What it’s Like to Ride a Mule Through Casper, Wyoming
I’d been riding my mule Cracker and leading my pack mule Brick across Wyoming for days, heading from North Carolina to Idaho, where my wife Julia’s brother Nick and his wife Carolyn live.
Some days, I stuck to the gravel roads and went for hours without seeing any cars.
Others, I led the mules through wind-swept plains that stretched for miles in all directions.
One morning, I crested a hill. The valley on the other side of it, inside of being covered in windblown grass, was covered in pavement, cars and chain stores. I’d arrived in Casper, home to 60,000 people and the biggest city I’d visited since I left my home five months earlier.
I rode the mules along the highway into Casper. A herd of pronghorn antelope ran through the first parking lot I rode by, and right after that, I felt like I was riding Brick and Cracker into a refinery.
What a shock, to ride from the wide-open plains, where the mules and I were the tallest living things around, to being surrounded by smoke stacks taller than churches. Smoke stakes and refineries with miles of metal piping and the whole place smelled liked burning tires. There was no sidewalk to ride on so I was forced to ride the mules up the side of the road. Cars zipped by me, just shy of Brick’s pack saddle. She stopped flopping her ears back and forth as she walked, like she did when she was relaxed. Cracker stiffened and I wondered, “How the HELL do I get through this place?”
Casper is Wyoming’s second largest city and home to 10% of the state’s population. It’s also home to the Sinclair refinery, one of the oldest refineries in the nation. The refinery smells like it’s leaking something poisonous into the air and covers the city in a veil of gray you’d expect in LA.
Like all my other saddle and wagon voyages, I was navigating with a paper map instead of my cell phone. My map didn’t show a lot of details so I proceeded like I do every time I’m not sure where I’m headed. I just plunged in.
The good news was this wasn’t the first, or biggest city, I’ve ridden a mule through. The honor of the biggest city goes to San Diego, which I crossed with my mule Woody and pony Maggie many years before. The year I rode through it, it was home to 1,250,000 people.
That ride was a pleasure ride, though, by comparison. At least San Diego had sidewalks.
Three Rules for Riding Mules Through a City
Casper was too large to ride through in a single day and I told myself I’d just do the three things that I did every time I had to ride a mule through a big city:
- Lay low: stick to back roads and neighborhoods. If I got lucky, I might stumble across a walking or bike path that ran through town.
- Find a place to put up the mules for the night: Casper was too big to ride through in one day so I decided to head to the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo facility which was just on the other side of downtown. They had stalls where I could stable the mules overnight.
- Absorb the moment: soak up the magic of riding two mules through a large town.
Okay, the fourth thing I told myself was that my mules, despite not being great in traffic, were going to be stars. It was too late to make up for any shortfalls in their training.
I felt totally out of place riding Brick and Cracker up the road. Giant oil field trucks roaring by on knobby tires and I prayed Cracker didn’t bolt into traffic, dragging Brick and me into a giant car accident. A tanker truck hit the air brakes, and Cracker crashed off the side of the road, dragging Brick into a ditch. Damn! I tensed my legs, scrunching up the fabric of my pants.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a grassy strip that ran next to the highway. It was a few feet higher than the road and ran parallel to it, almost out of sight. I’d stumbled upon what looked like an old railroad bed that had been converted to a trail. Yes! Bless the rails-to-trails movement! I rode the mules out onto the path and they immediately relaxed.
Not far up the trail, I came to a sign that said I was on the Casper Rail Trail and, sure enough, I’d be able to follow the trail into downtown. Sometimes, if we just set out, no matter how rough-looking the way ahead, a smoother way will appear.
I followed the trail under a giant overpass, and the mules fell into a steady walk, Cracker bobbing his head to the beat, Brick tagging along, nibbling any extra long stalks of grass within her reach. The mules’ hoof boots thudded on the gravel and, for the first time since I’d arrived in town, I relaxed.
Yes! Our first wish had been granted. A few miles later, the trail petered out in downtown Casper.
“Cool!” I thought and a self-centered, egoistic thought crept into my head. “I’ll ride right through the business district like Robert Redford in “Electric Cowboy” acting like I’m some lost cowboy, and maybe a TV crew will interview me.”
A lady’s voice interrupted my daydream.
“Sir, sir, um..”
