Sought: Lodging for 3 Mules

bernie harberts julia caprenter horse camp tent mule trail ride shadow

Mule time: out here traveling the land with our mules, shadow length, not what the clock says, is how we measure time.

Julia and I are riding our mules across the Appalachian back roads. It’s noon. The sun hangs plumb above our heads before starting its slow descent to the wooded horizon. The mules throw fat shadows, a set of stumpy shadows walking beside their real legs.
The sun slides down the other side of its daily arc, toward the forest line. The mules’ shadows grow longer. Stilt like. We’re riding elegant, long legged wading birds heading toward the night.
This is not relaxing. Darkness is coming and we wonder. Where the hell do we sleep tonight?


Night comes with an urgency out here. We haven’t pre-planned where we’ll sleep every night. To do that would require 2 trips. One to set up all the places we are going to sleep. The second to actually take the trip.
No good. That would lock us in to the rigidity of a plan. No freedom to drift or linger. No beauty of experiencing what it’s like to ride by a stranger who’s walking back to her house from the mail box. On her way across the lawn, she turns and sees us. She asks where we’re going. She invites us to the spend the night in her back yard.
In doing so, she opens not only her home to us, she opens her mind and life to us. We could well meet her extended family. Hopefully she’ll have a dog and we’ll meet him.
If we’d planned it all out ahead of time, we’d have to decline her offer and ride off to our pre-arranged lodgings.
Much of the trip’s depth, richness, spontaneity and human interaction would be lost if knew where we slept every night. By making ourselves vulnerable to nightfall, we are exposed to an almost scientifically randomized look in to the ways Americans live.

The downside to this vulnerability is fighting that primal human urge to know we’re going to sleep every night.

bernie harberts julia caprenter horse camp tent mule trail ride shadow

One of the many folks we’ve met along the way. We whiled away a pleasant 10 minutes with him talking ducks, peach tress and the road ahead.


It’s a primal fear most of us, including Julia and I, don’t often have to deal with. We are we going to sleep tonight?
We live in a house. When we take a take road trip in our car, we often book a room ahead. Or stay with friends. Like most everyone else, our daily thoughts run to more mundane things like what’s the power bill going to cost this month, does the car have gas in it and do we have enough milk for breakfast? Where do we sleep tonight? We rarely give it a second thought.

But flash back to that image of us walking across the darkening landscape wondering, “where the hell are we going to sleep tonight?”
That’s sorta scary.

bernie harberts julia caprenter horse camp tent mule trail ride shadow

Trestle shadow: this photo was taken about 3 hours before sundown. We’re riding the Virginia Creeper Trail between White Top and Damascus, Virginia. Night is falling and we don’t know where we’ll stay. We’re riding through National Forest. Sure, we could have just tied our mules to some trees. But what would they have eaten….? Their needs come first. And right about this time of day, they need rest and grass. So where are we going to camp…..?

I’ve crossed America both ways by mule (see the “Lost Sea Expedition” series on You can stream it right here on Amazon.) I’ve traversed Newfoundland with a mule cart. That’s over 1,000 nights on the road with my mules. None of these trips were pre-planned. So you would thing by now I’m pretty chill with the sun going down and me not having a clue where I’ll spend the night with my critters.
It still gives me the yips every time the sun’s 3 hours from setting and I don’t know where I’m going to sleep.
So ‘round about that time every day, Julia and I just start asking folks where we can sleep. We knock on doors. We stop cars. We talk with guys on four-wheelers. We talk to folks walking dogs. We go in to stores, restaurants, churches and community centers.
The gig goes like this.

We introduce ourselves. Tell folks we’re traveling across the land with our mules. Then we ask just one simple question “Hey, do you know where we could tie up our mules for the night.” We explain that all we really need is a patch of grass. Water would be nice. We’re self contained so we don’t need fences, shelter or food.
Sometimes folks can put us up. Sometimes they don’t.
At that point, it doesn’t really matter. It becomes a numbers game. We just keep asking and asking until we find someone who has a patch of grass. Sometimes the first person can help. Sometimes the fifth person holds the magic key.

Could you do this?
So right about here, when I’m explaining this approach to folks, they’ll tell me, “I could never do that.” And they’ll tell me they’re too shy, not good with people or they don’t likie sitting on other peoples’ toilet seats.. So they could never do this.
I tell them that doesn’t matter.
Because you’re not doing this for you. You’re doing this for your mules.
When your voyaging the land with your mules, the mules’ health comes first. So what you think about your shyness, people skills, looks, clothes, financial state or haircut doesn’t matter. That sun’s dropping to the horizon and soon it’ll be dark and you’ll be walking up the road in the pitch black and that’s no place to be.
That’s plenty of motivation to get you going.

bernie harberts julia caprenter horse camp tent mule trail ride shadow

This is what you don’t want to see come sundown.

I’m an introvert by nature. that image of the sun settling and burying me in black bullies the introvert in me enough to boldy knock on a stranger’s door and ask for a place to sleep.
So what happens when nobody puts you up?
You look for a place off the road where you can spend the night. Ideally a patch of grass. You spend the night there and leave the place as tidy as you found it.
More often than not, waaaaaay more often, you’ll find a place to stay.


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