads. Nebraska featured a plethora of herbicide containers, greasy rags, oily gloves and spit bottles that cowboys had spit their chewing tobacco into and thrown out their windows.

Hundreds of fake plastic flowers were strewn along the roadsides of Kentucky—enough that you couldn’t attribute it to one delivery truck losing a couple boxes.

Missouri boasted an uncanny number of snake carcasses. And Idaho—well, it’s the place to come if you need bungee cords, bailing twine and plastic cooler tops, said Harberts.

Harberts carried five pounds of food at a time, including quinoa, olive oil, ramen noodles, garlic and  energy bars.  He loaded Brick down with a hundred pounds, including the food, a bivvy bag with mosquito net, sleeping bag and tent.

People were generous with hay and grain for the mules—a blessing since they were too heavy to carry. And showers and a chance to share meals, as well.

The most turndowns he got in one night was five in Kentucky. But, he noted, a lot people weren’t home at a lot of doors he knocked on. And cCorporations are buying up 10-mile stretches of riverfront in places like Wyoming, which made it difficult to find camping sites in those places.

Idaho had the most “No trespassing” signs.

“If you’re in a camper, you just keep driving. But barbed wire right up to the road is not good when you’re traveling with mules because you can’t go much further down the road when it’s getting dark. So, I was incredibly grateful whenever someone said, ‘Come with me,’ or ‘Stay at my pens.’ ”

Traveling as he did offered opportunities for insights about the people inhabiting this country, Harberts said.

“When you show up at their doorstep, people don’t have time to clean up their act so you get a beautiful study of people. I didn’t realize, for instance, how many hand guns are just lying around houses and trailers.”

Harberts was also aghast at the amount of “perfectly good food” he saw go to waste. One family in Eastern Idaho, for instance, was very well off but ate off paper plates. And they never bothered with leftovers, scraping perfectly good chicken, fish and vegetables off the serving plates into the garbage.

Harberts felt blessed to meet Clarence and Mary Teton, Shoshone-Bannock tribal members who live near Blackfoot on the Fort Hall Reservation. They have been trying to keep the past alive through partaking in the Indian relay, which started out with ponies and has evolved into using thoroughbreds—something Harberts described as “insane.”

 “It was neat to have Clarence bless my mules, my trip and my wife Julia in his ancient language,” Harberts said.

By the time his trip was done, Harberts had traveled through 10 states, endured floods, highway-melting heat and nose hair-freezing cold. Traveling through the land surrounding Idaho National Laboratory was a little disconcerting given the green signs touting radioactive testing in progress, Harberts said. And Atomic City had a post-apocalyptic feel to it.

“From what I could tell, 30 people live in the town and there are 28 feuds going on. How can so few people have so many grievances?” he said, shaking his head.

That said, Harberts was delighted to find a country full of people who were not as polarized as social media and TV make them out to be.

“I wish people could see what I saw. The country’s actually incredibly functional on a human-to-human basis,” he said. “I look at TV news now and I say, ‘Is this the country I just rode through?!’ Because, I didn’t see any of what’s being reported!”

Want to know more?

Bernie Harberts has written “Too Proud to Ride a Cow: By Mule Across America,” which is available on Amazon, along with the video “The Lost Sea Expedition.” Or, check out his website at www.riverearth.com and his wife’s website consideringanimals.com.

  • Note: original article edited for accuracy
  • Original article at:https://eyeonsunvalley.com/Story_Reader/6681/On-a-Mule-Bound-for-Triumph/


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Terry Fox
Terry Fox
4 years ago

Hello Bernie
I watched the four episodes of “The Lost Sea Expedition” last week and I sent an e-mail which I hope you received. I am just writing again to make sure you get a message from me and to again invite you to contact me if you are coming through Missouri on any other treks. I live in St. Charles, Missouri, but also have a farm with four donkeys up between Bowling Green and Louisiana, Missouri. I would be honored and interested in helping you with meals, lodging, a place for the animals and emergency transportation for you and the animals if you are in our fine state or general vicinity. I explained my interest and appreciation for your exploits in my earlier message. I am not sure I have a 2000 mile equine journey in my future, but I would still be game for a segment of one if given the chance. My thoughts have mostly been to travel with a pack donkey or donkeys on a walking trek. They walk at a similar pace and are laid back and generally good companions. I have two mammoth and two standard donkeys. Two of them would probably be up to as much of a trip as I would, and two are probably going to remain pasture ornaments for the duration.

Well, I wish you luck and the words of the old Irish blessing for your current and future travels. I hope our paths can cross some time in the future. Please let me know if that can be possible and certainly if I can be of assistance.

Regards and safe trails,

Terry Fox

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