I turned and there she was, a homeless lady dressed in a heavy coat even though it was a warm day. “Sir,” she said again, “can I pat your horse?”
She had a black eye, a cut on her cheek and green stains on her pants, like she’d been sleeping in the grass. I didn’t feel the need to tell her that Cracker was a mule, not a horse.
Her simple request drained my ego right when it needed deflating. To hell with riding through downtown Casper, trying to get attention. Not only was it a good way of causing an accident, it totally ignored the magic of the moment.
“That’s be fine,” I told the lady, got off Cracker and held his head so she could pat him. Cracker’s always confused a nose pat with a chance to rub his double-whopper big head on someone so hard it knocks them over. Cracker didn’t bowl the lady over, we chatted a while, and I absorbed the moment. I asked the lady to take a photo of Cracker and me it turned out to be one of the few photos I have of me riding the mules on that trip. I will always be grateful that she asked if she could pat Cracker.
Getting to a Place to Stay
I looked around and realized that, crap, it was rush hour and I was in downtown Casper. I’d gone from riding through the widest-open land Wyoming has to offer to traffic lights, honking cars, speed limit signs, neon lights, people staring zombie-like into their phones, and those buttons on poles pedestrians push to stop traffic so they can cross the road. I started feeling overwhelmed, a guy on a mule stuck in a town of 60,000.
How the hell was I going to ride out of this?
I got back onto Cracker and set off toward the fairground so I could get the mules off the streets for the night. We followed a paved path to a neighborhood on the other side of town and I waved at kids peeking at me from behind curtains.
Cracker got a gob of pink gum stuck on his hoof boot, and I read a bumper sticker that said:
- No matter how pretty she is,
- No matter how much she says she loves you,
- No matter how much she says she gets on with her ex,
- Someone, somewhere, knows
- THAT BITCH IS CRAZY!
I was definitely in a city. An hour later I arrived at the fairground. A lady in the office said the mules were welcome to spend the night in the fair barn. I unsaddled the mules and had the local feed store deliver a sack of feed. Then I cooked noodles on my camp stove and rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of one of the stalls. The stall smelled of urine but I didn’t care. Hot damn! The mules and I had ridden most of the way across Casper and found a place to spend the night.
I went to sleep in a different world than the mules and I had woken up to. We’d spent the night before in a park fifteen miles east of Casper. I’d been awakened by the sound of wind blowing through cheat grass. By noon, we were heading into Casper, which was a real shock to the senses. Now we were bedding down for the night in the middle of a big city. The air stank of petroleum, the cars driving by the fair barn drowned out the sounds of Brick and Cracker nibbling their hay, but I was floating on a cloud of bliss.
I’d felt overwhelmed when I first showed up in Casper and wondered how I’d ride my mules through it. And yet, once I focused on what needed doing and let go of everything else, the day just flowed. I found a way to duck the worst of the traffic. The mules made a woman’s day. We were off the road before nightfall. I was so proud of the mules for carrying me safely across a busy city and I couldn’t ask for more.
The next morning, I rode out the other side of Casper. The open land never looked more beautiful.
Tips on Riding Across Cities
Here’s a list of things to keep in mind if you ever need to ride your horse or mule across a city
Don’t do it: If you get that sinking feeling something terrible is going to happen, don’t do it. There’s no shame in not doing something. Maybe you can do it the next day.
Go around: I’ve gone around many major cities. Usually, it doesn’t add too many miles to your journey. You and your mounts will be a lot less stressed and it could actually be faster.
Use a trailer: There’s no dishonor in trailering your mount across a city or bridge that gives you the hee bee jeebes. The safety of your horse, everyone around you and you come first – in that order.
Break the trip up into two or more days: it always takes longer to ride through a city than you think.
Listen to your gut. I’ve got a hunch I don’t need to explain this.
Lead your mount: some people feel comfortable leading their mounts in stressful situations.
Absorb the moment: riding through a city is a rush. Stop and talk with folks. Visit a coffee shop. Above all, soak in the experience for the beautiful thing you’re doing.
Get A Free Copy of my New Photo Book 19 Million Mule Steps
I’d love to give you a free copy of my just-released 134-page photo book 19 Million Mule Steps. The book contains a lot of the material that didn’t fit into my upcoming book Two Mules to Triumph, about my 7 month, 2,300 mile Long Ride from North Carolina to Idaho with my mules Brick and Cracker.